The view from within: Mechanic growing business at Louisville Airport
Friday, May 5, 2017 - 3:18pm
James Watson is one of the few people who feel that the best view from an airplane isn’t out the window, but under the hood.
While he does love flying, it’s the gears and compressors, the well-greased moving parts that truly fascinate him. After all, it’s a combination of the sheet metal wings and all those moving pieces turning the propellers that keep the plane in the air and him in business.
For the last eight years Watson has been working on airplanes and has recently opened Watson Aero LLC, a general aviation mechanic’s shop based at the Louisville Airport.
“I love the trouble shooting part of it,” Watson said. “Out here our traffic is low. It’s mostly just annual inspections. But I’ve worked in bigger shops where most of what we did was handle pilots who walked up to us saying this quit working, can you figure it out.
“You go through the process, identify the fault and you fix it. That’s the aspect of it that I really like. It’s like solving a puzzle to me. Like anything there’s always grunt work that has to get done, like replacing a wheel bearing or cleaning spark plugs, but to actually have to fix something, that’s fun.”
Watson was introduced to aviation in the hangar he currently operates out of, owned by his stepfather, long-time Louisville-based crop duster Pierre Smith.
When he was 17, he worked for Smith fueling the air tractor, cleaning its windshield, loading chemicals and generally getting it ready for its runs dipping and spraying area fields. A few months later Watson went to work for an aviation mechanic in Sandersville.
“After a couple of years there I went to Tennessee, got my A&P (Airframe and Powerplant) license and moved on and worked at a couple different shops across the southeast. One was Boeing, one was Gulfstream. I worked in Hilton Head at a general aviation shop for about a year. Then, last year, I worked at Daniel Field.“
In February, Watson aced the written exam for inspection authorization, receiving 100 out of 100.
After Watson’s son was born he decided to shorten the daily commute and go into business for himself in Louisville. For now, he rents the back half of his stepfather’s hangar, but plans to move into the city’s larger space as soon as a grant-supported construction project is completed.
Watson makes most of his money doing inspections, which the FAA requires of all planes annually.
“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Watson said. “We inspect the engine, the propeller and the airframe. You’re just inspecting its mechanical condition and any discrepancies you find you repair them as you need to.”
He is licensed to rebuild engines and has factory certifications from Lycoming Engines and Continental Motors, the two primary manufacturers of light sport airplane engines.
Sometimes more complex jobs grow out of the inspections. Last year, during one, he cut open an oil filter that was full of metal.
“It turns out his camshaft was failing inside and the only way to repair that is to completely disassemble the engine and rebuild it with new parts,” Watson said.
If the pilot had not had the inspection, he might have only become aware of the problem when his propeller quit turning.
“The consequences are a lot more serious if something goes wrong in an airplane,” Watson said. “In your car if you have a flat tire or your engine blows up, you can pull over to the side of the road. Well, you can’t pull over to the side of the sky.”
It’s why insurance companies and the FAA require the annual inspections for air worthiness.
Right now there are 10 airplanes that are based out of the Louisville Airport, but Watson says he is actively servicing about 15 aircraft currently.
“My goal is to get to where I’m working on 30 or 40,” he said. “Then I can start hiring new mechanics and I’ll have the other hanger so we can have several planes down for maintenance at the same time.”
He is serving pilots based in Waynesboro, Midville, Augusta and one from Knoxville.
“The guy from Knoxville found me online,” Watson said. “He’d had an in-flight engine failure. One of his camshaft followers had come apart and just ricocheted around inside the engine. That follower took out the other followers on that side, so he lost three cylinders in the span of seconds.”
Watson drove up to Tennessee to take a look at the plane and ended up overhauling it there.
“He was very happy with the way it ended up and by the time we got done with it, it was purring,” Watson said. “Now he flies down here to have it serviced. It may be a six-hour drive, but it’s only an hour or maybe an hour and a half flight.
“Once a pilot sees you do good work for a reasonable price, they are willing to travel to you. Your life is in that airplane and once you find a mechanic you trust, you stick with them.”
Smith admitted to having a hidden agenda in leasing a portion of his hangar to Watson.
“I used to go 400 miles to Fort Pierce to service my air tractor,” he said. “And then, if it had to stay for 10 days or two weeks, I’d have the problem of getting back.”
Later he found a mechanic in Bainbridge, 200 miles away, to work on it. Then even later he discovered the shop in Sandersville, 24 miles away. And now, he says, he doesn’t even have to leave the office.
“James can go from nose to tail on that plane and take care of it,” Smith said.
Louisville mayor and local pilot, Larry Morgan, said that the city has been waiting for someone like Watson to set up show here for a long time.
The city has been investing in its airport for years, extending the runway, adding a terminal building, selling aviation fuel and has several plans for the next year.
“Through our capital improvement plan we are adding an AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System) system so that pilots can call in and see what’s going on here,” Morgan said. “In June we hope to add a GPS system.”
The mayor said the city is banking on these systems making the airport even more attractive to jet traffic as an incentive for economic investment.
“Then we’re going to build 10 hangars,” Morgan said. “We already have six rented. That gets them out of that big hangar over there and that’s where we want to put James so he’ll have space to expand. It’s all about economics.”
Area industries already have Lear jets and Citations landing at the Louisville Airport, Morgan said. Having a large scale aircraft mechanic in place as well gives the community that much more to market to industries who may be looking to locate here.
“Having local industry is a huge part of what your airport turns into,” Watson said. “Our airport is as nice as any around. We’re still building our industry base, so we don’t have as much activity, but we have every bit as good a facility as any other airport around here.”
Morgan said that he is excited about what Watson’s business brings to the city and what it could mean for growth.
While he is not a pilot himself, Watson said he does love to fly.
“Every time, after an annual inspection, we always do an acceptance flight,” Watson said. “I go up with the pilot, the owner of the aircraft, and we fly it together. I’ve already run it on the ground and know everything is in working order, but this is more of a ceremonial thing. It’s like passing the airplane back to them. I love it. And, you know, Louisville is absolutely gorgeous from above.”