Operator flies 3 planes and 7 helicopters to support electrical utility services activity.
By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot
We take for granted the conveniences of modern-day life, such as the reliable flow of electricity. To the farming communities of rural Oregon and Washington, this is a luxury that didn’t come as quickly as it did for much of the rest of the country. Fortunately for them, Matt Wilson, an entrepreneur from the Midwest, saw an opportunity.
He started his company nearly 70 years ago and, almost from the beginning, he used aircraft in his operations. A lot has changed since Wilson Construction began, but it still provides a necessary service, and aviation remains pivotal to its success.
Arrival of electricity
By the 1930s, 90% of Americans living in urban areas had access to electricity in their homes. This was in stark contrast to the 10% of rural families that had electric power.
President Franklin Roosevelt set out to change this, and the Rural Electrification Administration was founded in 1935 to address this disparity. By 1960, the farms had caught up to the cities, with 9 out of 10 having received electric power.
Shortly after World War II, Minnesota native Matt Wilson relocated to the Pacific Northwest. He saw the formation of the electrical co-ops that were building the infrastructure of the expanding power grids. Matt realized that, with the right personnel and equipment, he could work with the co-ops to help provide this service.
He founded Wilson Construction in 1952 in his home and quickly found success. By the mid-1970s, he had more than 30 employees laying cable and working on the electrical expansion around his base in Troutdale OR. In 1974, Matt brought on a new team member – his son Don Wilson.
“I had been involved with the company most of my life, but after college, I took a full-time position,” Don recalls. Over the next decade, through the purchase and later sale of a tree trimming company, Wilson Construction began to expand its footprint and started working with larger power companies.
“Since that time, we’ve been an ‘internal growth’ company, and we’ve diversified into 4 divisions – distribution, transmission, substations/switchyards, and underground high-voltage.”
The company has also gone well beyond its headquarters in Canby OR, with contracts across the country, necessitating offices in Sacramento CA, Phoenix AZ, Spokane WA, and wherever the job is.
Aircraft become essential
As expansion began to hit its stride in the late 70s, Don quickly realized that ground transportation was not going to work. “In one of my first years with the company, I drove 60,000 miles throughout Oregon and Washington. I knew there was a better way, and that was aviation, so I got my pilot’s license,” Don says.
He had always wanted to fly. In 1977, Don convinced his father to buy a Piper Turbo Arrow, which they flew for a few years before moving to a Seneca that the company kept for 10 years. This was followed by an upgrade to a Beechcraft King Air, then a Beechcraft Baron, and back to a King Air.
Along the way, they also owned a Cessna CitationJet. Wilson has now settled into a well-rounded fleet that serves all its needs. Based out of UAO (Aurora OR), the company’s stable includes a 2011 Bombardier Challenger 300, a 2008 King Air 350, and a 2009 King Air C90GTi.
The diversity of these aircraft allows Wilson Construction to cover all the bases. “The Challenger is a great plane to get us to jobs up and down the east coast, or even to international destinations,” Don explains, “We recently had a contract in northern Minnesota, and the Challenger would get our people there for meetings and back home within 2 days. Flying commercially, those would have been 4-day trips. All of our planes save us time and money.”
The 2 King Airs are used for closer projects and office visits on the west coast. “The 90 is great for getting us to hard-to-reach job sites, much like a helicopter,” Don adds.
“And the 350 is similar, with just more range.” As the primary and sole pilot for Wilson for many years, Don has flown every aircraft the company has owned.
Keeping things in the family name is another company pilot – Don’s daughter, VP Stacy Wilson. “I grew up in this company, flying with my dad,” she recalls. Shortly after college, she earned her pilot ratings. “I started in a Cessna 172, got my instrument, and then moved on to my multi-engine.
Later, I flew the company Seneca.” While she has enjoyed most of the aircraft she’s flown, she clearly has a favorite. “I love the King Air C90GTi! It’s got great power from the Pratt & Whitney PT6 engine. It’s just such a fun, capable aircraft,” she says. “We often fly over mountains, sometimes in poor weather, and to short-field locations, and I don’t think there’s a better plane for us than that 90.”
With projects from California to Minnesota and Virginia, timely access is vital. “Our aircraft make it possible. Whether it’s a customer with an issue, or us needing to extend a meeting, we’re not tied to the airlines,” Don proclaims. Stacy adds, “Also, many of our competitors are publicly traded companies. We are privately owned, and that affords us additional freedom from layers of bureaucracy, which allows us to respond to our customers quickly.”
Although Don and Stacy fly many of the company missions, running the daily operations of the airplanes is Fixed-Wing Chief Pilot Gabriel Miller.
Much like the family aviation connections in the Wilsons, Gabriel comes from a history of pilots. “My grandfather was a bomber pilot in World War II, and my father was a recreational pilot, so I’ve always been around planes,” he states.
Near the end of his college years, Gabriel earned all his ratings, up through CFI. The Washington native then found work as a line technician at an FBO in Seattle – a job that would pave the way toward his current position. “While working at the FBO, I fueled Wilson Construction’s 1st King Air. That was when I met Don,” Gabriel recalls.
Gabriel landed his first position in jets in 2008, flying a Beechjet for charter, followed by a handful of other charter jobs. As he progressed in his flying career, he maintained contact with Don. “For more than 10 years, I would send him my résumé with a quick e-mail,” Gabriel says. Maintaining connections with Don paid off in 2015, when Wilson Construction called.
They were looking for a pilot. “I joined as a pilot at the beginning of 2016 and was offered the chief pilot spot in 2018. Every job I’ve had in aviation has come through networking, and this was the dream job.”
Gabriel holds the unusual distinction of having both his company owner and VP as part of his cadre of pilots. In addition, both Gabriel and Captain Thomas Call fly all 3 planes, including the Challenger 300. This versatility allows them to put approximately 200 hours per year on each aircraft, needing contract assistance on the Challenger only occasionally.
Flight attendants are not staffed. “We run very lean, and our passengers are very low-key. We have very few pop-up flights and, when we have them, Don and Stacy will usually take those assignments,” Gabriel explains.
All pilots attend annual training at FlightSafety Intl (FSI) on each type in which they are certified, and they adhere to an internally-developed Safety Management System (SMS).
Over 90% of the company’s flights are for business purposes. The pilots conduct a handful of overseas trips each year using Collins Aerospace International Trip Services for planning.
“My favorite part of our operation is that everyone in the company has access to the aircraft – it’s not limited to the top management,” adds Gabriel. “If it makes sense financially and we can save both time and money using our aircraft to get someone somewhere, or needed parts to a job site, then we’ll do it.
We have 700 employees, and I’ve probably flown 500 of them. Business aviation is ingrained into everything we do. It is a great tool, and this company would not be what it is without it.”
The helicopter role
Airplanes have played an important role within Wilson Construction for much of the company’s history, but fixed-wing operations are not the company’s only aviation asset. Helicopters entered the picture over 20 years ago. Overseeing the vertical-lift side of the house is Director of Helicopter Operations and Chief Pilot Ron Stewart.
Growing up in southern Oregon, Ron’s father owned a road construction company, and like his fellow team members at Wilson Construction, he was exposed to aviation early in life. “My father owned a couple of planes when I was young – a Cessna 172 and a 206,” he remembers.
However, when he was 12 years old, he was given a ride in an early-model Robinson R22. “That set the hook for me. I think it was the helicopter’s ability to hover and land anywhere I wanted – that’s what I fell in love with.”
In 1990, he was driving down the I-5 freeway in California when a Bell JetRanger flew overhead. He looked at his wife and said, “That’s what I want to do.” To his surprise, she agreed.
Ron soon found himself working his way up through his CFI rating and doing some agricultural spraying in an R22. This led to purchasing his own R22 Beta and building hours by following airshows up and down the west coast. “I made enough to pay for insurance and fuel,” he comments.
Ron eventually added a cargo hook to his R22, taught himself to long-line, and got a forest service contract in the mid-1990s. In the late 1990s, he was hired full time by Timberland Helicopters for charter and fire prevention work. This was also his 1st true opportunity to spend time in turbine helicopters.
The company soon added an MBB Bo105 to the fleet for EMS, in which Ron gained experience. Before long, he had taken over as chief pilot. After leaving Timberland, Ron took a position as chief pilot with an operator in Reno NV before making his way to Phoenix AZ for another helo opportunity.
He took a sabbatical from aviation for a few years, but was soon airborne again, this time in Alaska. He then returned to AZ for a stint flying MD 600s and MD 900s, tapping into his past powerline experience.
In 2011, Wilson Construction called, looking for a new operations director. “When I joined the company, my mission was to restructure things into a more cohesive unit.
We had a good group of pilots that just needed some guidance, and we’ve achieved that,” Ron relates. With somewhere north of 11,000 flight hours, his cockpit time now is just for fun, as he describes it.
He logs some 50 flight hours a year, as he concentrates on the day-to-day workings of the company’s Part 133 Rotorcraft External Load Operations. That includes oversight of his 7 pilots and working with Director of Helicopter Maintenance Brett Vaughters and his 6 mechanics.
The rotary-wing fleet consists of 7 helicopters – 2 MD 530s, 3 MD 500Es (including serial #5, the oldest flying E-model), 1 MD 500E being converted to an F-model, and 1 Leonardo AW119Ke. While the airplanes are used for transportation, the helicopters are primarily put to work in the field. They are equipped to side-pull electrical lines, as well as long-line parts on job sites.
The excellent maneuverability of the MD 500s makes them ideal for this type of work. The AW119Ke is tapped for its extra capacity and lifting capability. In contrast to the company’s fixed-wing side’s 600 hours per year, the helos will see upwards of 4500 hours annually of cumulative flight time. Whenever an aircraft is assigned to a job site, it is accompanied by a mechanic to handle field work when necessary.
“What’s unique with us is that we are a construction company that operates helos,” says Ron. There is zero pressure to fly. If at any point we need to stop a job, we will. Our helicopters are a tool to enhance the overall operation of Wilson Construction.” Maintaining peak safety means adapting traditional Crew Resource Management (CRM) to a single-pilot cockpit.
“For us, CRM includes the pilot, the electrical lineman, and the fueler. We incorporate everyone into the safety culture,” he adds.
This is also an area highlighted with the uniqueness of having the company president as one of his pilots. Ron adds, “With Don being both an airplane and helicopter pilot, he understands what we need. He understands the costs involved. If we need something, especially if safety is concerned, Don makes sure we have it.”
Keeping the fleet flying
The added maintenance work required by helicopters necessitates several technicians on the rotary-wing side. For the airplanes, Director of Fixed-Wing Aircraft Maintenance Tom Anders tackles most of the work. Raised in southern California, Tom’s father owned a flight school, which means his introduction to aviation came early.
“For as long as I can remember, I was around airplanes. But I learned early that I did not want to be a pilot. I just didn’t like the lifestyle. I wanted to be home with my family,” he says. Tom soon found that he had a propensity for all things mechanical. By 1983, he had earned his A&P certification in Cheyenne WY, and then he moved to Oregon for a position at PDX (Intl, Portland OR).
Starting in line service, he quickly moved up through the ranks and became a lead tester. When the company closed its engine shop, Tom transferred to the service floor and again climbed the ladder to lead technician.
While working at PDX, Tom performed maintenance on a Piper Seneca III. That plane belonged to Don Wilson. In 1996, Tom was offered a job at UAO by the owner of a collection of planes.
That same owner had hangar space to lease, and contacted Don, who was flying a Beech Baron by then. Don sold the Baron, bought his first King Air C90, and moved in. That found Tom working on another plane owned by the Wilson family.
Eventually, Don added more aircraft to his fleet and needed more hangar space. In 2012, Don hired Tom full time, and 3 years later moved into the current Wilson Construction hangar.
The facility can house all 10 aircraft, but they are rarely all together. “The helos aren’t making money when they are in the hangar, so they are usually out on job sites. They are brought here for major maintenance,” Tom explains.
Tom is the sole mechanic for the airplanes, but he has built strong relationships with other techs in the area and will use them when necessary. The close, family-like atmosphere with the company’s helicopter mechanics also provides a source of assistance.
With 200 hours per year flown on each plane, Tom is kept quite busy, but he can handle most routine work in-house, although he seeks the best outside companies for major work. “I am constantly evaluating who gives us the best service at the best rate.” Just as the pilots do, he attends FSI for annual training.
Tom has worked a variety of positions and locations, but feels he has found a sweet spot with Wilson Construction. “I’ve been working on the company’s planes since the late 1980s, and Don and Stacy are wonderful to work with. We have a great crew here. Everyone gets along and respects each other. We truly do work as a team.”
For 68 years, the company that Matt Wilson founded has played a key role in bringing electrification to the communities of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Throughout most of this time, aviation has been the solution for the company’s transportation and utility needs.
And with the Wilson family at the controls of both the organization and the aircraft they fly, that is not likely to change. Steady growth and constant evolution of the fleet ensures that Wilson Construction will continue to bring power to the people.
Brent Bundy has been a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 28 years. He has served in the PHX Air Support Unit for 18 years and is a helicopter rescue pilot with nearly 4000 hours of flight time. Bundy currently flies Airbus AS350B3s for the helicopter side of Phoenix PD’s air unit and Cessna 172, 182s and 210s for the fixed-wing side.