SCAA magazine article
Hammerhead Aeronautical: Baby Beech Mecca in Laurens County
Cory Engle, The Laurens County Advisor
There are 680 members of the Beech Aero Club, ranging from Australia to Romania, and all of them know that Laurens, is the best place to go to do some work on your “Baby Beech.” These aircraft are essentially the smaller-engined members of the famed Beechcraft line that actually have larger cabins than most of the better-known Bonanza aircraft.
“The identifier for this airport is KLUX,” said Mike Rellihan, Technical Consultant for Hammerhead Aeronautical, a shop at the Laurens County Airport that specializes in the Musketeer line of Beechcraft airplanes. “The members of the club that bring their planes here have now turned that into a verb, a noun and an adjective. A KLUX weekend is a spa weekend for guys,” he said. “Getting your hands dirty and taking apart an airplane. They refer to a plane that’s been here as having been KLUXed.”
“It’s not the closest place, it’s the best place,” said Brent Earwood, who brought his Beech-craft in from Tennessee for a weekend last summer. They don’t make these planes any more,” Earwood said. “If you want to keep your plane flying and you want it flying spec, you come here.”
“We have the same problem where I’m from,” said Lee Lassiter, who brought his plane up from Ft. Pierce, Florida. “Piper has a manufacturing plant in the town next to me. So almost all the planes on the field are Piper and nobody knows Beech.”
For Baby Beechcraft owners, finding someone who can speak their language can be difficult, and finding an expert nearly impossible. But those who know Beechcraft know that there is a walking ency-clopedia at the Laurens County Airport. “Mike won’t tell you this himself, but he is, without a doubt, the most knowledgeable person on the Baby Beeches worldwide,” said Jim White, an occasional Hammerhead helper.
The Musketeer line of Beechcraft is a family of single-engine aircraft built between 1963 and 1983. Beechcraft was a manufacturer of airplanes for both civilian and military markets from 1932 until 1980, when it was sold to the Ray-theon Company and later merged with Hawker to become Hawker Beechcraft in 1994. As the company has been bought and sold, product lines fell behind or were discontinued altogether and parts became more scarce.
Lassiter said Hammerhead is one of the few places where Beechcraft owners can still find spec parts.“This place is just loaded with parts,” he said. “And it’s stuff that can’t be bought anywhere. They don’t even make them anymore. The problem with airplanes is, you can’t just make parts for them,” Lassiter said. “There’s a government-man-dated approval, or verification process, to get pieces approved for any certified airplane. It’s tricky. Maintenance is a huge issue in owning these old planes.”
“They’re just not prevalent, and anything that’s not prevalent won’t get as much factory and after-market support,” Rellihan said. “If you were driving a Yugo today you’d know what I mean.”
“We say they speak Beechcraft here,” Lassiter said. “It’s like restoring old cars. You’ve got a guy who restores ’57 Chev-rolets and he’s got all the old parts and has done a hundred of them. He knows them like the back of his hand. That’s what you get here.”
There are a lot of similarities between the owners of “Baby Beeches” and classic car enthusiasts. They like the idea of keeping something old looking and working like new and they like to get their hands dirty. One of the differences between Hammerhead and most other shops is that they encourage owners to get involved in the process.
“We don’t usually do planes without the owner here,” said Hammerhead Vice President Chad Moser. “The main reason is because there are way too many shops that will sit there and bill and bill and bill. Then you’ve got an owner with a $15,000 bill saying ‘Why did you do that? I didn’t authorize that.’.”
“If you have the owner here, you can show them what’s wrong and why we have to fix it or we can delay it for another time if it’s not something you need to have,” he said. “But we’d rather be safe.”
“Most private owners of older aircraft love being able to get involved in their airplane,” Rellihan said. “Sometimes it saves money on minor cosmetic work that they’re legally able to do but they don’t have the guidance or the facility where they live.”
The owners also like getting lessons on how to do routine maintenance at regular workdays held at the airport through-out the year. “They show you how to do oil changes, how to change tires, minor maintenance,” Lassiter said. “The weather was bad last time, so I drove 580 miles. I just got in the car and said ‘I’m going anyway. I’m not going to wait until next year’.”
Workdays, along with the annual Beechcraft Aero Club Breakfast and regular maintenance trips from out-of-town owners also brings more business to local hotels, restaurants and even some industrial companies that provide services directly to the shop.
“Business is busy. Right now, the way the economy is, you’ve got to be grateful,” Moser said. And business is global. Hammerhead provides technical support to BAC members worldwide and even occasionally ships parts internationally, parts that are often refurbished at Laurens County business-es under Hammerhead oversight.
In a study released by the South Carolina Department of Commerce Division of Aeronautics, the Laurens County Airport contributes $517,500 to the local economy annually, either directly or indirectly.
Hammerhead makes up a good portion of that amount. The company has room rate agreements with at least four local hotels, periodically refers customers to a local car rental service, gets routine supplies from local businesses and has heavier parts shipped via a local service provider whenever possible, not to mention the heavy business that the staff and customers bring to local restaurants.
Hammerhead’s will soon be making an even bigger impact on Laurens County’s economy when they become a full-time operation.
“Chad’s ramping up to come here full-time now and run a regular, full-week operation,” Rellihan said. “The previous two years, we tended to be oriented toward long weekend work on flown-in aircraft because that’s convenient for owners.”
Rellihan, who now lives with his wife in the Sandy Springs area just north of Laurens, said he has no intention of quit-ting any time soon. “This is my retirement hobby,” he said. “My wife and I thought we would stay retired in Jackson-ville, Florida, but the traffic and headcount just got horren-dous,” he said. “It’s convenient here. We’re at a really good crossroads, both roadwise and airwise. We’re not far from Atlanta, we’re not far from the Eastern Corridor and we’re not far from Asheville and resort areas.”
With an already overflowing schedule and no end in sight, Laurens County will likely remain a Mecca for Baby Beech-craft owners worldwide as long as their planes remain flight-worthy. If the mechanics at Hammerhead Aeronautical have anything to say about it, that could be a long time indeed.