Washington State Baron owner travels east to visit Western Skyways

TBO Advisor

by Arreed Barabasz, Ph.D.

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.

Enter Western Skyways

And then there was Western Skyways, whose quote-at $18,300 per Gold Seal remanufactured engine-was only a little more than a Van Bortel discounted factory reman. What I liked was that the quote included Millennium cylinders with venturi-style (IO-550 type) valve seats, a huge list of new parts beyond that of most other builders, zero-time rebuild of starter, fuel injection, and alternators, as well as new Slick magnetos and fine-wire spark plugs at my request. Had it not been for TBO Advisor, Western Skyways would have remained unknown to me. I never saw these folks advertise as the specialty builders do in publications like Trade-A-Plane, AOPA Pilot or the American Bonanza Society magazine. Despite the low profile, the shop status chart I saw showed Western Skyways pumped out 38 of their Gold Seal remanufactured engines the month mine were done and most went to repeat customers. Most of those repeat customers, in turn, were fleet operators where reliability, customer service, and the bottom line have to come out right.

The History

It turns out, the name Western Skyways has been at the top of the engine manufacturing business for over 2 decades They were first located in Troutdale near Portland, Oregon as part of the giant AAR Corporation. AAR became financially troubled and in 1987 closed down the engine shop as part of corporate re-structuring. David Leis, now Vice-President of Sales, John Robinson, Vice-President of Production, and Perry Nicholson, Vice-President and Chief Inspector, were lured to Grand Junction, Colorado by Monarch Aviation to start West Star Engine Corporation. David Leis and the AAR Western Skyways reputation brought an enormous customer base to West Star and they were immediately successful. But by 1993, arrangements between the old Western Skyways crew and West Star had soured. Al Head, one of the brightest people I've ever met, brought capital and 20 years of experience as previous owner of National Aircraft salvage to the Western Skyways crew and convinced them to start a new shop on their own in Montrose, Colorado, about 60 miles south of West Star's Grand Junction operation. The new Western Skyways shop was up and running in short order and David Leis' loyal customers followed. West Star sued Leis and company at one point, but that's all been worked out. Western Skyways is now well-established in Montrose, where they've turned out almost a thousand engines in the past four years. Most of the original crew is still with them, including quite a few personnel from the old AAR days. In terms of an experienced work force, Western Skyways is hard to beat.


Several improvements to the Western Skyways facility have been made since Kas Thomas visited in 1995. David Leis once shared his office with the receptionist, secretary and anyone else who walked in the front door. Remodeling has remedied these problems creating a pleasant work and customer atmosphere without significantly increasing overhead.

Shop space has also expanded somewhat, but not enough to accommodate the continually increasing business and added staff. In the more heavily trafficked areas of the shop workers sometimes raise or lower their elbows to get by one another. (The practiced shuffle has begun to turn into a Bolshoi ballet-like dance. It's amazing to watch.) The big addition is the new digital-data test cell located in a heavily sound-attenuated (I won't say sound-proofed!) building behind the shop. David Leis commented that "This is a real timesaver "- translation: "cost reducer" - since our previous mobile test cell had to be run out at the Montrose airport." (The Western Skyways building is a mile or so off-airport, in an industrial park.) Another recent addition is an outdoor settling tank system to handle the large amount of metallic waste fluids which are a by-product of all the nondestructive testing done in-house. It is ugly to look at but environmentally conscientious. The Al Head designed system is a great cost saver. Western Skyways reduces hundreds of gallons of hazardous waste per month to a few five-gallon cans of solids, greatly reducing the monthly waste-removal bill.

The Montrose operation continues to expand, but Lies looks forward to some day moving everything to the airport, where he envisions a comprehensive operation providing engine R&R, annual, paint, interior and maybe even avionics services.

Many Options

The shop status sheet for the month my engines were overhauled showed that 17 were Continental IO-520s, (three of these went to long-time customer Lufthansa for their ab initio training program, which still uses Bonanzas and Barons); five engines were Lycoming IO-540s; and four were Continental IO- 470s. The remaining dozen or so engines included an IO-550 and a mix of Lycoming O-320 and IO-360 engines, with the occasional TSIO-360 off a Seneca. Lycoming business was reported to be on the increase because of the strike at the factory overhaul plant. My guess is that once these new customers get a taste of Western Skyways customer service and jet-smooth engines that go to TBO, they will be less likely return to Williamsport the next time around.

Western Skyways has an enviable reputation for their work using CermiNil® cylinders (their lowest-cost option), but customers are encouraged to go with either factory new or Millennium cylinders when possible. The build schedule showed a pretty even mix of cylinder options chosen by customers, with new cylinders at least equalling the other options.

Even with the baseline CermiNil® option, all cylinder assemblies leave the shop with 100% new Pistons, piston pins, piston rings, intake valves, exhaust valves, intake and exhaust seats, intake and exhaust guides (honed), inner and outer valve springs, valve keepers, rotocoils, oil control seals and rocker shafts. No compromises.

How It's Done

The rules for manufacturing an engine to Western Skyways "Gold Seal" standards are uncompromising. First, engines are disassembled with all parts remaining together on an assigned cart. (Interchanging parts with other engines is strictly forbidden.) A disassembly report is prepared noting any unusual findings. All major reusable parts (such as the crankcase) are pressure-washed and cleaned with "Safety-Kleen 609." All oil galley plugs, caps and tubes are removed, any sludge is removed from the case, and oil passages are checked to assure efficient lubrication. All 100% replacement items are discarded (lifters, pistons, valves, valve springs, ignition harness, etc.) at this point.

Nondestructive test (NDT) of critical parts comes next. All steel parts are inspected using Magnaglow (a more sensitive and expensive form of Magnaflux), and 1OX visual inspection, and/or ultrasound as required. All aluminum are parts are inspected using Zyglo, 1OX visual, and flat stone. All external serviceable parts are painted or Alodined in a tough (but in my opinion, beautiful) silver blue/gray finish to match the engine case. Powder coating is available, if you ask for it, but as David Leis likes to point out, the company isn't in the business of selling cosmetics. (Leis noted that glossy dark colors like black or maroon make detection of oil leaks at pre-flight more difficult.) All external hardware such as nuts, bolts, brackets, fittings, etc. are gold cadmium-plated (and baked) to prevent corrosion, with an end result of making these parts look gold-plated. (These guys might not sell cosmetics, but let me tell you, I get oohs and aahs just about every time I open the cowl for a pre- or postflight inspection. Nearly a dozen people gathered around to pay compliments at a recent Beech service clinic I attended)

All reused parts must meet new limit tolerances-service limit parts are forbidden. In addition, all A.D. notes and service bulletins are complied with and laser-printed as a paste insert in the new engine log book. Gears, castings, housings, and miscellaneous parts are replaced as required, which is to say based on whether they measure up to new standards.

At the customer's option, Millennium cylinders for big-bore Continentals can be provided with venturi-style valve seats. These seats - which are TCM factory-standard in the IO-550 provide up to 6% more flow, give smoother operation, and yield added power. [These seats do make a difference, because flow through the opening or shut ting valve is high-Mach. It turns out the flow characteristics at reduced valve lift are very important, because of the high Mach number. By contrast, the flow at wide-open lift is seldom important in an aircraft engine, because the rpm is so low that the CALM flow is not port-limited. This explains why cylinder porting and polishing are not very effective in an aircraft engine, whereas the valve grind and seat contour are, in fact, critical to performance.-Ed.]

Al Head noted that they are now starting to get back engines at or beyond TBO which they overhauled with Millennium cylinders. He told me he was pleased to see that such engines were still showing "a good eight thou of choke." (Choke refers to the slight taper that is ground into the barrel, with the top smaller than the bottom.) Western Skyways has a Sunnen CK-10 for barrel grinding and Head noted that if the Millenniums keep coming back looking like they're looking, oversize grinding might soon be an added option.

Exhaust ports are serviced with new exhaust studs installed as necessary. (This is one of those little things you seldom think about, that takes a lot of time in an overhaul and has to be done right.) All new Rosan exhaust studs come with the Millennium cylinder option.

Intake ports are smoothed lightly, as needed, but no metal is removed.

All rocker arms are refaced, with new bushings and oil holes bored to size. Connecting rods: Resurfaced, rebushed, honed to new tolerances, checked to assure large end has correct rod end bearing to crankshaft clearance, weight distribution checked and corrected. Rods are checked for stretch and alignment (twist) in addition to being grouped for balance. All rods get balanced end-to-end to within one gram, with new bushings, bolts, nuts, cotter keys, and bearings. Any grind areas are shot-peened. (Don't worry - aggressive grinding is not done. Western Skyways has a procedure here that has given good results for thousands of rods over the years.)

Rod balancing is one area where David Leis is very careful to distinguish Western Skyways' end-to-end procedure from a factory procedure which just weighs the rod; he even has a desktop machine that allows you to change end-for-end weight while keeping the total mass the same. Spin the assembly with end-to-end in balance and it's smooth as can be, Then Leis changes end-for-end weight and spins it again-and the whole assembly literally jumps off of his desk. It's clear that balance is important. Beyond operational smoothness which provides enhanced comfort for pilot and passenger, a lot of power is wasted when an engine has to devote inertia to parts chasing other parts. It takes energy, after all, to shake something. In an engine, that's energy wasted.

The crankshaft also gets balanced, to within a half-inch-ounce, and it must meet new dimensional limit tolerances in addition to being checked for straightness on the only block of "Precision Granite" (see photo) I've ever seen in any engine shop.

Crankcase: All oil galleries are cleaned out and pressure checked, all studs torque checked and replaced as required, plugs installed; and the case will be repaired, resurfaced, and precision line-bored with Tobin ARP equipment. (It is assembled with all new nuts, lock washers, bearings, seals and gaskets.) Unlike line honing on an existing and likely distorted axis, line boring reestablishes the true centerline of the crankshaft axis. This is important, because cases do warp.

Western Skyways engines have a superb record with respect to lack of fretting or crankcase leaks, so Leis sees "no good reason to become involved in using dowel pins around cylinder bolts to help alignment."

The customer's camshaft will either be reground and Parkerized or replaced with a new cam (factory or Superior, at the customer's option).

Items that are replaced with new: Hydraulic plunger assemblies, oil pressure relief valve springs, intake hoses, intake clamps, seals, gaskets, ignition harness, spark plugs, and oil filter.

Oil coolers are overhauled, cleaned, pressure checked, inspected and repaired on-site. Accessories are mostly done in-house, too, including: starter, starter adapter, magnetos, fuel injection system or carburetor, and turbo system. (Just about any other accessory can be added to the overhaul list at very reasonable cost: my alternator and prop governor were added without fuss.)

Test Cell

A one- to two-hour test-cell run is done per factory specs using a flight prop, governor, and digital readouts of oil temp, oil pressure, fuel flow, fuel pressure, cylinder head temps (for each cylinder), EGTs, rpm, and manifold pressures checked at 12 throttle settings. With turbocharged engines, the full turbo system is used. Data is furnished to the customer on a "run sheet" which includes ambient temperature and barometric pressure. A dynamometer is not used because there is no thrust load with a dyno hookup. (To get a thrust load which simulates in-flight loadings you have to use a propeller, obviously.)

The next time you shop for an overhaul, be sure to check whether the shop has (and uses) a test cell, because this is one of those little things that can play a big role in cutting down on warranty problems (not to mention keeping FAA happy). Technically speaking, an overhaul without a test run is not an overhaul in FAA's eyes. Yet, a lot of shops are rebuilding engines and releasing them to customers without a test-cell run-in. Rest assured, Western Skyways does the right thing in this department. No "un-run" engines go out the door.


The Western Skyways warranty is a six month, no hour limit, 100% unlimited warranty on parts and labor, and in the case of Millennium cylinders the full-warranty period is one calendar year. Thereafter, the warranty is pro-rated to TBO at 40 hours per month, including parts and labor. Warranty work may be performed at other facilities with prior approval. (This can be worked out by phone. But if you live within a 600-mile radius of Montrose, don't be surprised if David Leis comes and pays you a visit in person.)

Superb, detailed documentation, including (for example) a computer printout of all parts and services right down to each new nut, bolt lifter and seal, comes with every Western Skyways engine. You also get the complete test cell engine run data, plus a new engine log of the large 3-ring binder type showing all overhaul accessories and compliance with all relevant Airworthiness Directives and service bulletins. A glossy booklet detailing engine operation on breakin procedures is included, too. (Basically, the drill here is to run it hard for the first 25 hours, using mineral oil without additives. Then change to you favorite AD oit and run normally.) All of this beautifully done documentation comes in a neat zipped-fabric case. Best of all, Perry Nicholson is right there to answer any questions. A first class act all the way.

What You Don't Get

Cylinder flow matching is available at about $400 extra per six-cylinder engine. I mentioned that smoothing of ports is standard (without changing the port's dimensions). I was impressed with the non-availability of porting and the recommendation against wasting money on flow matching, which Western Skyways has tried without seeing any benefits. My own Formula Atlantic racing experience has taught me that both procedures are indeed very worthwhile in race engines with near-perfectly-matched exhaust headers and identical intake pipes. Engines that begin to come on cam at 8,000-plus rpm do benefit from careful attention to port polishing and flow matching. But what possible benefit could these costly activities bring to my IO-470s, with their unequal length exhaust pipes and mixed length intake pipes (not to mention a redline of just 2,650 rpm)? In any event, it turns out my Millennium cylinders are pretty well matched because of the extra attention Superior Air Parts gives to producing consistent cylinder head castings and maintaining consistent valve heights, which are also checked in the Western Skyways assembly process.


For a variety of reasons, I chose to take my Baron to sales-tax-free Colorado rather than get involved in shipping engines back and forth. I told David Leis I wanted a top-notch installation and he suggested I get quotes from two nearby Western Skyways authorized engine installation centers: namely, the giant Timberline Aviation Service in Grand junction, and Delta Aviation in Delta, CO, run by Rick Reisman (a former Western Skyways balancer and final assembly man). Remember that, unlike the folks that work on the assembly line producing factory remans, all of Western Skyways' technical folk are also A&Ps. Rick and his wonderfully kind wife Sue run their new FBO with part time help from other A&P friends. Rick is also the chief flight instructor for private, commercial, multiengine and instrument ratings. He's a busy guy. But he still had time to do my engine R&I

Rick's no-compromises installation included all new engine control cables (about $2,000, installed, for all six); overhaul of prop governors, which Rick sent to Western Skyways; and new vacuum pumps. Of course, all new lifetime Teflon hoses were used, baffle repairs were done as necessary, and blue silicone baffle seals were on the mustdo list along with lots of white powder coating and epoxy paint work under the cowls. Rick's quote was a few hundred dollars more than Timberline's, but I thought his relationship with Western Skyways and his closer proximity to Montrose would be important advantages. (And they were.) Besides all that, Rick agreed to throw in an annual inspection for just $700. The all-up quote was just under $10,000. The engine installation turned out to be a jewel. The annual inspection-well, that's another article.

The Unexpected

With both of my I0-470s in the hands of Western Skyways, turnaround was scheduled at four weeks. To check on progress, I planned to phone on Friday of each week. As it turned out, I couldn't keep myself from checking a bit more often. Nevertheless, my phone calls were always answered in two to three rings and once I identified myself, Tina Rowley (secretary/ receptionist) quickly transferred my call to the most relevant person for the stage of work my engines were in at the time. She knew they were 470-L's, she learned to identify my voice, and only once was I on hold for as much as a full minute.

Late in the second week, I checked my voice mail to hear "Please call Western Skyways at 1-800-575-9929--important." My call back was referred to Perry Nicholson. My right engine was right on schedule, but my left engine had a. cracked case. Worse yet, something very unusual for an IO-470-L had happened. A main bearing half had apparently shifted, thus accounting for the ever decreasing oil pressure and the recent need to repeatedly readjust the oil pressure bypass valve on that engine. The side edge of the shifted bearing half had been rubbing up against the chamber of its associated crankshaft main bearing journal. This created a lot heat, causing bluing and cracks on the crankshaft journal. The question posed to me was simple. Would I be willing to accept an exchange crankshaft from their parts department to get my engine back on schedule? The alternative was to have my crankshaft turned down .010-in. and re-Magnaglowed. This could be completed in a few days but re-nitriding would mean another seven or eight days lost, and the crank would need to be re-checked for straightness afterwards. Opting for the exchange crankshaft, I asked about the price. "Ohl" Nicholson said, "this sort of thing doesn't happen too often. It's all part of the business (of remanufacturing engines). Yes, of course, your original price quote will be honored." The repair of a cracked case is fairly common on a first-time overhaul and the cost is factored into the Western Skyways quote. David Leis noted that in his experience, once a case like this is repaired it seems to be stress-relieved, because "seldom do they show up cracked again at TBO."

Western Skyways impressed me as a first-rate operation in every respect. They are small enough to offer personalized services, yet large enough to handle problems, such as my case problem and blued crankshaft, as just part of doing business. It's no big deal for these guys who go the extra mile to develop a strong basis for a repeat customer.

Bottom Line

My engines are running with astonishing smoothness and substantially improved performance over the Beech POH specifications. Interestingly, Western Skyways does not claim increased performance as part of the sales technique . David Leis confirmed that ,'most customers report [performance] increases, especially those who go with new Millennium cylinders, but we don't make a big deal of it." There's no doubt that the performance increases are real, however, as I was recently able to compare my plane to a fresh Colemill IO-550 B55 conversion as well as to a Beech B58 with factory standard I0-550's. Maybe in a future article I'll discuss the results in some detail. For now, suffice it to say the fly-off was full surprises.

For more information, contact David Leis, Sales and Marketing V.P., Western Skyways, 21 Creative Place, Montrose, CO 81401. Phone 1-800-575-9929 or (970) 249-0232, or fax (970) 249-4155.