The Inside Story on Western Skyways

TBO Advisor

by Kas Thomas

Anybody who wants to become an "overnight success" in the engine business would do well to study the success of David Leis, Al head, John Robinson, and Perry Nicholson. Before founding the Montrose, Colorado-based Western Skyways, Inc., each of the company’s four principals spent 26 years in the business, learning the art of engine rebuilding the hard way: one crankcase at a time.

In a day and age when almost every town claims to be the capital of something-or-other, Montrose, Colorado is (as far as anyone knows) capital of nothing in particular. A sleepy conclave of motor inns, truck stops, and feed lots in the shadow of the craggy San Juan Mountains, Montrose is the last bastion of bean farming between Gunnison and Reno, the last major pit stop for skiers on the road to tiny Telluride, and about the last place in the world you'd expect to find a premier aircraft engine overhaul shop.

But just off the airport, in a tiny industrial park (or "dust-trail" park, as the case may be), in a metal building no bigger than 80 feet square, you'll find two dozen people happily building 250 engines a year under the name Western Skyways Inc. And the line of customers waiting to get in stretches clear around back figuratively speaking, of course.

"We are booked two months out," David Leis informs me matter-of-factly as we pull into the Western Skyways parking lot. "Which makes it hard to take on prop strikes and other 'sudden emergency' type jobs. Believe me, it really hurts to turn away business. But there's only so much we can handle." And right now, David Leis has a pretty full plate. On his desk are two stacks of recent engine quotes, each four to five inches thick. A three-inch ring binder contains progress sheets on jobs currently in house. An engine a day arrives at the loading dock; an engine a day ships out. "And look at this," David says, thumbing through the 3-ring notebook. "Right now, we've got sixteen, seventeen, eighteen . . . nineteen factory engines on order." All but one are Continental remans.

Not bad, you might say, for a shop that's only been in business two years.

Long Heritage

Actually, of course, the chronology is a bit more complicated than that. The name Western Skyways is well known to anybody who has been in general aviation a decade or more. The original Troutdale, Oregon-based Western Skyways-best known as AAR Western Skyways (after being swallowed up by AAR Corporation)—was, in its day, the big name in engines on the West Coast. In the 1970s, there simply was no better known name in aircraft engines. The gargantuan Oregon shop was famous for customer service and graduated many distinguished alumni, among them Roger Fuchs of EC Northwest, Bernie Coleman of Superior Air Parts, Al Beech (now with Teledyne Continental), and Larry Berreth of Medallion Engines in Las Vegas (TBO Advisor, January-February 1995). David Leis started with AAR Western Skyways in 1975, eventually compiling a legendary customer list as the company's Director of Marketing. Perry Nicholson (vice president and chief inspector of the Montrose-based Western Skyways) started at AAR in 1977. John Robinson (vice president and production manager) started at AAR in 1978 and was shop foreman when the fertilizer hit the ventilator in tile fall of 1987. That was when the fiscally troubled AAR Corporation announced it would get out of the piston-engine business (not just sell out, but actually close down the shop altogether), once and for all.

Shortly after AAR's big announcement, Monarch Aviation in Grand Junction, Colorado made overtures in David Leis's direction. "They wanted me to sell engines for them," Leis recalls. "And I told them no thanks." Before long, Monarch management got the Big Idea, which was to set up an entirely new engine shop West Star Engine Corporation and convince David Leis, Perry Nicholson, and John Robinson to come and run it. The incentive would be ownership participation stock in the company. The idea was a hit. All three men moved their families from Oregon to western Colorado in 1988.

For a while, everything went famously. Leis, as expected, brought a huge customer following with him from his days as marketing chief with AAR Western Skyways. Slowly but surely, West Star established a critical beachhead in the overhaul business. Word began to spread: There's a great new shop out in Grand Junction. . .

Then something funny happened. Accounts vary as to how or why it happened, but the bottom line is, one day in early 1993, Leis, Nicholson, and Robinson woke up to find that their working relationship to West Star Engine Corporation inexorably changed, in a way that (how to put it?) left a sour taste in three people's mouths.

It took awhile for the full impact to register. ("It's not like we just decided, right then and there, to go out on our own," David Leis recalls.) For most of 1993,business went on as usual. There was disgruntlement the three transplanted Oregonians, but as Leis points out: "We didn't know what to do. Sure, we thought about starting our own shop. But where would we get that kind of money?" So the men continued to rake in business for West Star. And for West Star, 1993 turned out to be a banner year. (See TBO Advisor, November-December 1993.)

By late in the year, however, Leis, Nicholson, and Robinson had begun talking seriously about life after West Star. Somewhere along the line, longtime friend (and recent Montrose arrival) Al Head happened to hear Leis et al talking about their situation, saying how nice it would be to have a shop of their own. (Head had moved to Montrose in 1992 after selling his aircraft salvage business in Long Beach, California.) Head recalls his three-word reaction to Leis's dream plan: "Count me in!"

With Al Head on board, money was no longer the major obstacle that it had been. Which is fortunate, because the instant West Star management got wind of the Leis/Nicholson/Robinson/Head economic redevelopment plan, the spit hit the fan: the three key West Star employees were asked to leave immediately.

"It was probably inevitable that we would leave," David Leis reflects. "But still, it came as a blow. I mean, I've never been fired from a job in my life. We all moved our families out here. Suddenly, you're without work it was quite a shock for all of us."

Rapid Deployment

West Star may have underestimated the loyalty of David Leis's customer base. "Customers called over there and asked for us, and found out we'd left," Leis explains. "Pretty soon, they were calling us at home. We had to tell them 'Just hold tight for about 30 days. We'll have big news for you then."' That's how long it took for the new engine company to get set up in Montrose. Leis et al had done their homework; all the pieces were in place for a quick startup. As Leis says, "We got our act together in record time. We actually were building engines for customers thirty days later."

The speed with which the newly reconstituted Western Skyways was up and running (overhauling engines for customers that used to come to West Star) did not go unnoticed by West Star's owners, who sued Leis and company in early 1994. Leis and his partners counter sued. At press time, legal machinations were continuing to jangle nerves on both sides. (Lets is unable to discuss details of the litigation, for a variety of reasons.) "I'll just be glad when they're building engines, and we're building engines, and this whole thing is behind us," Leis remarks.

Sudden Fame

To say that Western Skyways has built a solid following is like saying the Milky Way contains a few stars. The shop has done phenomenally well. David Leis admits that many of the shop's customers are the same ones he had back at AAR Western Skyways. Over half are operators of revenue airplanes - Navajos, 402s, and freighters in Part 135 service people for whom "the numbers" have to work, or they don't come back. ("These guys know what's cost-effective and what's not," David Leis points out. "They track where every dollar goes. Obviously we must be doing something right, or they'd be buying factory remans.") A quick glance at the shop's status chart shows that most of the engines in-shop now are IO- or TSIO-series engines, and the vast majority of those are Continentals. Of two dozen or so engines on the progress board, only one is a Lycoming 0-320. There are a couple of 0-540-L3C5D engines from Skylane RG customers. The only O-series Continentals are 0-470's from Civil Air Patrol airplanes (sent to Montrose by Jack Johnson's Texas Skyways). "Jack sends us a lot of business," Leis explains. "He's been one of our best customers for many years."

Western Skyways' floor plan unique: The instant you come through the front door, you are standing at the foot of David Leis's desk. Leis shares his "office" with the receptionist, a secretary, and every itinerant paper-clip salesman that stumbles through the front door. (Not that the lack of privacy matters a lot; Leis is on the road a good deal of the time anyway.) In a side office is Perry Nicholson, the company's quality assurance manager, who visits his cubicle only to use the phone or to laser print the company's log-entry paperwork. The rest of the time, he's either on the shop floor, or on the road. (Nicholson is the only FAA Designated Airworthiness Representative in this part of the state. Ironically, he is often called upon to sign off import/export work for his old employer, in Grand Junction.) John Robinson's office is inside the shop (as befitting a production manager), shoehorned between the incoming inspection area and the parts room. Like his cohorts, he spends much of his time either on his feet, or on the phone.

The first thing you notice about Western Skyways' physical plant and the most lasting impression is the small amount of total square footage. The walls are lined with equipment (Magnaflux machine, ignition tester, oven, bead-blasters and shotpeen booths, etc.), workers side-step each other with the practiced grace of professional square-dancers, and it is clear that every bit of real estate is precious. Entire departments are spaced only a few steps apart. "As you can see, we've pretty much maxed out this building," Leis explains apologetically. "Unfortunately, it was the only building available in the town of Montrose when we came here. We had to take it."

Leis clearly looks forward to the day when he can move into a bigger building, onto the airport proper. He has his eyes on a four-acre parcel immediately adjacent the new Rutan Aircraft Factory site (where workers are just now beginning to move dirt around). Leis is hoping City Hall will facilitate a move to the airport property. "The Economic Development people are only beginning to realize," Leis says, "that when an aircraft operator decides to come to Montrose for an engine change, he also, as often as not, wants the plane annualed, painted, or reupholstered, or radios put in. All of these things bring work to the area," Leis emphasizes. Ironically, Western Skyways has been courted by towns in neighboring states, who do recognize the unique potential of a business such as this. "I just got a call a few days ago from some guy representing an airport in Nebraska ," Leis laughs. "They wanted us to move our business out there. Told me they would build us a big new hangar right on the airport, pay for half of it, and finance the rest at three percent interest. And that was just for starters."

The main thing is, Skyways needs extra space and soon. The shop is presently doing 20 to 25 engines a month, and according to Leis, "There's just no way we can do any more with what we've got."

Accessories In-House

As David Leis took me through the shop and introduced me to various workers, it became increasingly evident that many members of the Western Skyways team are AAR alumni (i.e., members of the original Western Skyways team). Chuck Florian, for example - Western Skyways' accessory-rebuild manager originally worked side-by-side with Larry Berreth in the old AAR Western Skyways accessory division. (Not coincidentally, the fuel injector flow test bench is an old AAR unit, as is the analog-style crank balancer next to it.) Before joining up with the current Western Skyways, Florian was accessory rebuild wizard at Flightcraft in Portland, OR. At Western Skyways, Florian oversees the rebuilding of just about every kind of customer accessory that comes in the door, from magnetos to turbochargers to fuel pumps to Bendix servo bodies. (He was checking out an AiResearch turbo controller as we walked past his bench.) Western Skyways currently has four persons working in accessory rebuild.

In the teardown area, just a few feet away, a safety-goggled worker was busy stripping down a newly received TIO-540-J2BD core. Not far from the teardown area, workers were busy bead-blasting and solvent-cleaning various parts. Various large fluid filled tanks lined the walls, like some sort of bizarre metal aquarium. One was a full-immersion dip tank large enough to accommodate whole crankcases. Another tank contained Zyglo solution. I asked about a stainless steel vat on castoring wheels. "Oh that," David Leis said. "That's our Alodine tank. "

As we passed the Magnaflux machine, I asked Leis: "What do you do with cranks that need to be reworked?" He answered: "The ten or fifteen percent of cranks we get that we can't recertify in-house will go to Aircraft Specialties Services in Tulsa. "

"What about crankcases?" I asked.
"We send about eighty percent of those out. They'll either go to Divco, or EC Northwest."
"How about camshafts and lifters?"
John Robinson overheard us talking. "John," David said, "where do we send most of our cams?"

"Well," Robinson interjected, "we use three different regrinders: David Rock, Rick Romans, and Aircraft Specialties." (Rock, a former cam specialist at ECI, has his own repair station in San Antonio. Rick Romans is a well-known Tulsa-area cam regrinder, and Aircraft Specialties is also located in Tulsa.) "Lifters, we replace with new ones."

I asked if Western Skyways had any preferences when it comes to new cams. Robinson replied: "We've used Superior cams as well as factory cams. We've never really had a problem, so I don't guess we have much preference. If the customer has a preference, we'll try to use what the customer wants."


Continuing on this theme, I asked what Western Skyways' main cylinder preference was. David Leis replied that many customers - somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty percent, roughly - were demanding new cylinders. "We certainly try to steer them in that direction," Leis admitted. "We quote new cylinders at a surcharge of three hundred dollars a cylinder, on average, which is - well, we don't make any money on that, versus sending them out to be chromed or whatever."

Leis let me look at the shop's list of in-house engines (jobs in progress), which showed in the right-hand column - what the customer's cylinder preferences were. The list showed that about every other customer wanted new cylinders (either factory-new, or Millennium); the remaining jobs were about evenly split between rebarrels, Cermicrome, and CermiNil.

I asked David Leis, John Robinson, and Perry Nicholson how their customers had been faring in the step wear department. All three men agreed that they had not seen any problem with premature step wear in Cermicrome. "We just haven't seen the kind of problems other shops have been having," Leis shrugged. We talked about possible reasons why. I came away with the impression that one possible explanation was that Western Skyways overhauls almost no Mooney, Cardinal, or Grumman engines. (Of the two dozen or more engines that were in various stages of overhaul during my tour, there was not a single 360 series Lycoming.) Also, many of Western Skyways' customers operate turbocharged engines, and generally the turbocharged engines come from twins, such as Dukes, 402's, 340's, Chieftains, etc. applications that have typically done well with Cermicrome. What's more, most of Western Skyways' customers are "heavy users" of their engines revenue operators, and others who log lots of hours. All of these factors put Western Skyways in an inherently low risk group where problems with chrome are concerned.

Out of curiosity, I asked what the shop's experience with CermiNil had been so far. "Good," David Leis said matter-of-factly. "We really haven't had any problems with it." Robinson and Nicholson nodded in agreement.

About the only cylinder alternative not regularly offered by Western Skyways is oversize grinding. "We can certainly do it," David Leis remarked. "I mean, we have the Sunnen CK-10. But we don't like to do it." Most of Western Skyways' engines are high-horsepower engines and reducing the thickness of the cylinder wall is not something Leis likes to contemplate. Also, oversizing means keeping on hand more inventory (more pistons and rings, in various sizes), which for space reasons, if nothing else John Robinson is loathe to think about.

No Hotrodding

Before leaving the shop floor, I remarked on the lack of "hotrodding" methodology in evidence on my tour of the facility. There was no cylinder flow bench, for example, nor was anyone busy polishing intake ports on any cylinders. David Leis was quick to address the issue: "We don't believe in that stuff," he said (specifically referring to the practice of flow-matching). "We tried it. It didn't make any difference whatsoever. That's not to say that we don't think balancing is important. We do." Leis pointed out that all counterweights, crankshafts, pistons, wrist pins, and connecting rods are matched in sets and balanced using state-of-the-art equipment. (Rods, for example, are matched for big-end mass as well as total mass, to a tolerance of one gram.)

"We also don't go in for purely cosmetic things, like powder-coating of crankcases," Leis added. "We do occasionally powder-coat parts at a customer's request. If that's what the customer wants, we can do it. But we don’t'sell cosmetics."

Even so, the standard Western Skyways "Gold Seal" engine emerges from buildup looking quite spiffed out, with plenty of Alodined and cad-plated parts. (All external hardware gets cadmium plated to prevent corrosion. As a result, nuts and bolts, fittings, brackets, and other miscellaneous external parts end up looking like they've been gold plated.)

After Buildup

Every Gold Seal engine gets a test cell run per the manufacturer's recommendations (in Western Skyways' mobile test cell) before release. The run is done with a cooling prop and the run sheet is part of the documentation package given to the owner. Also in the documentation pack is a new log with laser-printed sheets showing service bulletin compliance (by S.B. number), Airworthiness Directive compliance, and the status of parts replaced. The total package is presented to the owner in a custom made fabric (not plastic) zippered case.

Once an engine leaves Montrose, it is backed by a six-month unlimited warranty against defects in materials or workmanship. (The warranty takes effect either upon engine installation, or after 10 days from shipment, whichever is applicable.) After six months, the warranty continues prorata on major components (e.g., cylinders, crankshaft, crankcase, etc.) all the way to TBO, based on monthly utilization of 40 hours (or actual time, whichever is greater). Western Skyways' warranty is thus on a par with for example, Continental's Gold Medallion warranty. It is significantly better than Lycoming's warranty on overhauled engines, and better than the warranty offered by most smaller overhaul shops.


Western Skyways builds a quality product and charges accordingly. That is to say, pricing is on a par with other top-name shops, and competitive with factory-reman engine pricing. For example, Western Skyways quoted a Continental IO-520BB at press time (September 1995) at $16,767 with Cermicrome or CermiNil cylinders, or $18,567 with factory-new steel cylinders. Continental's list price for the same engine (as a factory remanufactured engine) is $20,808. Van Bortel's price is $15,906. The Western Skyways price includes overhaul of magnetos, fuel injection system, starter motor, starter adapter, gear-driven alternator, and oil cooler; precision balancing of all rotating and reciprocating parts; crankshaft polished and / or ground and re-nitrided as necessary; crankcase line-bored and repaired as necessary; and compliance with Airworthiness Directives and service bulletins, although if the VAR crankshaft bulletin (Continental M92-16) has not already been complied with and the customer needs a new crank, there is a $2,200 surcharge.

Most of the price quotes sent out by Western Skyways also show an FBO price, which is 20% less than the quoted "customer list." (On the IO520-BB mentioned above, the FBO price is $13,414.) David Leis told us that many customers are able to get their FBO to split the 20% commission with them. Owner-operators can get the full 20% price break themselves simply by flying their plane in to Montrose for the engine change. On a Cessna 421, where the Gold Seal overhaul price is $35,800 per engine (list), this can mean a savings of almost $15,000 on a double engine change.

Western Skyways can also arrange the purchase and installation of factory-reman or Lycoming overhauled engines, even though the company is not a distributor for either factory a fact that clearly rankles David Leis. "We order more factory reman Continentals than any TCM distributor in the state," Leis points out, "and yet, they still don't consider us to be a distributor."

Why Go to Montrose?

With Western Skyways' prices butting up against factory prices, one might wonder why anybody would go out of their way to get their engine overhauled in Montrose. The answer seems to be fourfold:

  1. You get your core custom-overhauled (with no parts interchanged between your engine and somebody else's) at Western Skyways. A factory rebuilt engine although technically zero-timed has unknown operating history and will certainly contain some used parts.
  2. Western Skyways' technicians have a depth of experience that is hard to find in other shops. Each of the shop's four principals, for example - Al Head, David Leis, Perry Nicholson, and John Robinson - has more than 26 years of experience in the business (and each is A&P rated). Many shop employees worked together at the old AAR Western Skyways in Troutdale, Oregon. As a team, the Western Skyways crew goes back a long way.
  3. The Western Skyways warranty is among the best anywhere, and warranty claims are handled in an efficient manner. More important than that, the Western Skyways track record (of providing reliable engines - engines that go to TBO without needing major repairs) is well established.
  4. Customer service. David Leis and his coworkers will go out of their way to meet customers' needs, even if it means working nights, weekends, or holidays. (Leis delivers many engines himself, in the company truck.)

David Leis is also quick to point out that there is no core deposit on most engines, and Western Skyways does not charge extra for crankcase repairs or crankshaft rework (as long as the incoming core items are repairable). "With some other shops, you get hit with a big laundry list of extra repair items at the end," Leis notes. "With us, there are no surprises."

In Conclusion

If you're in the market for a new limits overhaul (particularly of a six-cylinder engine), and you've been considering a factory reman, but you want to have your core overhauled (and not get a "pot luck" core back), and you want the benefit of an experienced team working for you, with quality control foremost, you should definitely get a quote from Western Skyways. These guys have figured out a thing or two about how to build engines.