Interest in flight training soars after pandemic lockdowns

Malin Bergstrom had never really planned on working in the family business.

“I was going to be a veterinarian,” she said.

But things quickly changed, said the president of Bergstrom Aircraft Inc.

“Growing up, I worked summers and weekends to help out,” she said. “The summer after my senior year, I was approached to work full time. I liked being at the airport. Honestly, it’s such a great group of people — the customers and the co-workers.”

That was in the 1980s, and Bergstrom has been there ever since.

She fell in love with the people, and aviation too. She’s the volunteer president for the Pasco Aviation Museum, which recently reopened after being shut down for the past two years because of the pandemic.

Bergstrom’s beginnings

Her father, Karl Bergstrom, had been a mechanic for Trans Air in Sweden in the 1960s. But Karl’s wife, Elenor, convinced her husband to immigrate to the United States in 1965.

“My parents wanted to chase the American dream,” she said. “If you work hard, you’ll be rewarded. Sweden is a beautiful country, but it has a lot of taxes there. This is the land of the free.”

It took her dad some time to re-qualify as a mechanic in the U.S., but he got it done at Big Bend Community College and became the chief mechanic for Tri-City Airways at the Pasco airport in 1968.

By 1971, Karl and Elenor decided to open their own aircraft maintenance shop, which eventually incorporated into Bergstrom Aircraft by 1975, according to the company’s website.

The company continued to grow over the years.

In 1976, it started servicing planes by fueling them.

In 1981, it became a Beech Aero Center, which allowed it to give flight instruction, and started renting and selling planes.

And in 1983, it added a charter flight service.

Karl passed away six years ago “but I think he’d be proud of how we were doing. Honestly, this place hasn’t changed dramatically,” Malin said. “It’s still about helping the customer out.”

It remains a family business. Elenor is still an owner, as are Malin and her brother Daniel, who also works in the maintenance shop.

Daniel’s wife, Christina, is the general manager of the company.

“My parents never pushed Daniel or I to get into the business,” Malin said.

Surviving the pandemic

 The company seems to have survived the pandemic — even though it was touch and go for awhile.

“We saw close to a 75% drop in our business,” she said. “We didn’t lose a lot of people. Thankfully, our part-time people were able to do other things. And our full-time people offered to do things such as cleaning and painting. We asked everybody to tighten their belts.”

The pain, she said, lasted a good 18 months

“Then as travel restarted and things lifted slowly but surely, the airlines here needed fuel for their planes,” she said. “Some new airlines came in. Corporate customer business, which went away completely during that time period, started coming back. We just started focusing on doing the best job possible.”

The company has 32 employees. That’s an all-time high. And Bergstrom said she’s looking for more.

“We’re looking for positions of flight instructors and line service jobs,” she said. “And mechanics. We’re swamped. We need more mechanics for our private planes. Our little Cessnas, our King Airs.”

The mechanics are so busy that any maintenance on private planes is being booked out about 2 ½ months out.

Most private planes need an inspection every 100 hours. “For many private pilots, that might be done in one year,” said Malin.

For Bergstrom’s fleet, most of them get 100 hours of flight time every month.

Line service workers are the employees who refuel planes, de-ice them in the winter and rent out hangar space.

Bergstrom also handles hospitality and concierge services — which includes giving discounts on rental cars and hotel reservations, as well as catering.

Flight school

But the biggest part of the Bergstrom company business is the flight training.

The company has 12 airplanes and a flight simulator ready for its instructors.

“We’re always getting new flight students,” Malin said. “Everybody wants to be a pilot. The number of people who want to learn to fly has probably jumped 50% over the last 10 years.”

And more now than ever.

“People are wanting to follow their dreams, and the last six months they’ve been seeing the light at the end of the tunnel (from the pandemic),” she said. “People are walking in all of the time. They’ve been cooped up.”

Some of those customers come over from the Seattle area because the region can be too busy to handle all the pilots-in-training.

It all keeps her flight instructors hopping.

“We might have seven or eight of our airplanes up in the air each day, doing roughly 20 lessons a day,” Malin said. “Some of our instructors might do three or four lessons a day, but we have a limitation on how much an instructor can fly in a 24-hour period.”

A pilot’s license can cost about $14,000, and the company offers a payment plan.

“We compare it to the cost of a college education. You have to invest in yourself,” she said.

She said many of their customers are recreational flyers, who might want to take a trip to the coast.

“But a fair number of customers are career-minded,” she added.

There are different avenues in becoming a commercial pilot. One is joining the military and going that avenue.

Or they can take the stepping stones offered at Bergstrom: getting a pilot’s license, then a commercial pilot’s license. “It’s equivalent to getting a CDL,” she said.

The idea is for someone to build up their flight hours.

When they get enough, they can get their flight instructor’s license, which allows the pilot to be a teacher — and get paid to fly.

The double-edged sword, though, is that some of those flight instructors will eventually move on.

“We’ve been losing some of them to airlines,” Malin said.

But Malin wouldn’t want to be in any other business, including veterinary work.

“We’re a full-service aviation company,” she said. “What keeps me coming every day? It’s the people. Our customers. Our longtime employees, people who have been with us the entire time. It is a big family.”

Pasco Aviation Museum

 As if Malin doesn’t have enough to do, she’s also the volunteer president for the SaveTheOldTower group, a nonprofit working to restore the old Naval Air Station tower, located next door to the current Bergstrom Aircraft building.

Back in the 1940s, the Navy built the airport to train its pilots, with the tower at the east end of the facility. But the Navy handed over the airport to the city of Pasco in the 1950s.

That’s where the terminal was until the new Pasco airport — current day airport — was built in 1966.

Bergstrom Aircraft moved into the old terminal and tower in 1971 and stayed through 2001, before moving into the current facility.

For years after 2001, the building was empty and starting to get run down.

“There were a lot of birds in here,” she said. “In 2011, there was talk of tearing the old tower down.”

After the group formed, it was given the clearance to save the facility.

It raised enough money to restore the building through donations and state grants.

The first two floors of the tower are completed, and work is underway on the third and fourth. When those are done, Malin says they’ll start to work on the fifth and final floor.

“We still need more (money) to get the remaining floors restored,” she said.

The museum, which was opened before the pandemic, was shuttered for the past two years. It reopened April 23.

“Over 800 people came through the doors that day,” she said.

The facility is only open on Saturdays until the group can get more volunteers.

“We have a sturdy base of 20 volunteers,” she said. “But we could use some more tour guides.”

Bergstrom Aircraft Inc.: 4102 N. Stearman Ave., Pasco; 509-547-6271; bergstromaircraft.com; Hours are 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Pasco Aviation Museum: Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays only; enter through Bergstrom Aircraft. Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and youth. Veterans and members of the museum are admitted free.

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