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Investing in Safety Makes $ense For Northwest Boring
Looking down on the pine tree-covered mountains of the Pacific Northwest, there are rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Yet, looking upward reveals a potentially dangerous and familiar gray fog that can spell disaster for operators not equipped to handle the weather.
"For as much traveling as I do during the year, there are certainly other airplanes I can use some of the time," said Don Gonzales, CEO and owner of Northwest Boring. "But for safety reasons – namely icing and perpetual low cloud cover – I need an airplane with deicing capability and a great safety record."
Northwest Boring is a pioneer in microtunneling technology, a method of drilling small tunnels underground that minimizes surface disruptions and can be performed via remote control. The company's tradition of designing and developing new techniques began in 1951, when Gonzales' father founded the firm. The small, family-owned company employs fewer than 25 people.
Based in Seattle, WA, Gonzales – the company's chief pilot – has used business airplanes for years to reach clients in Washington, Oregon and Montana. For example, if the weather is snowy, rainy or foggy, the 270-mile trip across the state to Walla Walla can take up to 10 hours by car because of the mountain ranges. However, that journey can be done in just over an hour via business aircraft. Gonzales owned a Beech Bonanza prior to obtaining his King Air 90, but he relies on the twin-turboprop Beechcraft for its ability to handle the stormy weather found in the Northwest.
The King Air is economical to fly as it "sips fuel" once above 20,000 feet. Gonzales uses the airplane to visit clients 400 to 500 miles away.
Specific Challenges Call for Specific Aircraft
"We are a small company, and maintaining a King Air 90 is expensive. Many times over the years that I have owned the King Air, I have questioned whether I should go back to a smaller plane, but I need an airplane capable of handling any weather condition we might encounter," he said.
Around Seattle, icing can occur at just over 1,000 feet, Gonzales said, and investing in safety equipment should be the top priority for any operator in the area.
"This is the place to be IFR [instrument flight rules] rated and have proper equipment," he said. "The Pacific Northwest has its specific challenges. We seldom have powerful thunderstorms, but pilots here have little problem finding weather in which to stay current with their IFR skills."
He recalls one experience where he and a fellow pilot took off in similar directions, heading east out of Seattle. But the four souls on the other plane did not make it back home.
Both were heading on the same departure path for about 80 miles out of Boeing Field (BFI) in Seattle, where Gonzales' plane is hangared.
"I'm firing my engines up, and he's putting the gear in his airplane. We both have the same standard instrument departure, and when we got about 10 minutes out, ice started to build quickly. He could not climb through it. He iced up and crashed. We couldn't believe the news when we landed, but sure enough, his airplane didn't have the right equipment to handle the weather."
"You look at safety first, but then economics and maintenance costs are factored into the flight department," said Fred Bahr, former pilot with Northwest Boring. "We can easily find someone to do the maintenance we need without going far. That means we're not spending as much on maintenance costs and are still able to keep a safe airplane."
Bahr said that because Seattle – and the Pacific Northwest in general – is a haven of business aviation activity, he hoped to spool up a training company sometime this year that focuses on business aircraft. That way, he said, Northwest Boring staff can help spread a culture of safety and awareness to other operators and local colleagues.
Know What You Need Before Investing
Northwest Boring's King Air has electric-heated props, along with pneumatic boots on the wings, to keep ice from forming and also knock it off when it happens. The plane also has an electrically heated windshield to prevent ice.
All are features Gonzales views as an investment in safety, just as he views the airplane as an investment in efficiency and productivity.
"Business airplanes make sense for our company, and because of that, I've talked to several colleagues in the area who have also invested in airplanes," Gonzales said. Passionate about aviation since he was young, Gonzales happily tells his business associates about deals he's made and saved because of his ability to reach clients in a single day.
"I've talked to friends who want to buy a small airplane, and while that's okay for some people, you have to know where you are flying to, and what airplane will meet your needs," he said. "One friend of mine bought a small, but pressurized twin-engine airplane, and within a year he needed to trade it in for a larger aircraft because he needed to reach clients who were farther away.
"These tools are worth the investment, but only if safety and maintenance are the first thoughts on everyone's mind," Gonzales said.
Pictured above: Don Gonzales, CEO, owner and chief pilot for Northwest Boring, relies on his King Air 90 to safely reach customers in the Pacific Northwest.