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Zen and the art of airplane maintenance

Oregon A&P charts his own course to success

By Kevin Knight

Ted Backus’s earliest elementary school library memory is a book about airplanes.

Photography by David Tulis
Stratus Aviation at Wings Field Airport in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania helps high school students learn about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts while working on small general aviation aircraft. Photo by David Tulis.

He checked it out so many times the index card was completely dominated by his name.

In fourth grade, his father bought a Cessna 180 with floats after earning various flight ratings with the G.I. Bill. That fueled Backus’ interest in aviation as his two younger brothers, dad, and he spent the better part of four summers flying from Seattle to Canada on adventures.

Backus’ mom knew how much he loved flying and paid for his private pilot lessons as a high school graduation gift. He wanted to fly for a living but thought it would be wise to also get his airframe and powerplant mechanic rating since he enjoyed working on cars and trucks.

He joined Emerald Aircrafters near Portland, Oregon, when he was 21. Two years later, he bought the shop and quickly expanded it by doing more composite work and less maintenance. Backus soon had five people producing 1,100-gallon water tanks for firefighting helicopters. Unfortunately, the Forest Service soured on choppers in 2012 and “business went from gangbusters to nothing overnight.”

The shop, which is mostly Backus and another A&P, shifted to supporting general aviation with annuals and maintenance. Backus has also helped different owners build three Glasair IIIs and three Lancair 360s. Despite never owning an airplane, he’s logged 2,600 hours, mostly in customer airplanes and airplanes belonging to friends at Troutdale Airport.

Recently, he’s been consulting with Electroair on its groundbreaking dual ignition system. Company founder Mike Kobylik said, “Ted’s extremely meticulous and a brilliant composite expert. I love his attention to detail and the pride he takes in his work. Those qualities have made him a greater partner.”

Backus’ 17- and 20-year-old sons have both worked at the shop and enjoy family flying, including going to Oshkosh. He stresses to them and others that quality, service, and intelligent design matter.

“Even if something has to go to the moon, designers should think about service. Someone will probably have to get their hands in there at some point, so access matters.”

Kevin Knight is an instrument-rated pilot in Dallas who owns and flies a 1967 Mooney M20F.

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