Dana Wills and her husband, former Arkansas House Speaker Robbie Wills, started Conway Aircraft, a repair business based at Conway Regional Airport.
The couple partnered with the City of Conway to build the 10,000 square foot hangar to fill a need in the market as there was no store supply at the airport.
Conway Aircraft provides full-service aircraft jet, turbine and piston engine maintenance as well as avionics installation and repair.
The couple are investing $520,000 to build the shed, while the city got $400,000 through two government grants. The city will own the hangar and lease it to Conway Aircraft. The $520,000 will be applied to the lease on a monthly basis. The equipment of the shed and the hiring of additional staff will be an additional cost borne by the couple.
“I believe it’s almost 18 years of rent that we prepaid to the town of Conway to make this happen,” Robbie said.
Conway Aircraft currently employs three mechanics and an operations manager at an existing location at the North Little Rock Municipal Airport. The company will continue to maintain this store as a satellite location.
As 80 planes call Conway Airport, the couple says it’s a regional market that will attract pilots from all over Arkansas. Dana said there were about 800 planes in central Arkansas and 3,000 statewide.
Dana is a chartered accountant and holds the position of financial director. Robbie has a general contractor’s license and was responsible for the construction. He is also the one who talks to potential customers.
The couple’s interest in starting an aircraft maintenance shop stems from their own experiences. Robbie has been a pilot since 2014 and flies the family’s Beechcraft Bonanza. Without a store in Conway since the airport opened, planes based there have to go elsewhere for maintenance, repairs and inspections.
Efforts to recruit a repair shop in Conway were unsuccessful. The couple considered building a shed and renting it out. Finally, Dana suggested that they start the business. They had to go through a public bidding process in order to form the public-private partnership with the City of Conway.
“What we’re joking here is that there’s something pilots and teenagers have in common, and it’s basically that they hate being punished,” Dana said.
The two approached two mechanics they had used for years at the North Little Rock Municipal Airport who had worked for a company whose owner had died. Maintenance Manager Walt English will work out of Conway, while Assistant Manager Aaron Bulmanski will lead the satellite office in North Little Rock. The mechanics will go back and forth.
Meanwhile, Conway Aircraft has formed a 50-50 partnership with Fort Smith-based ABS Avionics to open an avionics shop that will create at least two jobs. Industry veteran Rodney Paul was hired as avionics manager.
Robbie and Dana are two of four partners at a lobbying firm, WSG Consulting. Their cabinet includes three other former lawmakers, including former House Speaker Bill Stovall, Rick Green and Kelley Linck.