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When the SLO airport roared with the sound of safety and jobs

A maintenance crew works on several of the Wings West/American Eagle fleet. Wings West/American Eagle once had headquarters in San Luis Obispo with 250 employees. They maintained their fleet of aircraft at San Luis Obispo Airport.
A maintenance crew works on several of the Wings West/American Eagle fleet. Wings West/American Eagle once had headquarters in San Luis Obispo with 250 employees. They maintained their fleet of aircraft at San Luis Obispo Airport. Telegram-Tribune

In the 1980s it was not uncommon to wake up from a sound sleep to the roar of airplane engines revving at San Luis Obispo Airport.

It was the sound of safety and jobs.

Mechanics would test engines during dark early mornings as part of their safety checks. Eventually, a hay bale hush house was built to stop some of the noise from leaking out into neighborhoods nearby. Some noisy jobs were moved to other airports.

Wings West/American Eagle was an airline based in San Luis Obispo that had grown from a commuter carrier to a full-fledged feeder associated with American Airlines.

It wasn’t the only airline to be based in San Luis Obispo; Swift Aire is remembered fondly by those who worked and flew on it for its 12 years of service from 1969 to 1981. At least one couple was married on a Swift Air plane.

For many years, San Luis Obispo’s second airline, Wings West/American Eagle, had corporate offices here, but in January 1998 it was announced to the 250 employees that restructuring would move 125 jobs.

Corporate and maintenance offices were moved to Dallas-Fort Worth. Some jobs were eliminated.

Many employees were leaders in local charity work, and the loss of high-paying jobs was lamented by members of the Chamber of Commerce and other students of the local economy.

Today, propeller aircraft airline service at the airport has been phased out in favor of higher capacity jets, aided by a runway extension that allows the larger planes to take off fully loaded in hot weather.

The former American Eagle facility, a 17,000-square-foot hangar and adjoining 12,000-square-foot office space, has recently been remodeled by ACI Jet.

The Wings West/American Eagle maintenance faculty was documented in this Jan. 14, 1988, Telegram-Tribune article.

Maintaining their planes: Fleet gets a thorough going-over

When Wings West/American Eagle travelers come back home to San Luis Obispo, so do some of the company’s planes.

Five to seven members of the 36-plane fleet get a thorough going-over by a crew each night in a giant hangar at McChesney Field.

Testing engines helps make for safe trips. A good cleaning inside and out also helps make for pleasant journeys.

It’s all part of a daily routine that the airline’s 75 maintenance workers try to do strictly by the book, said JoAnne Dowty, Wings West marketing vice president. The airplanes must be completely gone over after every 100 hours of flight. The mechanics who toil bring their own tool boxes. They work in a hangar that’s divided into small shops that include such necessities as tires, engines, batteries and upholstery.

About 14 employees work nightly on the planes in a shift that begins at 9:30 p.m. and ends at 7:30 a.m. Other mechanics work throughout the day.

Wings West, which has a marketing agreement with American Airlines, once maintained even more of its Beechcraft and Metroliner planes at McChesney Field. But neighbors complained about noisy engine tests in the wee hours of the morning.

The complaints have dwindled since the airline decided to do more of its maintenance work in San Francisco and Los Angeles, an airport official said Wednesday.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp.

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