By Thomas G. Dolan
With the advancements in technology of today’s aircraft, avionics knowledge is a necessity in most aircraft maintenance career fields. Brad J. Primm, executive vice president of aircraft technical support for Million Air at Houston’s Hobby Airport in Texas, recalls that when he got his start in what was to become a full-blown career in avionics, he didn’t know what the word meant.
A naval beginning
“I was in my first year of college in 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, and I knew that with a draft number of eight, I was going in,” says Primm, who was 19 years old at the time. “I decided to be proactive and quickly joined the Navy, without having a promised or prearranged job. At the end of boot camp, I was called before an officer who asked me what I wanted to do. I was given five choices. My first was oceanographic technician. I thought it would be fun to stand next to the captain and point out schools of fish. My next three choices were sonarman, radarman and radio operator. I couldn’t think of a fifth and the officer said all five choices had to be filled out on the form. He said, ‘Put down avionics. Don’t worry, you won’t get it.’ So I put down avionics and I didn’t have a clue of what the word meant.”
The Navy sent Primm to Memphis, Tenn., for avionics school. Though the process was accidental, it turned out to be a natural fit. “I loved electronics, which had always intrigued me,” Primm says. “As a kid I built my own crystal radio and enjoyed taking radios apart and putting them back together.”
Primm considers it ironic that his first duty station out of the Navy’s AV “A” school was 100 miles away from the sea at NAS Lemoore, near Fresno, Cal. “It was a master jet airbase, and my squadron operated the A-7E Corsair, nicknamed the maneater, because of the large jet intake close to the ground on the nose of the airplane. You had to stay clear of it to avoid being sucked in,” he says.
“We were on a war footing, with squadrons constantly rotating on and off the base from the aircraft carriers. It was an exciting time,” continues Primm. “After a year, my superiors noticed I was skilled in avionics repair and always had my nose buried in some book on aircraft or electronics. They sent me to the intermediate maintenance facility on the field where I actually worked on black boxes. I learned basic bench troubleshooting skills for these repairs. Because of my workload I had to learn to manage my time. They also appointed me to be the work center safety petty officer. I organized safety meetings and showed slides and films of what happened to sailors who did not follow safety procedures. Safety was a big emphasis. It turned out that the military provided me a fantastic grounding in avionics and safety, which prepared me well for entering into the GA avionics field.”
After being honorably discharged in 1976 at age 23, he went to work for Capital Aircraft Electronics at Port Columbus International airport in Columbus, Ohio. “Now, with the complexity of the electronics in a black box, a defective one is usually sent back to the manufacturer,” says Primm. “But at that time, we would take the box to the bench, replace the necessary components, test it, and put it back in the airplane and make sure it worked.”
After a year at Port Columbus, he was sent to Bakalar airport (now Columbus Municipal Airport) in Columbus, Ind., to start up an avionics shop for the local Cessna dealer. Regarding this, his first supervisory job, Primm says, “I was pretty much a one-man show. I was the bench technician and flight line troubleshooter, worked hand-in-hand with the mechanics and was the customer service rep. In addition to my avionics duties, I was introduced to the world of non-federal navigation.” Primm explains that most of the ground-based nav-aid facilities such as VORs, ILS transmitters, and NDBs, were and are maintained by the FAA. But in certain cases the FAA didn’t feel it had the need and/or funds to provide a particular nav-aid. So the operator had the option of paying for one himself, along with the responsibility for maintaining it.
“While part of our deal was to support the local Cessna dealer with avionics, I was also trained to maintain the non-federal Wilcox Mark 1D ILS system at Bakalar airport,“ Primm says. “I got to see not only the airborne side but also the ground side of the avionics system equation. Having that different perspective helped my career.”
When asked what he learned as his first job as supervisor, Primm replies, “I was far away from my corporate parent, so I had to learn how to improvise and solve my own problems. In looking back, I would say that maybe I bit off more than I could chew, but I didn’t know what I couldn’t chew, and it all worked out for the best. It was a good experience for me — I learned to be independent, to operate safely and to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer. It was a very good learning experience.”
After about a year in Columbus, Ind., Capital sent Primm to Dayton, Ohio, to open a satellite avionics operation at Dayton General South Airport (now Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport) in Montgomery County. “We provided the avionics shop support for the local Cessna aircraft dealer,” Primm says. “We would get all their green Cessna airplanes and install the radio packages. This was the height of general aviation. In 1978, there was a record 17,817 new general aviation airplanes produced. Then around 1980 the economy went south and general aviation crashed. It wasn’t until 1986 when Reagan instituted the investment tax credit that the industry started to come back, but aircraft production has never gotten back to what it was before in terms of sheer numbers.”
In 1981, when the largest Cessna dealer in a five-state area offered Primm the job of avionics manager, he jumped at the chance for a larger opportunity. Primm worked there for 10 years until 1991 when that company was sold to Corporate Wings. He worked for the new owners as national sales director of avionics until 1994.
“I then had the opportunity to work for Air-Services of Cleveland on the other side of the city and at the big airport,” he says. “I worked my way up to president and CEO. We ended up becoming a medium-sized repair station, with close to 50 mechanics and technicians. We were doing quite a bit of overnight work for the airlines and we had strong corporate maintenance and avionics shops. My responsibility included oversight on all of this as well as running the fixed-base operation.”
Under Primm’s tenure, the company also bought the rights to manufacture Unicom radios from Mentor Radio Company. “We also took over the Sperry Marine technical support group that provided the electronics repairs and upgrades to the big work boats hauling freight, iron ore and coal across the Great Lakes,” Primm says. “It was fun running that operation.”
Along the way, Primm has also become a licensed pilot and earned a repairman’s certificate, as well as a degree in business administration from Walsh University in Canton, Ohio.
The Million Air life
In 2006, Primm took on his current position at Million Air. The company has a mix of 30 owned and franchised FBO locations. Primm oversees any maintenance conducted at the nine corporate-owned locations and some of the other franchise-operated ones conducting maintenance, but only if the latter chose to participate in the firm’s liability insurance program. At the Houston Hobby Airport, Primm is in charge of the corporate-owned maintenance and avionics shops. The repair station just acquired another hangar on the field with 16,000 square feet of hangar floor space, an additional 5,000 square feet of shop space and 7,000 square feet of office space. With the additional hangar, the Houston repair station has more than 57,000 square feet under roof.
“This larger facility will facilitate our move into the large cabin aircraft maintenance business, which we started in 2010 with the addition of the Challenger 600/601 to our repair station’s capabilities list,” says Primm.
Another development at Million Air is the addition of maintenance capabilities at the new Gulfport FBO at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GPT). (See the sidebar on page 12.) “We just hired Robert Nores as our new director of maintenance for this location,“ Primm says. “Robert is tasked with growing the maintenance business at GPT and supporting the mission of our beautiful new FBO in this growing community along the Gulf Coast.”
When asked about his training philosophy, Primm responds, “A key reason I hired on at Million Air is that I love our philosophy on hiring and treating people. It dovetailed so well with my own life experiences. Million Air places a huge emphasis on finding the right person for the job. We have a quality selection process for all of our applicants. If the resume passes muster, we hold a brief interview and, if we like what we see, then we have them tested for their innate talents. We want to make sure the applicant’s talent strengths match the talents we are looking for. This increases the likelihood that the person will be a good fit in our culture and has the talents necessary to do the job. Once an applicant is found that has the right combination of talents, then the hiring process continues. We believe talent cannot be taught. A person may have a great resume but if the talents aren’t right, he or she won’t be successful in the role. If an applicant doesn’t pass the talent assessment, I tell them it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be successful at another company or that they have failed in any way. It just means they probably wouldn’t be successful at this company.”
All Million Air employees are required to carry a credo card on their person while at work. It contains the statements “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen,” and “Million Air is a place where the genuine care and exceptional service to our customers is our highest mission.”
Words of advice
“I categorize my personal management style as a mentoring manager,” says Primm. “I try to give each employee encouragement and training to do the job well. Continuing education is an essential part of the aviation maintenance experience. We strive to provide ongoing training for every single one of our employees. We offer more than is mandated by the FAA, and strive to receive the FAA Diamond Award every year, which we have done for the past several years. We believe that training creates an esprit de corps and greatly increases the level of professionalism.”
“Safety has to be at the top of the list for any maintenance manager, both in terms of providing worker safety and following best practices to deliver a safe product,” Primm continues. “Also, you should have a good customer focus, whether you’re in a corporate flight department or retail maintenance. If you are in a corporate role, your internal customers are the pilots and passengers riding on the aircraft you maintain. The maintenance focus on the customer is extremely important — for without the customer, you have no aircraft to maintain and no paycheck.
“I would also recommend that managers go out of their comfort zone and learn the business side as well as the technical side,” Primm says. “Being able to do financial budgets and understand financial statements, when you reach the managerial level, is just as important as fixing airplanes. It’s also important to be involved with your airport authority, local chamber of commerce and professional organizations.
“I love my job, which can make it hard to have the right balance between family and work, Primm says. “One caution I would give to enthusiastic young technicians is that if you have a passion for aviation, it’s easy to spend too much time away from home.”
Overall, Primm (who is now 58 years old) feels he’s been blessed in his career. “I really enjoy the variety of people I’ve met along with the high-tech nature of the field,” he says. “And I attribute it all to the fact that I put down avionics as a career choice — when I didn’t know what the word meant.”
Million Air Gulfport
Last June, Million Air Gulfport-Biloxi, a $12 million general aviation operation located in a Foreign Trade Zone, was opened. The FBO at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GPT) operates 24/7 on a nine-acre site with more than 200,000 square feet of ramp and parking space.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, the airport terminal suffered heavy wind and water damage and nearly all the general aviation facilities were destroyed.
Building a new FBO in a tough economic climate was one of the many hurdles Million Air faced. It took five years (2005-2010) to obtain final approval to build their FBO at GPT.
“We persevered through the tough economic times and are ready to benefit from our growth as our industry pulls up,” says Roger Woolsey, CEO of Million Air. “Like us, we believe that Gulfport-Biloxi is one of the few economic markets who had the vision and tenacity to make things happen in tough times.”
“We’ve modeled the maintenance facility after other successful Million Air maintenance operations,” says Arve Henriksen, partner and manager for the Million Air Gulfport-Biloxi FBO. “The business is fully equipped to perform most light and heavy airframe and engine jobs other than a hot section. There are an IA and A&P on staff and, if needed, additional manpower can be flown in from Million Air’s headquarters in Houston.
“The shop space at the rear of the hangar is designed for ease of access to all equipment, plus offers ample space to keep tools and other accessories out of sight when not in use.”
Robert Nores was hired as the director of maintenance for Million Air GPT. Primm says, “Robert comes to us with more than 23 years of experience in airline, GA and corporate maintenance. His well-rounded background is perfect for this airport and our operation here at Gulfport. Under his leadership, we will be able to support the local aviation community, provide on-call maintenance support for the airlines and also serve the corporate and fractional customers that fly to GPT.”