When Kenai Aviation closed in late 2017, it left behind more than half a century of history at the Kenai Municipal Airport and a generation of pilots who had worked for, with, and around its founder Bob Bielefeld and his son Jim Bielefeld. The charter air taxi service was Kenai’s oldest family-owned business, according to Jim Doyle, owner of the second oldest, Weaver Brothers trucking company, and a friend of Bob Bielefeld’s.
Kenai Aviation began in 1961 alongside the Cook Inlet oil and gas operations that supplied most of its business. It lost clients after most of those operations consolidated under the ownership of producer Hilcorp, which runs its own flights from the Kenai airport, and closed after oilfield spending dropped with the price crash of 2014.
New owner Joel Caldwell now plans to revive Kenai Aviation by looking beyond the business’s traditional focus on the Cook Inlet region and oil and gas. Caldwell plans for Kenai Aviation to eventually offer statewide charter services.
“We have to diversify to grow and continue as Kenai Aviation,” Caldwell said. “Because the market that this business grew in, and in response to, doesn’t exist in the same way.”
Caldwell arrived on the central Kenai Peninsula in 1997 to fly for the missionary aviation nonprofits Samaritan’s Purse and Missionary Aviation Repair Center, both based at the Soldotna Airport. He eventually founded another missionary aviation group, Arctic Barnabas, based in the Kenai airport. Around 2007, he started doing business development for other Alaskan flying companies — the biggest being Grant Aviation, he said, where he led the creation of Grant’s charter flight services.
Like many people who’ve spent time on or around the Kenai airport, Caldwell has a strong memory of Bob Bielefeld, who died in May 2016.
“When I was working for Grant I made sure Bob Bielefeld had a ride to Anchorage any time he wanted,” Caldwell said. “From the very start of Grant coming in here — it was one of the very first nights, they had a flat tire on one of the (Cessna) Caravans, and Bob came out and made sure they were taken care of.”
Caldwell started his current job as an Alaska Airlines captain in 2012. When he heard about Kenai Aviation closing in fall 2017, it was “for me, as for a lot of people in the community, a huge heartbreak,” he said.
Alex Agosti, who with Caldwell and Grant Aviation pilot Keith Ham is one of Kenai Aviation’s three part-time pilots, also has memories of the business. He grew up in the area and said that “as a high school kid I was kind of an airport bum.” Though he’s not among the local pilots who learned flying from the Bielefelds — he got his private license through Kenai’s Civil Air Patrol — Agosti previously spent some time working for them.
“I was a summertime hand and in the winter, when the mechanics needed an extra shop sweeper or something along those lines,” he said. “I’d wash planes, clean them, vacuum them, help fuel them, load them with the supervision of the pilot at the time — just kind of running around, bringing parts or cases of oil to Jim or Bob. I remember those summers fondly — I’d ride my bike in to Kenai Aviation every morning and just be here all day, maybe tagging along on a few flights to Trading Bay or Tyonek instead of taking a lunch … (Kenai Aviation) has kind of been part of my growth in aviation. It was there at the start of it.”
Like the other two pilots, Agosti now has a full-time flying career in addition to part-time work at Kenai Aviation. He flies from the western Alaska village of St. Mary’s for Hageland Aviation, which operates as part of Ravn Alaska.
“My heart right now is in the smaller Alaska charter operations. I’m not necessarily too inclined toward airline flying,” Agosti said. “I like the small feel, the mom-and-pop operations. It feels like home.”
Expanding Kenai Aviation statewide had never been a goal for Jim Bielefeld, who now flies for Grant. He hadn’t believed there was enough traffic between Kenai and other areas of the state outside Anchorage — with the exception of the North Slope, which would have required Kenai Aviation to use different aircraft or contract flights to a larger company. In any case, work from the oil industry was good enough that there weren’t pressing reasons to seek other lines of business.
“We were very happy with what we were doing,” Bielefeld said. “We ran like a grocery store — lots of one-time charters and no contracts, and we were just fine. I think that was our undoing, not having contracts nailed down to where there was guaranteed money coming in to cover airplane payments and such. There’s a lot of overhead in aviation, and when things were being covered just fine I was pretty happy.”
According to Kenai Municipal Airport records, Kenai Aviation boarded 2,577 passengers in 2014, the year Hilcorp began operating its own flights and oil prices crashed from a March peak of $110 per barrel to $56 per barrel by December. In 2016, its last full year of operation, Kenai Aviation boarded 509.
Though potential buyers had asked about purchasing Kenai Aviation’s Federal Aviation Administration operating certificate, Bielefeld was surprised when Caldwell approached him around September 2017 with interest in the business itself.
“I didn’t think anybody would be interested in buying the business,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of faith in anybody finding enough to do with it. So I was a little surprised when Joel came in. He wanted not only the operating certificate, but he said he wanted the business, to be involved in the history of it.”
Bielefeld had started selling most of Kenai Aviation’s five airplanes after stopping operation around August 2017. Caldwell chose one, a red and white Cessna 206, for the business to keep. Bielefeld still owns the Kenai Aviation building and serves as chief pilot, though right now he’s not planning to fly much with the business, he said. As for the less tangible essentials, Caldwell said in April he began rebuilding them mostly from scratch. Insurance had lapsed, and the Federal Aviation Administration had to re-inspect the airplane and is now re-certifying the pilots’ training. Caldwell said he’s “currently shopping customers and investors,” and may go after some of Kenai Aviation’s previous clients such as the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which used its charter flights to send maintenance and school district workers to remote schools such as Tyonek’s Tebughna School.
“For all practical purposes we’re a startup,” Caldwell said. “I’m building on the history of Kenai Aviation, and I have so much respect for it, and we’ll continue to call it Kenai Aviation forever. I’m not changing the logo for anything. But Kenai Aviation from the start has been designed to just take care of the local Cook Inlet area here. That was the downfall… As far as serving the Cook Inlet, I’d love to continue to do that, but in order to have a viable business you’ve got to go beyond that.”
Caldwell hopes to do for Kenai Aviation what he did as Grant’s Director of Business Development. When he joined, Grant “desperately needed a charter department,” he said, and what it had at the time was “one really old King Air 200, basically just hauling mail from Anchorage out to Emmonak.” Caldwell said he expanded by actively hunting for new clients and routes, bringing more planes into operation. What he plans to do with Kenai Aviation is not exactly the same.
“This is really like nothing I’ve ever done before, and similar to what I’ve done before,” Caldwell said. Kenai Aviation, he said, less like his work for Grant and more like Arctic Barnabas, the aviation nonprofit he started from scratch. He’s now doing the same search for clients and investors.
“I’m very much a personality to go out and start meeting with people,” Caldwell said. “I have no pride when it comes to saying we need help, whether that means hands-on, or financially investing, or helping us with expertise. I’m no bookkeeper, I fly airplanes.”
Caldwell’s plan will eventually require Kenai Aviation to have larger planes and a new hangar. To keep the business going for now, he’s tapping into another market that Kenai Aviation hasn’t entered before — flightseeing tours. Bielefeld said tourism had never been a substantial part of Kenai Aviation’s business plan. It’s seasonal, and most tourists crossing the inlet from Kenai are fishermen who charter floatplanes with pilots knowledgeable about fishing in remote waters, he said.
If Caldwell succeeds in expanding Kenai Aviation into a statewide charter, he also has hopes of eventually reviving another side of Kenai Aviation’s business: pilot training.
“Right now, worldwide in aviation, there’s a serious pilot shortage,” Caldwell said. “It’s for a lot of different reasons. One is the older guys are retiring out, and it’s more and more expensive for pilots to train, so it’s tougher for young pilots. There’s a huge need for flight training, but flight training that’s affordable … As we grow, we’re going to run into the same problem all the other airlines are, in that there’s a pilot shortage, and we’re going to have to figure out who to hire. We really want to raise our own home-grown pilots here.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.