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California Flying: The really big airplane parts martCalifornia Flying: The really big airplane parts mart

Aircraft Spruce and Specialty, which now stocks parts under more than 60,000 part numbers, was started 42 years ago by Flo Irwin. An energetic and entrepreneurial sort, Irwin was married to a pilot and airplane owner.

Aircraft Spruce and Specialty, which now stocks parts under more than 60,000 part numbers, was started 42 years ago by Flo Irwin. An energetic and entrepreneurial sort, Irwin was married to a pilot and airplane owner. Between projects and full of energy, she bought a small one-person company that sold aircraft-quality Sitka Spruce lumber. Straight-grain Sitka Spruce is considered the best material for light airplane wing spars—all other types of wood such as Douglas Fir, Noble Fir, and others are measured against it. A small advertisement in Sport Aviation got things rolling. Irwin had one employee named Wayne. He cut the spruce—Flo did everything else. Pretty soon, she started stocking a few generic aircraft-quality supplies such as grommets, stainless steel control cable, aircraft nails, turn barrels, and pulleys. By 1970 the company had become so successful that Irwin published a 62-page catalog. Photos of every one of the six employees were included. During the next four years the business expanded so much the catalog doubled in size. One day a tall stranger showed up with a radical proposal. Irwin took a chance and then things really took off.

Burt who?

In early 1975 an aeronautical engineer stopped by Irwin’s little company and stated that he was starting an airplane design business at a little-used ex-military airfield on the edge of the California desert. He also said that he had a new way to build airplanes and that he was looking for a West Coast supplier to make a big financial commitment. He explained that the success of his designs depended on a ready supply of a special fiberglass cloth that was being used by European glider manufacturers at the time. A substantial order was needed to convince the manufacturer, Hexcel, to produce it in the United States. Only a few people had heard of Burt Rutan in 1975, but Irwin took a chance on this engineer and his revolutionary ideas. After Irwin’s $100,000 order was submitted, Hexcel started weaving 7715 and 7725 fiberglass cloth in the United States, and the homebuilt and kitbuilt revolution began. Today, Rutan is famous around the world for his innovative work on projects such as Voyager—the first airplane to fly nonstop around the world—and SpaceShipOne, the first civilian airplane to fly into space.

Almost overnight the employee count jumped from 15 to 50. Irwin’s son, Jim, managed the supply and materials side of Rutan’s VariEze and LongEze projects while attending college. In 1980 Irwin and husband Bob asked Jim whether he was ready to take over the company. After assisting their son for another three years, the senior Irwins retired to Arizona. Flo passed away in 1989.

The company continued to grow. In 1996 a 62,000-square-foot specially designed warehouse was built. This expansion permitted the company to move from Fullerton to an industrial park near the Corona airport. The expansion has continued, as evidenced by the catalog page count, which increased from 244 pages in 1980 to 314 pages in 1990 to 548 pages in 2000 to its present size of 750 pages in 2008. These catalogs, which are shipped free of charge to anyone, are ideal for passing the winter days while waiting for spring to arrive. Catalogs also can be downloaded as PDF files from the company Web site (

In the front of each catalog is the company’s mission statement. In addition to a 100-percent customer satisfaction guarantee, there’s also a guarantee that every order taken for an in-stock item will be shipped that same day. As evidence of this commitment, Jim Irwin and his wife Nanci, who serve as president and vice president, respectively, bought the Georgia-based Alexander Airplane Company in February 1996. Using Alexander as a starting point, they built another 62,000-square-foot distribution center in Peachtree City, Georgia. A third distribution center recently opened in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Aircraft Spruce and Specialty also has a standing commitment to meet and match any competitor’s price.

The big super sale

Every year since moving the company into the new building in Corona, the Irwins have thrown what they call the Aircraft Spruce Super Sale. In 2007 it took place on Saturday, October 13, and lasted from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The 2007 Super Sale was the biggest one ever. In addition to sale prices on many items, the event featured vendor representatives from more than 25 companies—including Garmin, Bose, Concorde, Honeywell, Kelly Aerospace, J.P. Instruments, and others—to explain and show off their newest products. The FAA presented seminars about airworthiness and regulations. Light Sport Airplanes West of Salinas, California, filled the Aircraft Spruce parking lot with light sport aircraft (LSA) including an A22 Valor, a Flight Design CT, a Tecnam Bravo and Tecnam Sierra, and an Evektor SportStar. Super Sale attendees got to sit in, look over, and ask questions about LSA.

Giveaways throughout the day featured prizes from AOPA, Ray-Ban, Tempest, Garmin, Hilton Software, Bose, Mitchell, Icom, Honeywell, Mid-Continent, and many others. Free hot dogs and sodas encouraged attendees to make a day of it. In addition, almost all vendors offered discounts, gift certificates, or value add-ons with purchases. Mark your calendar and make sure to attend the West Coast 2008 Super Sale, which will take place on Saturday, October 11. The East Coast Super Sale will take place May 17 in Peachtree City.

Experienced airplane owners and maintenance technicians know that Aircraft Spruce is the first place to look for most aircraft parts; materials; training; pilot supplies; and generic parts such as oil, tires, and hardware. Avionics are also on the menu, as evidenced by the Leading Edge Elite Performance award Garmin presented at the 2007 Super Sale for the highest sales performance among all Garmin International avionics distributors. Aircraft Spruce continues to support and encourage the homebuilt and kitbuilt market from the most basic part up through full parts and materials kits for a wide range of airplanes including the Cozy Mk IV, Starduster, Acrolite, and Wittman W-10 Tailwind.

The store is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fly-in parts buyers should set a course for the Corona airport. After securing the airplane in the visitor airplane tie-down area at the far eastern end of the ramp, call Aircraft Spruce and Specialty at 951-372-9555, extension 316, and a van will be dispatched. A word of caution—this airplane store has everything, so you should take steps to eliminate the possibility of exceeding your airplane’s maximum gross takeoff weight on your flight back home.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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