Building Airplanes in Wyoming

September 15, 2018

by Steve

We're in Wyoming, just about as far west as you can get before you step into Idaho. We're spending a month here on the quiet side of the Teton Range, just about an hour from the hustle and bustle of Jackson. The towns here are small. Thayne, the nearest, is around 400 people. Afton, which is 14 miles farther south, is just under 2,000. But it is home to the world's largest elk horn arch--one that stretches all the way across a 4-lane highway. Jackson may have the most photographed elk horn arches, but Afton has the largest.

Afton is also home to Aviat Aircraft. They are the manufacturer of a couple of well-known single-engine airplanes. The Pitts is an aerobatic biplane, and the Husky is a bush plane capable of taking off and landing just about anywhere. The Husky is a two-person plane; one person sits in front of the other, not side by side. Either person can fly, as there are two sticks. This is the type of plane used in Alaska, although the Cub is more common there than the Husky.

We didn't expect to find an airplane manufacturer in a small town in rural western Wyoming, so when we saw a half-dozen planes sitting in a parking lot, we decided to find out more. It turns out that Aviat gives free tours of the facility, so we arranged a date and got to see the whole operation.

The buildings don't look very high-tech. They're simple, warehouse-like structures that have been around a long time. But inside we found around 30 or so craftsmen and craftswomen who build these airplanes by hand. It's not the buildings, but the tech of the workers that makes this place go.

This min is carefully welding together an airplane frame using small, tubular steel. Each piece is exactly designed and fitted to its precise location, giving maximum strength with minimum weight. The Husky has many aluminum parts, including the engine cowling, the wing internal structures, and the fuel tanks in the wings. Aft of the cockpit, the "skin" of the plane is a fabric material. This fabric is lighter and stronger than aluminum, and it has a little "give" to it, so it doesn't get damaged easily. All this keeps the weight of the plane down to around 1300 pounds. With a stall speed of around 35 mph and a 180-hp engine, it can take off and land in very short distances. Add a couple of tundra tires, and you can go just about anywhere.

Here's a completed airframe that's been painted and is ready for the fabric covering.

And here it is with the skin on. Most of the skilled workers have been plying their craft here for many years. We met a man who welds aluminum, which isn't easy. Just for fun he had welded two aluminum beer cans together at the bottom, which is really hard to do. Needless to say, his welds on the aluminum fuel tanks were flawless.

Another worker crafts parts using fiberglass. Here's our friend Mike holding a fiberglass wing tip that just came out of its mold. It's extremely lightweight.

Aviat produces 40 to 50 airplanes a year at this site. Each one is made for a specific buyer, with the colors and options that the buyer has chosen. After several test flights and certification, the planes are ready to be shipped anywhere in the world. Many go to Africa, where a plane that can land just about anywhere is really useful.

If you get out this way, stop in Afton and see if you can tour the Aviat Aircraft factory. (Call a couple of days in advance to arrange.) I think you'll enjoy it, and you'll be amazed at the craftsmanship that's being done here in this out-of-the-way corner of Wyoming.

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