Visit to Southeast Aero in St Augustine, FL
A Visit to Southeast Aero in St. Augustine, Florida
Combining Business With Pleasure
One of the fortunate things about being an aviation lawyer is the fact that you are allowed to meet some really interesting people doing some phenomenal things. This recently took place when I had to make a trip to St. Augustine, Florida and visit the facilities of Southeast Aero. Southeast Aero is the point of entry for the Flugzeugbau Extra Series of aerobatic aircraft. These are high performance, aerobatic aircraft certified to +/- 10 Gs in the Acrobatic I category. The aircraft can also be flown in the Acrobatic II category with a passenger aboard and in the Normal category also with a passenger aboard. There are, however, restrictions from operating the aircraft aerobatically with fuel in the wing tanks.
I flew to St. Augustine on July 15, 2009 and was surprised to see that the facilities at St. Augustine are very substantial. For example, I was surprised by the length of the primary runway and also by the fact that there are routinely operating from the airport F-5 aircraft which operate as an aggressor unit which flies against the United States military. The airport is also the site for a Grumman Northrop facility manufacturing components for the Navy E-2 Hawkeye aircraft.
After landing at St. Augustine and making my way to the Southeast Aero facility, I was greeted by Bryan who is the chief of maintenance for aircraft other than the Extra series of aircraft. For example, Southeast Aero sells the Diamond series of aircraft which employ a composite structure. Speaking of composite structures, the wings of the Extra features a wooden primary spar enveloped in carbon fiber cloth which is extremely strong. Typically, the aircraft is powered by a Lycoming IO-540 engine producing in the neighborhood of 300 horsepower or more, and the aircraft has a basic empty weight of about 1,500 pounds. With so much power and so little weight, the Extra has quite a bit of vertical performance capability.
Meeting Kramer Upchurch and a Tour of the Facility
After my aircraft was secured, I got a chance to meet Kramer Upchurch and tour the facility of Southeast Aero. To anyone with even a casual interest in aviation, touring this facility is like being a kid in a toy store. As I recall, Southeast Aero operates from at least three separate hangars. One hangar was exclusively populated by the Extra series of aircraft. These aircraft are very colorful with glassy smooth finishes and spectacular paint jobs.
Kramer Upchurch, the President of Southeast Aero, grew up in Florida as the son of a former Air Force pilot who became an appellate court judge. Many members of Kramer’s family are lawyers. Kramer, however, became an investment banker and moved to New York. While the money in New York was good, Kramer and his wife, Sandy, decided to return to Florida to enjoy a better quality of life. As Kramer tells the story, getting into the aviation business was almost accidental.
Kramer had formed Southeast Aero which did avionics and aircraft maintenance work. Aero Sports, the then exclusive distributor of Extra aircraft had acquired the line after Extra severed its relationship with Pompano Air Center. Southeast Aero was assembling the Extra aircraft imported into America by Aero Sports and getting them certified. In time, for whatever reason, Aero Sports decided it did not need to be involved in selling and distributing the Extra series of aircraft, and the line became available to Southeast Aero which is the current distributor of these aircraft in America.
Kramer relies heavily upon his chief of maintenance for the Extra line of aircraft, Chip Bonner. Chip is a former Air Force mechanic who has been working on the Extra series of aircraft for well over a decade. It is not uncommon for an air show performer at a remote location to call Kramer or Chip and relate there are problems with an aircraft in need of immediate repair. In fact, while I was on the premises, that occurred and there was a need to act quickly to deal with a problem involving an Extra airplane.
The environment at Southeast Aero is relaxed, cordial and almost like family. For example, if you walk into the office to meet Kramer, you will first be greeted by Carrie. Carrie is a bubbly young lady with a can do attitude. If you need a rental car, no problem, she will get one for you. Kramer calls Carrie his “go to” person. You are quite likely to meet Kramer’s wife Sandy and also his chief salesman, Doug Veda. To complete the family atmosphere, a large tan dog will be seen roaming about the lobby of the executive offices. The dog is extremely friendly and completes the relaxed atmosphere.
The Hangar Tour
As mentioned earlier, one of the hangars of Southeast Aero is filled with Extra aircraft undergoing assembly, a test flight regime or service. In fact, while I was there, a brand new aircraft had just been assembled and was being prepared for a test flight sequence. As Kramer explained to me, he makes an effort to test fly every Extra aircraft that leaves his facility.
There was a brand new Extra series of aircraft in the hangar with a silver and red paint scheme and a new, more powerful engine. As I recall, the price tag for the beast was about $400,000.00. It was a very impressive looking aircraft.
As we walked through the hangar, Kramer pointed out to me some of the features of the Extra series of aircraft. With the side panels off the fuselage and the anatomy of the aircraft exposed, one could see the fuselage tanks and the header tank in the nose of the aircraft and also the wing tanks which are composed of the forward spar and nose rib of the wing structure. Kramer pointed out the very stout structure of the Extra airplane. However, he noted that performing aggressive aerobatics with fuel in the wings will eventually lead to problems such as fuel leaks. For that reason, there is a placard and a limitation of the aircraft that aerobatics are only to be performed with fuel in the fuselage tanks.
Besides looking at the spar and spar carry through structure, the engine and related components, one could see that the fuselage built of chrome molybdenum steel tubing is also a very stout structure. However, with the fuselage enveloped in the side panels and other accoutrements, the aircraft looks like the civilian equivalent of an F-15 fighter plane. It is a very slick looking airplane with all the pizzazz and sex appeal of an Indianapolis race car.
Kramer also showed me how the smoke system in the aircraft can be charged by a tube that employs a vacuum apparatus to suck the smoke oil up into the smoke tank, a procedure easier than pouring smoke oil into a smoke tank and making a mess when the tank overflows. He did note that smoke oil is dirty and gets all over the airplane. For that reason, he recommends that only serious air show performers invest in the installation of a smoke system for the aircraft.
For anyone interested in a high performance aerobatic aircraft, the Extra series of aircraft certainly warrants your consideration. It is an aesthetically pleasing aircraft in appearance and apparently capable of performing unlimited aerobatic maneuvers. Besides the aircraft itself, there are very qualified people to care for the Extra aircraft at Southeast Aero, and you could not find a more friendly and cordial group of people to deal with. I was fortunate to meet Kramer Upchurch and his staff at Southeast Aero.