The Ascent From Gallon Zero

Oct. 26, 2015
How Hawthorne Aviation successfully built and launched a new FBO at Chicago Executive Airport

“It’s a gutsy move to build an FBO from the ground up—not only is it necessary to construct a functional facility but one has to build the business too. It’s not as simple creating a place for business aircraft to land.

It’s even more challenging to build a thriving FBO business at an airport that already has two. Yet that’s exactly what Hawthorne Global Aviation Services, a leader in general aviation services since 1932 achieved at Chicago Executive Airport (PWK), the third busiest airport in Illinois.

The successful FBO operator, which also manages jet charters and handles aircraft operation and management for corporate clients, viewed the Windy City’s growing business airport as a perfect fit for its third FBO location, despite the fact two FBO businesses, operated by Signature Select and Atlantic Aviation, already called PWK home.

David Annin, general manager of Hawthorne’s Chicago facility, notes the 8-acre site at the bustling airport offered the perfect opportunity for a greenfield project. “This is the premier general aviation airport in the Midwest market,” he says. “It’s just 17 miles northwest of the Chicago central business district and in close proximity to the north shore. The area is home to 31 Fortune 500 companies, 29 of which are in the Chicago metro area, and 23 of which are closest to PWK.”

The 40,000-square-foot facility opened for business in March 2014 and nearly 1 ½ years later business continues to rise. “We’ve seen a nice steady increase every month that we’ve been open,” says Annin.

Annin attributes the successful launch to a number of things, including Hawthorne’s ability to set itself apart through outstanding customer service and solid safety practices. He also points to a well thought out marketing effort.

“We started from Gallon Zero—we didn’t have a business at this location,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of our growth is from good old-fashioned shoe leather marketing; talking to flight departments and letting them know we are here. From there, word of mouth is huge. If you can get them here and back that up with good service, value and price, they will return and bring others with them.”

Hawthorne has found that attracting customers begins with a beautiful facility and ends with service and value, and the 82-year-old company manages to serve up all three.

The Terminal

Hawthorne’s $8 million PWK facility is nestled near the intersection of Palatine Road and Milwaukee, just northwest of Chicago. The project sits on real estate once occupied by Priester Aviation, a section of the airport known by many pilots as the “old main ramp,” according to Annin. Because of its previous history, the site housed a number of buildings that had to be removed before construction commenced.

Hawthorne teamed with consulting firm Avian Solutions LLC; architect Timothy Morgan Associates; and Chappel Design-Build in Rosewell, Ill., for the project. The goal was to fashion a unique building and avoid an institutional look and to maximize the value for the money spent. The final goal for the project was to be on time and on budget. All three goals were achieved, states Annin. “Construction took about 10 months; we started in May 2013 and opened in March 2014,” he says.

The finished structure and approximate 5-acres of apron space denote first class all the way. They designed the terminal, which is attached to the 30,000-square-foot hangar, with comfort in mind, striving for it to have a country club feel. “We achieved that by including a gas fireplace, fine millwork and more,” states Sam Chuyler, an architect at Timothy Morgan Associates.

“There are a lot of great facilities out there that are kind of cold and industrial feeling,” Annin says. “We wanted a homey, inviting facility with a lot of wood and a fireplace. We had a phenomenal carpenter who did all of the woodwork; all of it was custom built, the mantel, the shelving.”

The 10,000-square-foot terminal offers an unrestricted open floor plan with high ceilings and expansive views of the airfield. Work from local artisans adorns the walls and is accented by earth tones, dark wood trim and tiled flooring. Several different lounge seating areas provide comfy upscale seating, while a 10-seat A/V-capable conference room offers space for private meetings. Other conveniences include a fully stocked coffee bar and beverage center and luxurious restrooms with showers.

“We have a primary conference room and can set up secondary conference rooms,” Annin says. “We have people who will have meetings here when it’s convenient.”

Visitors access the well-appointed reception area from the lobby but also from the line shack area. “We put reception and line operations ramp side so that they can see what’s going on,” says Annin.

Twenty-four security cameras monitor the facility inside and out, 24-7. They are positioned in such a way that staff can easily monitor the area. “We set the system to different views for different areas,” says Annin. “The front desk watches certain cameras, the line shack monitors certain cameras,” he says. “It’s mostly for security but it also gives us a chance to provide better service. If we know we have a plane and passengers coming in, we can watch the cameras and know when their cars are pulling up. We can get out there and help with bags and such before they are even out of the car.”

The Hangar

Hawthorne’s impressive new hangar can house Gulfstream 650, Embraer Legacy and Global Express aircraft with ease. “We have the ability to handle every business jet made today with the exception of the Boeing BBJ,” says Annin.

The hangar affords users airside access through a 28-foot-high bottom rolling door, which opens fully to 160 feet. The hangar is bright and white and clean with banks of windows at various heights on the east and south walls facing the hangar door. There are windows in the hangar door at eye level to give workers a clear view of the apron and airport activity. The entire facility is lit by energy efficient T-8 flourescent lighting.

Annin says they put a high priority on making sure everything had a place and everything was in that place. “When you walk into a lot of hangars, you see stuff littering every wall,” he says. “We wanted to maintain a real clean space. When it’s clean and everything has its place, you’re safe as well. There is an opportunity for accidents when things are not put away.”

For this reason, the hangar includes side storage closets for tenants to store parts, manuals, log books, tools and other aircraft supplies.

Hawthorne installed radiant heat, which heats the floor and other surfaces. This keeps warm air by the personnel on the floor rather than up high by the roof. “The makeup time is much better,” says Annin. “You can stand on the floor and feel the heat coming into your legs. And when you get inside an aircraft after it has sat here for awhile, it’s warmer inside the aircraft than outside because it heats the metal.”

The hangar is fashioned out of TextureWall panels instead of the precast concrete typically used in older hangars. TextureWall panels look like stucco and complement the facility’s split-face masonry foundation.

“We didn’t want any insulation sag,” Annin says, noting the system utilized an all-steel panel from Butler called a sandwich, which is rigid steel on the outside that’s prepainted by the factory with a foam core inside. The panels fit together like a tongue-and-groove floor.

“The ease of construction is phenomenal, the insulating factor is also phenomenal and you don’t get any insulation sag,” he says. “And it doesn’t look like what most people think of when they hear steel building. They think corrugated, ugly steel and that’s it. This is a really beautiful option.”

“The panel itself is a more energy efficient option than a typical wall panel system,” adds Chuyler. “Just being a sandwich panel makes it more energy efficient, and then the joints between the panels are gasketed.”

With the building complete and business booming, Hawthorne has set aside space for another 40,000-square-foot building in the future. It is their hope that they will be able to replicate at PWK what they’ve already done in other parts of the country. “Hawthorne in its 80+ year history has a long solid reputation as a first-class provider,” says Annin. “We have a long history and reputation of being very business oriented, and that’s what we’re trying to build a legacy around. It’s really about the people and the service we provide.”