“This factory is the longest continuous single-engine piston aircraft manufacturing facility in the nation,” says Stu Horn as I walk his shop floor and breathe in the vintage vibe. It’s a real treat standing in a building that has been making airplanes since the 1930s. For the past 25 years, it has been turning out Huskys and Pitts. This is Aviat Aircraft in Afton, Wyo.
The “factory” is really several buildings housing different stages of the manufacturing process and sitting on a five-acre swath of land next to Afton’s only airport. As I tour the facilities, I notice that each building is uniquely dedicated to its own part of the building process while contributing to the whole. As I talk with workers who number their days here in decades, it becomes even more apparent that these aircraft are born, not made.
For Husky aircraft, it’s the detail that counts. Take, for example, something as simple as the machine screws used to hold the various body panels and cowling together. Aviat places a tiny nylon washer—by hand—on each screw so that the paint behind it is never marred. There are hundreds of them.
While most aircraft are assembled and then painted, leaving unpainted sections of aluminum where panels overlap, Huskies are fitted together, then each panel is removed and individually painted so the entire panel is sealed with paint. Further, each piece of aircraft tubing is oiled inside and seal-welded, then coated with a special epoxy paint sealant prior to assembly. Horn says all this prevents corrosion—something a backcountry airplane is vulnerable to.
Paint is applied in a proprietary method, with so many different layers that running your hand over a painted section feels like running a velvet glove over the well-waxed fender of a vintage Rolls-Royce automobile. Wire harnesses are hand-run, Ceconite fabric is stretched and sewn by hand, and stripes are laid out and painted manually.
Even the workers at Aviat are different. While I’m sure most would take a Hawaiian vacation over work, each employee I spoke with had a positive, cheerful attitude about working at Aviat. “People ask me what I do and I tell them I get to build airplanes!” smiles Rebecca from the Husky final-assembly building. “I actually love my job.”
While Aviat’s methods seem “old world,” there’s much more to it. Robotic machines stamp out aluminum panels as computers track the movement of thousands of parts—some just a fraction of an inch in size. The entire process is amazing to behold and shows the quality and care that goes into the finished Husky; something owners have known for a long time.
Ultimately, Horn and his team are quite proud of the aircraft they manufacture, and their past success is proof that attention to detail works. The Husky has consistently been a top-selling aircraft and is recognized for superior craftsmanship and its manufacturer’s dedication to its customers.
“What are you doing?” I ask a woman as she meticulously applies scallop-edged fabric tape to stretched Ceconite seams. Her intense eyes follow each inch of the tape. “I’m strengthening these seams,” she answers brightly. “The pinked edges—the scalloped ones—are stronger than the straight edges most people use, and we make them extra wide to make them even stronger. We want to make the strongest airplane we can.”