When he was 10 years old, Erik Hokuf knew what he wanted to do. “All I could think about was building airplanes.” By the time he was 17, he was learning airplane mechanics at Bemidji Aviation through an on-the-job training program offered by Bemidji High School. Instead of heading off to college after graduation, Hokuf continued to work for Bemidji Aviation, while simultaneously learning everything he needed to get his Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) license. Fast forward two decades, and Hokuf is now general manager of AirCorps Aviation in Bemidji, a company that restores and rebuilds vintage World War II aircraft.
In the past few years, the company has caught the attention of WWII airplane enthusiasts across the country and internationally with its award-winning restorations: a P-51D “Twilight Tear”; a Stearman N2S-1; a P-51D “Sierra Sue II”; a Harvard Mark IV 405 (flown by President George H. W. Bush as a cadet in the navy); and “Lope’s Hope 3rd,” a P-51C. (Visit the company’s website for great pictures and project descriptions.)
As one of about a dozen companies in the country that does airplane restorations, Hokuf says AirCorps Aviation has two major projects and many smaller projects in process and at least three other restorations in the queue. “There are so many things in the pipeline that if we cleared everything away, there would be three or four more things moving in right away. But things will fall off if customers have to wait too long.” So, AirCorps is diversifying and expanding, with hopes of more than doubling its workforce within the next half-decade. “Our challenge is, how can we turn an eight-year restoration into a three-year restoration?”
Getting to this point
Hokuf’s career path from high school to starting a restoration company was a series of opportunities with bosses who, as he describes it, “gave me enough rope to run with.” After earning his A&P license, he moved to Minneapolis and accepted a job at Flying Cloud Airport where he worked on a variety of planes—new and old. While there, Hokuf heard about Ron Fagen, a collector of vintage airplanes. Fagen had a construction business that built everything from tool sheds to grain bins and eventually ethanol plants, but his passion was WWII planes and aviation.
“I started working for Fagen in 2003,” Hokuf recalls, “and I helped him start a restoration shop. He had just purchased a project, a combat veteran P-51D ‘Twilight Tear.’ I started working on the project and it won a Grand Championship at the EAA’s (Experimental Aircraft Association) airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.”
Meanwhile, three other airplane enthusiasts—Dan Matejcek, Eric Trueblood, and Mark Tisler—were also employed in airplane restoration at Tri-State Aviation in Wahpeton, North Dakota. After starting his own company in 2008 and freelancing and consulting, Hokuf invited the three to buy into AirCorps and form a partnership.
“Our partnership,” Hokuf says, “has allowed us to grow as quickly and as well as we have because we all bring different things to the table.”
Dan Matejcek, AirCorps’ VP of fabrication, grew up on a farm south of Wahpeton. He attended college in Wahpeton for machine tooling and restored airplanes at Tri-State until March 2011. Says Hokuf, “Dan can look at a part and tell you exactly how to make it.”
Tisler, VP of restoration for AirCorps, grew up on a small farm in western Washington. He earned his private pilot’s license in 1985, graduated with a B.S. in agricultural mechanization from Washington State University in 1987, and moved to Fargo, North Dakota to get his A&P license. Like Matejcek, he connected with Gerry Beck of Tri-State and worked there restoring WWII aircraft until 2011. While with Tri-State, Tisler worked on the restoration of a Corsair, TBM, T6, Sea Fury, and nine P-51s, along with many other aircraft and parts. “He can rattle off any detail in any manual,” Hokuf says.
Trueblood, AirCorps’ senior VP of sales and marketing, also gained experience at Tri-State. Growing up in Minot, North Dakota, home to the Flying Legends Warbird Collection, his interest in planes and aviation started early. For Trueblood, a graduate of the University of North Dakota College of Business, AirCorps is more than a business. His most memorable experience from the past few years is helping with the excavation of a P-47 Thunderbolt in Italy.
With three experienced restoration people on his team, Hokuf thought about the way Fagen had based his companies out of the little town of Granite Falls. “Ron started his business from nothing and chose to keep it in this small community of 2,500 people. At one time, he had over 2,000 employees in construction, working all around the country. Ron and [his wife] Diane are believers in keeping things local. Ron was good about trusting, finding local people. It’s all about working with people.”
Hokuf had faith in Bemidji as a place where great things could happen. In 2011, AirCorps Aviation opened shop in the Industrial Park on the south end of town.
Growing the business
In addition to doing restorations, AirCorps Aviation makes and sells parts for vintage and new airplanes. “Prior to WWII,” Hokuf explains, “airplanes were made almost entirely out of wood and fabric. Just before the war, they designed a new method of making planes out of aluminum and metal, and during WWII, they perfected it. An airplane made out of metals today is made using the same methods of construction. Seventy-five years ago, breakthroughs happened in aircraft engineering design. Many of the arts of that construction have been lost, so aircraft manufacturers and people who need parts look at us and ask, ‘Who made that?’ And we answer, ‘We made that.’ And then they say, ‘Well, we have a part that looks just like that, and we haven’t figured out how to make it. Can you make that part for us?’ That’s how we started making parts for other aircraft.”
Today, parts manufacturing accounts for about 15 percent to 20 percent of AirCorps Aviation’s business. “We’d like to continue to make parts,” Hokuf says. “There’s so much opportunity.”
AirCorps is also working toward becoming certified as an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Repair Station.
“As a certified mechanic in the U.S., you can fix something, but you can only sign your name to it. With that, it can’t be used on every type of airplane—like airlines and planes that haul people commercially.” The repair station certification involves writing a manual and getting it approved by the FAA. “We’re just days away from that,” Hokuf says. Once AirCorps is certified, its repaired parts will be usable on any aircraft anywhere, and the parts can go into other countries more easily.
“We’ve already done that on the manufacturing side,” Hokuf says. “We have Parts Manufactured Approval from the FAA for our manufactured parts. And then we sell them.”
It’s all about the people
Growing and diversifying the company means growing the workforce. Hokuf and Trueblood know that AirCorps Aviation offers unique opportunities for employees, and one of their goals is to cultivate an atmosphere that provides satisfying work, a comfortable environment, and opportunities to use, transfer, and expand one’s skills to meet new needs.
“We hope everyone we bring on board will retire with us,” Hokuf says. “It doesn’t always work out, but that’s the intent. We don’t want to lose good people.” He’s convinced that the area is filled with qualified people and hopes to draw them into the company. “Customers will come no matter where we are,” he says, but bringing in the right workers is key. Hokuf believes that some people lack the confidence in their own skills to realize that they could work for a company like AirCorps.
He cites three employees whose career paths weren’t direct lines to AirCorps but whose skills and core values exemplify what the company is looking for.
Randy Kraft, a restoration specialist, has worked at AirCorps for almost six years. A huge picture of “Lope’s Hope 3rd,” his first airplane restoration project, hangs in the entryway. It won the Grand Champion award at the 2018 EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
“Randy walked in the door when we were finishing up the previous restoration (‘Sierra Sue II’), and somehow he ended up shooting rivets that were very critical and easy to mess up,” Hokuf recalls. “He just hopped on and did a perfect job. I think he’s put himself into a career he never would’ve thought of, but he found this position and this niche that he’s really good at.”
After graduating from Bemidji High School with Hokuf in 1997, Kraft tried college. “I had dreams of working for Disney or Lucas Films,” Kraft says, and he enrolled in Bemidji State’s top-notch model building classes, but he just wasn’t into school at the time. Eager to make some money and escape from his hometown for a while, he worked for a large construction company in the Twin Cities for two and a half years before moving back to Bemidji, where he continued to work in construction for about seven years.
When someone told him about AirCorps, he thought, “I’m good at building stuff. Maybe I’ll just go build airplanes.” He talked to Hokuf and took a tour of the company. He then handed in a resume and got the job. Kraft does sheet metal work and fabrication and is currently working on the wings of a P-47 Thunderbolt. With his experience in construction, he brought critical thinking skills to this job and familiarity with reading blueprints. He appreciates the uniqueness of what he’s doing.
“There are 30,000 parts on a P-47. Nobody’s built one from scratch like this since before the war,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot since I’ve worked here.”
CAD Designer Steve Wold brought a passion for airplanes with him, but, like Kraft, his path to AirCorps was, at best, indirect. Wold grew up in Moorhead and graduated from Moorhead State in 1997 with a degree in fine arts, drawing and illustration. He moved to Colorado to mountain bike and snowboard and had planned to work at a ski resort, but some metal sculpture work he had dabbled with in college led him to apply for a “will train” welding job. He ended up working 17 years for a variety of companies owned by the same family, including working as a design engineer for Diamond Spas, custom spas and hot tubs, all the time gaining experience using SOLIDWORKS—the same CAD program used at AirCorps.
After moving back to Minnesota and taking some time to enjoy ice fishing, he saw a job listing from AirCorps. “They needed a SOLIDWORKS guy,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s me!’” He’s been working for AirCorps since March 2015. Although he hadn’t set out to find a job in aviation, he says, “Aviation in my family goes way back. My dad was a pilot and had a plane when I was growing up. We went to the Oshkosh air show every year.” Now he works at a place that wins awards there.
“Much of what we make has already been designed—75 years ago,” Wold says. “A lot of it is me reading a drawing from the 1940s and translating it into a 3D CAD model. The guys in the shop use all computer-operated machines now, so they need digital files. Obviously, you can’t put a hand-drawn 2D print from the ’40s into the machine; it has to be a digital file.”
One of the least likely fits to an aviation company is Ester Aube. Originally from Montana, Aube was a cosmetologist for three years then took classes in museum studies in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While working at a museum there, she learned about another area of study that interested her: restoring historic paintings and documents. She moved to Delaware and graduated with a B.S. in art conservation. Aube then married a Bemidji guy and moved to the area, doubting she would be able to use her degree there.
When she presented at a Young Entrepreneurs’ Launchpad event, Hokuf and Trueblood were impressed, but they weren’t sure they could use her talents at AirCorps. But they ended up offering her some hours digitizing files for a project.
“We get engineering drawings for these airplanes on microfilm, and we digitize them,” Aube explains. “We take the files and rename them to the part number. Back in WWII, locating a file might take 20 minutes. Now, we’ve created a software program—essentially data entry for thousands of drawings—and we can locate files in a few seconds.” Sometimes her job takes her to museums across the country where she digitizes files that can’t leave the premises.
Then came the website. “We had so much information in the shop and no way to organize it. Eric [Trueblood] conceptualized what the website might look like, and then Erik [Hokuf] says, ‘Let’s do a goodwill gesture to make this information available.’ That’s how it started.”
Restorers, researchers, model builders—anyone interested—can access all of the digitized files online. About a thousand members from 93 different countries subscribe to the site—and at a reasonable rate: $5/month or $50/year. It’s the only website of its kind where subscribers can actually see the entire files. Aube appreciates things like this happen at AirCorps.
“I’d never worked anywhere where you have an idea for something that you know is going to make things better, and your manager just says, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Now a full-time employee, Aube maintains the digitized library and the website, adding more files and assisting other workers in locating files. “My job is to help make everyone else’s job easier, better, faster. I never thought I’d be qualified to work in a job like this. It’s pretty awesome.”
Growing the workforce – they’re out there
AirCorps Aviation currently employs 35 people and a few paid interns. “By far, our largest expense is our employees, but all but two live in Bemidji or the region,” Hokuf says. “Manufacturing brings money into the community. Money comes here and stays here.” And Bemidji has significant advantages. “Internet and the airport are huge game changers. We have unbelievably high-speed internet here.”
“We have so much potential in this community,” Hokuf adds. He says he is “penciling in plans” to significantly increase his staff in three to five years. “We have some things to accomplish before we can do that, but certainly the work is out there. To get there, we have to work on our organizational structure—building leadership in the middle. I’m not listening to the people who say, ‘Where are you going to find those people?’ We’ve already done it to this point; I believe they’re out there.”
They just need to find their way to AirCorps.
Featured story in the Fall 2019 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.