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Flight department meets company executive transportation needs with 2 Bombardier Challenger 300s based at HKY (Hickory NC).

By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot (ret)
AS350, AW119, Cessna 210/182/172

Bombardier Challenger 300s became the aircraft of choice for the company in 2017 after 40 years of flying nearly every Learjet model ever produced.
CommScope officially came into its own in the late 1970s, when Frank Drendel and Jearld Leonhardt opened the doors, but the basis of their company began a decade earlier under the umbrella of Superior Continental Cable, a Hickory NC telephone cable manufacturer.

In the early 1960s, CommScope was a coaxial cable product line for Superior, and not an entirely successful one.

However, Drendel and Leonhardt saw potential. In 1975, they pooled together some investors and raised $5.1 million to purchase the product line from Superior. As an established name, they kept CommScope for the moniker of their new company.

Drendel and Leonhardt’s timing was impeccable, as the cable television market was about to expand exponentially. Over the coming decades, CommScope would become part of, then separate from, several other cable division and manufacturing conglomerates.

A notable moment in its history was donating fiber optic lines and equipment which allowed the US House of Representatives to broadcast live on C-SPAN. In 1997, CommScope’s positioning in the world of cable became established as Drendel rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, signifying its debut as a publicly-traded company.

The turn of the century saw the opening of its world headquarters in Hickory NC. The following years would see rapid growth as several companies were acquired, further expanding its product line and confirming CommScope as a leader in the cable and network industry.

Its corporate umbrella now includes such names as SURFboard, NOVUX, and SYSTIMAX. The Carlyle Group acquired CommScope in 2011, and 2 years later, they began trading on NASDAQ.

Director of Aviation Jeff Wofford has been with CommScope since 1983. He now oversees the 9-person team that keeps the company flying.

Networking via aircraft

It wasn’t long after CommScope broke away from Superior that the importance of using business aircraft for planned expansion became evident.

Its first plane was a Beechcraft King Air B90, acquired in 1978. Although very versatile and useful, the King Air was soon superseded by a Learjet 24.

The company would go on to operate nearly every model that rolled out of the Wichita factory between 1978 and 2017, when its last model 60 was replaced with a Bombardier Challenger 300.

Present during most of the CommScope business aviation history has been Director of Aviation Jeff Wofford. The Knoxville TN native came from a US Navy family.

“My first job after high school was at a restaurant. I worked there for 3 days and decided that was not for me,” he recalls. “I quit on a Friday, and Monday morning I went to the recruiting office.”

As his time in basic training was coming to an end, his testing pushed him into the field of missile fire control. Following additional training, he found himself stationed on the USS Reaves, the only guided-missile cruiser in Pearl Harbor HI. “Most of the success I have experienced is because of my time in the Navy and on that ship,” he states.

Assistant Pilot Troy Welch joined CommScope in 1989. Apart from a brief stint with the airlines, he has been flying Learjets and Challengers with the company ever since.

During his time in Hawaii, Wofford decided to earn his pilot’s license. “It started as a dare from a friend that I wouldn’t jump out of an airplane. I won that dare and I quickly fell in love with that little plane I jumped out of,” he reminisces. “I took an intro flight in a Piper, and I was hooked.

I would finish my work on the ship as quickly as possible and head off to the airport for lessons.” He earned his private, commercial, instrument, and multi-engine ratings quickly. One memorable moment occurred to the young sailor when he had flown his Cherokee out to Kauai.

While sitting on the beach, he saw a Learjet 24 land at the small airstrip. “Two things stood out from that experience. First, I swore to myself I’d fly in a corporate jet someday. Second, after the pilots refused to let me look in the plane, I said I would never deny someone the opportunity to take a peek in my aircraft. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Wofford left the Navy in 1980 and headed to North Carolina, where he found his first paying aviation job completing Jeppesen chart updates for a local FBO. His Learjet dream came true sooner than expected when he was offered to sit right-seat in a 23 model, less than a year after his Kauai experience.

While earning his flight instructor rating at HKY (Hickory NC), he met CommScope founder Frank Drendel. “In 1981, Frank was working on his instrument rating, so I started instructing him. That was my first corporate flying job, and the beginning of a lifelong friendship.”

Both Challenger 300s are housed in a large, well-equipped hangar at HKY, a short drive from corporate headquarters.

That friendship turned into employment as Wofford began flying part-time for CommScope in 1983. He was brought on as a full-time pilot in 1984 at the controls of his beloved Learjets. Over the next 14 years, he would work his way up to his current director position.

He would also log hours in the plethora of Learjets that the company would fly, in addition to 3 different King Airs. In his current role, Wofford oversees the 6 additional pilots, one maintenance manager, and a dispatcher/officer manager. Several of his pilots fill dual roles, including safety, training, and compliance positions.

Bigger and better fleet

After nearly 40 years of flying Learjets, in 2017 the decision was made to move to a larger, more capable aircraft. Wofford explains, “The Lears are great aircraft, but as the company was expanding, so was our footprint.

We were needing to stop for fuel on our west coast trips, which were becoming more frequent.” So, after evaluating the various options, Wofford proposed the Challenger 300. “We picked the Challenger 300 because of its range, cabin size, operating cost, and reliability,” he adds. “We’ve been completely satisfied with our choice.”

Safety Program Manager Manan Houston was instrumental in developing the company’s initial SMS in the 2005. He has also been key to assuring IS-BAO Stage III compliance.

They were so satisfied that 18 months later the company acquired another Challenger 300. Both models were pre-owned. Seating configuration is similar, one with 9-passenger capacity, the other with 10. Gogo inflight Internet keeps both planes connected – a necessity for their missions.

“100% of what we do is in support of CommScope’s teams, at all levels, Wofford explains.

“These aircraft are for business work, and our passengers rely on not only the convenience they offer, but also in the ability to conduct business while onboard.”

Although the aircraft are capable of overseas travel, the company has decided that they are better suited for covering North America.

When international travel is needed, they tap into FltPlan.com, CAMP Flight Scheduling, and Colt International services.

The twinjets are equipped with Collins Aerospace Pro Line 21 avionics. The setup includes 4 12×10 inch adaptive flight displays and FMS-5000 flight management systems.

Although the current configurations do not include synthetic vision or head-up display (HUD), Wofford anticipates upgrading both aircraft soon. “Mr Drendel told me early on that my primary responsibility is safety. So, if there is something that will add to our already impeccable safety record, the company will support it.”

That support for the aviation program has continued through leadership changes over the years. Current CEO Chuck Treadway is clear in his backing of the flight department.

CommScope Challengers are equipped with the Collins Aerospace Pro Line 21 avionics suite. The capabilities and familiarity across the fleet are perks that the pilots appreciate

“The CommScope aircraft are vital in our pursuit of our corporate mission,” he remarks. “They often make the difference in obtaining new clientele and maintaining existing relationships across the country. And to that end, our number one goal in flying is the safe operation of our planes.”

Safety first

Assuring that the CommScope flight team maintains that expectation is Safety Program Manager Manan Houston. Raised in the Hickory area, Houston began flying while in high school.

Most of his life has been around aircraft, including 4 years of active duty in the US Marine Corps and 20 years in the Charlotte NC Air National Guard, both of which were spent in aviation maintenance.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Houston purchased a series of aircraft including a Piper Warrior, Cessna 182, and Piper Aztec twin, all for the pursuit of personal flying.

Throughout his airplane ownership, he earned all his ratings and began instructing at HKY. A friend of Houston’s worked for the CommScope flight department and got his foot in the door. After meeting Wofford, he was offered a line pilot position in January 2000.

Employees from all levels of the CommScope corporate ladder have access to the aircraft when needed. The spacious cabins, equipped with Gogo inflight connectivity, are ideal airborne office setting for productive trips.

At that time, the company was operating Learjet 31, 35, 55, and a King Air C90. “They were all great aircraft to fly, but my favorite was the Learjet 35. That was a wonderful airplane,” Houston remembers. Houston took over the safety program in 2005.

With training assistance from NBAA, Houston coordinated the development of CommScope’s safety management system (SMS). In 2010, the SMS program was audited by Assessment Compliance Group, which led to further tweaking and expansion of the system.

The continued modification and modernization have kept the flight department at the leading edge of safety. “When you work here, there is no end game.

That is the way we approach our SMS,” Houston explains. “We are very forward-looking, which I feel has contributed to us having no safety issues over our long history. We do not allow complacency.”

As is expected, the flight department uses electronic flight bags (EFBs), and pilots are issued their own iPads with all documentation preloaded.

Additional safety steps include attending simulator training with FlightSafety Intl (FSI) twice a year, and upset prevention and recovery training every 2 years with Aviation Performance Solutions in Mesa AZ.

This approach to safety has assisted their obtaining of IBAC IS-BAO Stage III certification. “We have been preemptive in our approach to safety, and that is what auditors look for when they inspect a program like ours. I also give credit to NBAA. They provide the tools to make all of this work,” Houston adds.

Aviation Mx Manager Wayne Smith has spent more than 24 years with the flight department. He credits the reliability of the Challengers as a reason CommScope can have a one-person maintenance crew.

Superb staff

Assistant Chief Pilot Troy Welch grew up around aircraft, with a father who worked for several airlines and an uncle who was a corporate pilot. Welch attended the Guilford Tech Community College career pilot program in Jamestown NC while working at a local FBO.

After obtaining all his ratings, he began instructing to build hours. He had met some pilots at CommScope and always desired to fly the Learjets, and that dream would come to fruition in 1989, when he was offered a pilot position with the company.

Things went well until 1992, when downsizing led to layoffs and Welch had to go to the airlines. He would work for US Air Express and Eastwind Airlines, all the while maintaining contact with CommScope, including flying the occasional contract trip for them. He returned to full-time employment with his former employer in 1998. “CommScope is all about relationships, from the top down. We all work as a team,” Welch states.

After flying as a line captain for 2 years, Welch was promoted to assistant chief pilot. This new role means assisting with scheduling, supervising 4 pilots, monitoring expense reports, and working with Wofford on budgets.

But he still finds time to fly. “I was hired to fly, so when they call, I’m there. And I love flying the Challenger 300s. They’re the best aircraft I’ve ever flown. Their comfort and reliability are what makes them perfect for us,” says Welch. Assuring the pilots are scheduled and the passengers are accommodated falls to Flight Dispatcher Heather Gwyn-Williams.

Her father worked for Jet Aviation in her home state of New Jersey. When she headed off to Florida, he helped her find work with his company in West Palm Beach. “I worked as a maintenance service writer for 5 years. That was the foundation for my aviation knowledge. I learned a lot there,” she says.

That position led to 5 more years as a project coordinator with Jet Aviation. On her 10th anniversary, she was laid off. Seeking something new, Gwyn-Williams joined some friends in North Carolina. Not straying far from her aviation roots, she found work at an FBO at HKY.

During her time there, she met Wofford and other CommScope pilots. When a customer service position opened, she reached out and was hired in 2011. Since then, her position has evolved into a multi-layered role. “My job is essentially to determine what they need, and to provide it.” Gwyn-Williams is now the first person who company personnel will reach out to when needing aviation transportation, either via telephone or the recently introduced online corporate aircraft request program.

From that point, she works with pilot and aircraft schedules as well as ground transportation needs, to assemble the trip, also using CAMP Flight Scheduling. In addition, she assists with accounting and billing procedures.

“This is a great job. It’s a position where I do whatever is needed to help the company succeed. They are appreciative of the service we provide, and they make sure we know it.”

Flight Dispatcher Heather Gwyn-Williams began her career with Jet Aviation in West Palm Beach FL before relocating to Hickory and joining Wofford and the team 11 years ago.

Aircraft maintenance

Aviation Maintenance Manager Wayne Smith is tasked with making sure the Challenger 300s are ready to go. Smith’s father, Carroll, was a fixture at HKY, and known by most pilots in the area. “If I wanted to see my dad, I came to the airport,” Smith remarks.

After high school, he went to the FBO at HKY looking for work. “I told them ‘I’ll do anything you need, but I’m warning you, I’ll only be here one year.’” That was 47 years ago.

Smith would soon earn his A&P license, and was running the FBO maintenance shop within 2 years. In 1984, he made the jump to CommScope, where he would spend the next 12 years until a downturn closed the maintenance department.

After working for himself and his father for several years, he rejoined CommScope in 2009, and he has been there since. Prior to the arrival of the Challengers in 2017, all work on the Lears and the King Airs was done in-house.

Currently, while Smith performs minor work and daily checks on the Challengers, most maintenance is sent out to either StandardAero in Augusta GA, or Bombardier’s Hartford CT and Tucson AZ service centers. “We have very good relationships with both companies. They know what we want and they take care of us,” Smith states.

He uses CAMP Maintenance Tracking and both aircraft are on Bombardier’s Smart Parts program. To keep his skills up to par, he attends FSI once a year for training. He adds, “These aircraft are incredibly reliable. We have very few problems with them, which is why we can have a one-man mx department.”

Connected future

When they laid the groundwork 47 years ago, the founders of CommScope knew early on the potential for networking needs in the future. Their foresight to use aircraft to advance their business has proved to be a beneficial decision, one that their competitors may regret.

“This company has always been smart about how we use airplanes. We have used them to help build this company, and they have helped us beat our competition,” Wofford declares. The proof of this is in the corporate performance. In 1984, they saw $130 million in sales.

Last year, that number was at $8.5 billion, and they are a Fortune 250 company. With a future that will be increasingly reliant on our ability to network, CommScope has firmly planted itself on the global stage as a leader in its field.

Business aviation has played, and will continue to play, a paramount role in what lies ahead, enabling support of the company statement – Now meets next. Brent Bundy served as a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 29 years.

He flew with the PHX Air Support Unit for 19 years, and is a helicopter pilot with nearly 4000 hrs of flight time. He has flown Airbus AS350B3s for the helicopter side of Phoenix PD’s air unit, and Cessna 172, 182s and 210s for the fixed-wing side.

BrentBrent Bundy served as a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 29 years. He flew with the PHX Air Support Unit for 19 years, and is a helicopter pilot with nearly 4000 hrs of flight time. He has flown Airbus AS350B3s for the helicopter side of Phoenix PDs air unit, and Cessna 172, 182s and 210s for the fixed-wing side.