Estevan family is giving 1940s planes a second life and a job

Small and vigilant little planes are lining up at Scott and Laura Piper's private airport by Estevan in the morning to head out to fulfill their daily duty – pipeline inspection.

These certified airplanes, originally built by Piper Aircraft during the second half of the 1940s, received their second life at Blue Sky Air. The company, founded in 1982 by Laura's parents Nat and Joyce Ooms, specializes in aerial pipeline control. Their commercial fleet consists of resurrected old planes, some of which were completely rebuilt right in the yard.

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"This one is built with better steel now. It's lighter, but they are still made to the standard," said Scott Piper, pointing at one of their planes as they were getting ready to take off on a regular busy workday.

The sky and planes are often romanticized, but for Piper it is more of a job. He said that for most pilots working for them, flying actually was a dream, but for him, it was a bit different.

"I always liked airplanes and I wanted to get into it. I wanted to be a private pilot and just be able to fly. I never had dreams about being a commercial pilot," Piper said.

"When I met my wife, she was already flying and working for her dad. And he was looking for someone to buy the business, and it was an opportunity for us to have a business of our own and a business where we could be at home."

Previous to that Piper was working in pipeline and oilfield construction, which meant being away from home all the time, and the family business was a much better fit and a great opportunity for them.

Photo by Anastasiia BykhovskaiaThe Pipers graduated from the Stevenson Campus Aviation and Aerospace Southport of Winnipeg's Red River College in Portage la Prairie with the aircraft maintenance licence, which allows them to cut the expenses when it comes to upkeeping and also rebuilding the planes.

Blue sky air
Every morning little planes take off to do pipeline inspections. Photo by Anastasiia Bykhovskaia

"The maintenance side gives us a competitive advantage because we look after our own planes. If a plane breaks down this morning, we have two mechanics here all the time. Where if we didn't, then we would have to take a different plane or cancel flights, and we'd have to bring mechanics in," Piper said.

While Pipers are the main mechanics, hired pilots also help them to maintain the equipment, as inspections are done every 100 hours.

Each plane they have tells a different story. Some of the aircraft the company has were originally in a good shape. Other times the planes required a full overhaul.

While some planes Blue Sky Air bought were already rebuilt, others took a lot of Pipers' hours to put together.

One such plane is currently under construction in the shop. It will become the newest addition to the fleet, and the hope is to complete the project this summer.

"This is the 1947 Piper PA-12 (Super Cruiser). It's the same make and model as (the other planes in the fleet).

"The Piper in the late 80s or early 90s sold the type certificate for this aircraft to a guy that lives in Vernon, B.C. Piper was having financial trouble, so they sold off some of these old planes to the same guy. And he was going to start building these as new airplanes again and ran into financial trouble. But in the interim, he was getting this company going. He was certified to build airframes."

Blue Sky Air bought the plane in the late 80s. It had a serial number but at that time by no means was it flyable as pretty much all it had was the rebuilt frame. Since then the company has been slowly putting things together and buying parts to one day have it up in the air again.

Bue sky air
Blue Sky Air fleet consists of Piper PA-12 planes built in the 1940s. Photo by Anastasiia Bykhovskaia

With most parts coming from the U.S., fluctuations in Canadian currency, along with the recent challenges caused by COVID-19 resulted in some delays. However, step by step the progress was happening and the plane is getting closer to completion.

"This is the type certificate for this aircraft; it tells us a lot of the details. We can go through here and find what the deflection is on all the control surfaces, things like that … And a lot of it is common aircraft knowledge. I've worked on these for 20 some years, some of it was taught in school, some of it is lost art that we are trying to keep up," said Piper, explaining the plane overhaul process. 

Now as the other airplane is getting older, the company wants to have this project completed to have a reliable aircraft to be able to take the other one off work for repairs. And the plane is finally getting close to the final stages.

"We can probably have this built in about six months," Piper said. "Right now we are mocking up the dash … And we are in the process of rigging everything. All the flight controls, we are getting them set so that they work the way they are going to when the plane is finished because once we put the skin on it's harder to do the rigging."

Piper added that he has a network of people from all over North America who are into similar projects and are a great help out if he runs into trouble with rebuilding, or even building planes, which is also happening in their yard but in a separate facility.

Piper pointed out that the certification process is what makes a big difference between building and rebuilding planes. The other aircraft, which was started by Nat Ooms and is currently in works in another shop, is a kit plane. Unlike the rebuilt Piper PA-12, this one can never be used for commercial needs.

Blue sky air
This homebuilt kit plane was started by Nat Ooms and his friend. Photo by Anastasiia Bykhovskaia

"That's a completely different (project). We keep it in a different building because the certification is far apart," Piper said.

It will be a four-seat fast and efficient RV-10 plane.

"This is strictly a fun plane. These fly 170-175 miles an hour. Much more efficient than certified planes, because homebuilders are allowed to use new technology, and certified airplanes can't use new technology as easily. It's hard to bring in new technology because of the certification process," explained Piper, adding that while some materials can be improved in the rebuilding process, all equipment has to remain the same as the original.

Blue Sky Air is located about 15 kilometres north of Estevan. Every morning seven days a week small Piper Super Cruisers head out to do the pipeline inspections over southeast Saskatchewan.

Piper said that fortunately the company is staying busy, and has enough work to keep four hired pilots and two owners occupied.

Blue sky air
Blue Sky Air with their hangars, shops and private airport, is located about 15 kilometres north of Estevan. Photo by Anastasiia Bykhovskaia
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