““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Orlando is becoming a major hub and resource center for corporate aviation, and for good reason: its metropolitan area boasts an unusually high number of corporate aircraft maintenance and crew training facilities. It also has perhaps the densest concentration of world-class fixed-base operators (FBOs) in the U.S. As such, flight departments are able to schedule pilot and technician training concurrent with significant aircraft maintenance, all at the same place.
Three large airports-Orlando International, Orlando Executive and Kissimmee-are within 15 miles of Orlando's Orange County Convention Center. Farther north, Sanford provides a secondary international gateway and plenty of real estate for maintenance, repair and overhaul work.
These natural synergies were among the factors that led fractional-share company NetJets to consider moving its operations headquarters here recently. Ultimately, NetJets did not move its operations center, but many other aviation companies have opened major facilities in the area-including Cessna, FlightSafety International and SimCom. The National Business Aviation Association, meanwhile, has made Orlando a frequent venue for its mammoth annual convention.
Orlando International: Big and Busy
Orlando International hosts the city's largest concentration of aviation companies. From 1962 to 1974, it was transformed from an Air Force base known as McCoy to the 13th busiest commercial U.S. airport. (It handled 34.8 million passengers in 2006.) A joint operating agreement between the Air Force and Orlando became a model for airports across the country, but ultimately the military decided to redeploy its Strategic Air Command aircraft based there.
Two factors spurred commercial use of McCoy: the advent of turbojets and their longer runway requirements and Walt Disney's plan to build the vast Disney World amusement complex that would attract an international clientele. As central Florida's population subsequently exploded, corporate aviation, and the infrastructure to support it, grew throughout the region.
Cessna established the Orlando Citation Service Center in 1983. Today, the 24/7 facility occupies 13 acres on the northwest corner of Orlando International. It has 200,000 square feet under roof, including 97,000 square feet of hangar space, and features a large ramp with underground refueling facilities, classrooms, a paint room, wash bays and inventory storage. It is the country's second-largest Citation Service Center (Wichita's is bigger), with nearly 250 employees and a throughput of more than 70 airplanes per week.
FlightSafety International's Orlando Learning Center is across the street and it's not uncommon for a flight crew to drop its Citation at Cessna's center and then head over to FSI for recurrent training. At Orlando, FSI offers training for the Citation I, Citation CJs, Citation Excel, Citation Sovereign and Citation X as well as the Beechcraft 1900 and Embraer 135/145 regional jets.
FSI is one of two large training companies based proximate to Orlando International. SimCom, the other one, operates from two campuses-one on the airport's north side and the other between the airport and convention center. At Orlando, the company offers training in Beechjets, Citations, Hawkers, Learjets and a wide variety of turboprops, including Air Tractors, Beechcraft King Airs, Dorniers and Jetstreams. A Citation Ultra/Encore simulator should be on line by the time you read this.
The airport-which has some of the region's priciest jet-A fuel-is home to two full-service FBOs: Signature and Galaxy. Signature facilities are known for being comparatively plush and the one here doesn't disappoint. Galaxy, meanwhile, recently moved into new, state-of-the-art digs.
Orlando Executive: Smooth Service
From 1928 until Orlando International came of age in the 1960s, the city's main commercial airport was Orlando Municipal, which was also known as "Herndon" and subsequently renamed Orlando Executive. Showalter Flying Service, a fixture there since 1951, continues to operate one of two FBOs on the field. Again this year, Showalter is the host FBO for the NBAA convention and static line display. In an age of chain FBOs, Showalter's family-run, single-locale shop is something of an anachronism, yet it handles the biggest iron and most complex requests with aplomb.
During NBAA conventions, it converts to a 24/7 operation, expertly parks the static display aircraft and 700 more, pumps 150,000 gallons of jet-A and brings in five extra fuel trucks and 30 loads of fuel. Showalter also supplements its ice machine with a semi-trailer full of ice, adds 14 extra line staff and three catering companies and rents more than 500 cars. Aircraft are restacked constantly during the night according to departure day and time order and identified and separated by color-coded cards placed behind their windshields. The system works so well that the NBAA calls on Showalter to handle static line and FBO support at other events.
Kissimmee Gateway: Low Prices
While Orlando Executive remains the region's dominant general aviation airport, new development to the south, at Kissimmee, aims to change that.
Kissimmee Gateway is arguably over-served, with four FBOs for 206 based aircraft-most of them piston-engine singles. During the 2006 NBAA convention, the airport attracted approximately 200 aircraft because of the show. Heavy competition means low prices-you can find jet-A here for less than at Orlando International. Kissimmee was one of 43 Army airfields established in Florida during World War II, primarily for flight training. Warbirds remain a fixture at the airport, and Stallion 51, the nation's largest P-51 Mustang training center, is based here.
However, it is the development activities of a former FBO, Ranger Jet Center, that could turn this airport into the region's new hub for corporate aviation. Ranger broke ground on a major expansion last year that will add 86,000 square feet of office space, 140,000 square feet of hangars and 700,000 square feet of ramp and apron parking-just waiting for new tenants and their airplanes. Corporate hangar space is at a premium all over Florida, but especially in the Orlando area.
Orlando Sanford: Room to Grow
Another former military airfield, this one-45 minutes to the north in Sanford-is also poised to play a potentially significant role as the Orlando area continues to develop. Orlando Sanford International already has domestic and international airline service and a growing number of aviation-related businesses on the field, including aircraft completions; avionics; and maintenance, repair and overhaul services. With a footprint of more than 2,000 acres, the airport has plenty of room for growth. Two FBOs serve corporate aviation at Sanford: Avion Jet Center and Starport USA.
Orlando's importance as a corporate aviation center will continue to grow as facilities at all four of these airports expand and improve.
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