Private Planes Help Oxford Aviation Take Off

The fact that a seaplane brought Jim Horowitz to Maine is particularly fitting.

Horowitz landed in the state 20 years ago, shortly after selling his boat-building and refinishing business in Florida. He flew to Maine mostly to get rated on his ability to fly a seaplane, but ended up falling in love with the state.

He also chose to shift his career from the sea to the skies as he changed his residence.

Given his interest in flying, Horowitz thought about opening an aircraft repair shop, but realized Maine's western foothills were unlikely to generate a lot of work for an airplane mechanic. So instead, he started a business that does for planes what his boatyard had done for boats - taking a worn plane and bringing it up to date and giving it a more polished look.

That's how Oxford Aviation was born, and it has earned a reputation in flying circles as one of the best places to take planes in need of a makeover.

The work can range from a quick paint job to essentially stripping the aircraft's interior, rebuilding it, providing new seats and cabinetry and upgrading the avionics, he said.

''We essentially take the plane down to the bare metal, and the (finished) aircraft looks at least as good as, if not better than, new,'' said Kimberly Clarke, director of business development for Oxford Aviation.

Shortly after starting the company, Horowitz began adding employees and taking on more aircraft rehabs, but his market was limited to private planes and small corporate jets because of the relatively short runways in Oxford and at a satellite facility in Fryeburg.

That led Oxford Aviation to its next leap forward, with a new 90,000-square-foot hangar to be built in Sanford, where the company can take advantage of a 6,000-foot runway to go after bigger contracts involving larger planes. And the company is also riding the wave of what Horowitz said is the ''very high-growth industry'' of general aviation, which means non-airline planes.

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association said purchases of new planes jumped 12.9 percent last year over 2005, and the value of those planes increased even more, from $15.1 billion to $18.8 billion. Part of the growth is because of executives and wealthy individuals increasingly opting to fly in private planes to avoid delays caused by the security measures involved in flying on airlines.

The private segment is expected to grow even more in the next few years, Horowitz said, as very light jets, or VLJs, enter the market. These small jets cost about $1.5 million, a bargain price for a five-passenger jet, and that is expected to entice more companies and individuals to buy their own airplanes.

Horowitz said one way manufacturers keep prices down is by following Henry Ford's example when he began to mass-produce cars: You could order a Model T in any color you wanted, as long as it was black.

Horowitz said plane buyers like to upgrade beyond factory-issued interiors and plain white paint jobs. Oxford Aviation, he said, is developing a strong line of business in taking those new planes and making them more plush and colorful.

And much of that work will soon be done in Sanford, where Oxford Aviation has worked closely with the town to develop the new facility. Sanford officials landed federal grants to help pay for demolition of some World War II-vintage buildings at their airport and to prepare the ground for the new hangar, which will cost Oxford Aviation about $4.5 million.

The company already has booked three planes to be worked on in the new facility. Construction will begin this spring and is expected to open in December.

Clarke said the company received 800 applications for the first 15 jobs at the new facility. She said the work force is expected to grow to 60 by the end of the first year in Sanford and 200 by the end of the second year. About 65 workers are employed in Oxford and Fryeburg.

Oxford Aviation's presence in town could spur even more employment, said Evan McDougal, manager of Sanford Regional Airport.

He said it's likely suppliers and subcontractors will want to have space at the airport near Oxford Aviation, and the types of jobs fit in Sanford, which has been struggling with unemployment despite its location in York County, which has maintained a strong economy for much of the past decade. The jobs will be like the manufacturing employment that has been dissipating in Maine, he said.

''It will provide good-paying jobs for local folks,'' McDougal said. ''It's a skilled labor force, but it doesn't have to be college-educated.''

Horowitz said Oxford Aviation's location in Maine isn't a hindrance for domestic work and may be an advantage for working on planes from Europe, since Maine is closer to that continent than other cities on the East Coast.

For U.S. plane owners, ''a four- or five-hour flight is not a big deal,'' Horowitz said. ''People will select us because of our reputation, which is tied to the fact that we have the unique staffing and craftsmanship of Maine.''

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