FLIGHT DEPT PROFILE
Bone doctors use King Airs to serve patients in WY, NE
Orthopedic care specialists operate 4 C90As to link network of rural clinics.
Orthopedic Surgeon Thomas Bienz helps oversee the flight department. In addition, he owns and operates a Piper Aerostar.
Diekroeger directs a team of 3 other pilots—John King, Cranleigh Wilkinson and Vince Hedrick—who collectively perform all the tasks required to operate the department.
Diekroeger manages the day-to-day flight operations including aircraft, pilot and maintenance scheduling, regulatory compliance, staffing, vendor relations, budget preparation, operational contracts and agreements, and aircraft acquisition.
King is responsible for vehicle maintenance. This is a somewhat unusual responsibility in a corporate flight department, but an assignment that is a significant job at Gem City. Diekroeger explains that the department's responsibility is to provide transportation and services to support the clinic's requirements.
In addition to aircraft, the department operates and maintains a fleet of vans to take the doctors and their support personnel from destination airports to the network of clinics Gem City operates around the state. King's responsibilities include finding an alternative if a company vehicle is not available.
King joined the Gem City flight department in 2006 after flying for a number of Part 135 freight haulers in the mountain western US. Gem City is his first flying job carrying passengers.
Wilkinson, an Australian native who married an American girl while on assignment in the US with the Royal Australian Navy, handles the company's liaison with Jeppesen. Trained initially as an electronics technician, he is also responsible for keeping the department up to speed on technical developments. Both King and Wilkinson hold ATPs and both have about 6000 flight hours.
Hedrick is a home-grown product. His grandfather was the airport manager at LAR and he began learning to fly there when he was 14. Hedrick worked the line at the airport while getting his ratings and earning a bachelors degree in physical geography from the University of Wyoming. He also became a certified weather observer while working at the airport.
Hedrick had originally planned a career in aerospace engineering but found he preferred to fly. Like King, Hedrick joined the Gem City flight department in 2006. He has an ATP and about 4500 flight hours. Hedrick is responsible for maintaining the databases in the Garmin 530 WAAS-enabled units in each of the department's King Airs.
One of Gem City Bone & Joint's 4 King Air C90As arrives at LAR FBO Cowboy Aviation after a day trip to one of the firm's clinics.
All 4 of the Gem City King Airs feature similar panel layouts as a safety measure, although in practice each pilot tends to fly the same airplane every day. The oldest of the company's 4 King Airs was upgraded with a Blackhawk conversion about 5 years ago, replacing the 550-shp PT6A-21 engines with 750-shp PT6A-135s and 4-bladed propellers.
Diekroeger says the added speed of the upgraded aircraft does not yield much advantage on the short legs the department flies every day and the stock C90As provide enough takeoff performance, so he doesn't foresee upgrading any of the other aircraft.
Diekroeger says the King Airs have proved very successful on Gem City's route structure, which consists of out-and-back trips to rural airports around Wyoming—including CPR (Casper WY), CYS (Cheyenne WY), DGW (Douglas WY), GCC (Gillette WY), RIW (Riverton WY), RKS (Rock Springs WY), RWL (Rawlins WY) and TOR (Torrington WY)—and western Nebraska—AIA (Alliance NE), BFF (Scottsbluff NE), IBM (Kimball NE), OGA (Ogallala NE) and SNY (Sidney NE).
Last year, Diekroeger says, fewer than 1% of the department's flights were cancelled because of weather. In the past 4 years, he says, Gem City has found it necessary to cancel just 1 clinic because of an aircraft mechanical problem (a failed ignition exciter).
Usually, he says, if there is a mechanical issue, another aircraft can be rerouted to accommodate passengers and schedules. Diekroeger says he has considered replacing the King Airs with other aircraft, but has yet to find a type that will perform Gem City's mission any better than what he already has.
A typical work day for a Gem City pilot begins about 6:00 am in preparation for a flight departure from LAR around 7:00. The typical passenger load consists of a doctor, a nurse and a receptionist to staff the operation of a satellite clinic for a day. Also likely to be put aboard are bags containing surgical equipment or medical records—sometimes adding up to an extra 350 lbs of payload, Diekroeger says.
The trip typically returns to LAR in the late afternoon. Alternatively, some flights fill the seats with stops at multiple clinic sites, but almost all trips return to LAR at the end of day, putting the pilot at home in the evening.
Another benefit to the Gem City pilot's job, Diekroeger notes, is there are almost no weekend operations. Schedules are prepared by Diekroeger in the middle of the month for all of the following month, based on the doctors' schedules, so the pilots can predict their schedules quite accurately.
These lifestyle benefits, combined with competitive salaries and well maintained equipment, have Gem City pilots boasting that they have some of the best jobs in corporate aviation.
The job does include extra duties that extend beyond the cockpit. During the day, it is not uncommon for pilots to transport X-rays for evaluation, pick up supplies or handle other routine errands. "A pilot for our company has to be a team player," Diekroeger says, "and they have to display a strong work ethic and initiative."
When seeking a new pilot, Diekroeger has a list of basic standards, plus some specific job-related requirements. "We choose pilots who have extensive mountain flying experience since most of our flights are over mountainous terrain with weather conditions that are often less than ideal," he says.
"Circling IFR approaches at night are not uncommon. Mountain wave and icing conditions may occur at any time of the year." Basic requirements call for an ATP and 4000 flight hours, with 2500 hrs of turbine time preferred, but Diekroeger says he'll give consideration to a pilot with less total time who has extensive mountain experience. King Air experience would be a plus, he says.
Unlike many departments, there is no option at Gem City to begin as a first officer and work up to a pilot-in-command berth. All flights are conducted single-pilot.
Gem City uses SimCom in Orlando FL for initial and recurrent training. Diekroeger says the company asks that its pilots be assigned the same instructor, Bob Baumgartner, for all training. He says this provides continuity and has generally enhanced their training experience.