A helicopter flight school opened Wednesday at Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, the latest addition in what figures to be one of the major employment hubs in the growing south East Valley.
Las-Vegas-based Silver State Helicopters will lease 6,000 square feet of office, classroom and hangar space at the airport, said Wally Beatty, director of marketing. The company chose Williams over several other former Air Force bases, including Castle Air Force Base in California's San Joaquin Valley.
“It didn't have nearly the vital feel of this one,” Beatty said. “It was more like ghost town. We were impressed with the fact there was a committee established here as soon as they knew the Air Force was going to leave and the community was really interested in keeping this vital. We didn't know how people would feel about the location as far as drive time and stuff, but when we flew down, flying between the local airports only takes a few minutes, it seemed to us that it was just right there in the pocket. It's obviously a clean, nice facility. The people at Williams are interested in having businesses set up here to keep the area booming.”
Silver State is the the only helicopter flight training school in Nevada and recently expanded operations in Salt Lake City and Modesto, Calif. Besides the school, the company also handles commercial aviation work, including tours, VIP charters, towing banners and aerial photography. It operates a fleet of 22 helicopters and employees more than 40.
Williams spokeswoman Marie Frank said the school is the latest in a string of endeavors that is keeping buildings owned by the airport authority about 96 percent full.
“It just fits into so many other things we're preparing to do here,” she said, citing recent additions including a jet fighter combat training school and U.S. Forest Service operation where planes are filled with slurry to fight wildfires in the state. City economic officials estimate by 2020, the total economic benefit of the airport will exceed $960 million as passenger airline activity expands and air traveler spending increases. Williams is expected to support an estimated 13,000 jobs with an annual payroll of more than $216 million.
Frank said the airport inked a deal this week with a company that plans to begin building more hangars. A cargo apron for large air delivery operations is to be opened in early fall and a local businessman plans to capitalize by constructing the airport's first cargo building.
“We even have some bunkers that are rented,” she said.
Beatty said the airport's lack of congested air traffic played a part in the company's decision to locate at Williams.
“We had a big push to fit our time line for our business plan to get another location open, and it was going to be tight,” he said. “Williams Gateway was accommodating to us and able to meet our time line. With Arizona State University facilities right across the street from our new school, of course that played a part in the decision.”
The company kicked off its grand opening by holding a career development seminar for potential pilots. Students can become pilots in less than a year, the company said, adding the average commercial helicopter pilot earns between $50,000 and $100,000 annually.
“There's never been better time to get into this career field,” Beatty said, adding the majority of helicopter pilots in the United States were trained during the Vietnam era and are either retired or planning to do so.
“They're leaving the industry at a rate that's huge compared to the amount of people coming into it right now,” he said. “It's creating a big void in the industry.”
Students can eventually fly air ambulances or news choppers, Beatty said.
Many pilots ferry personnel and equipment to offshore oil platforms in Texas and other places, he said.