Of Airports and Airparts

Front desk of Total Aircraft Parts and Maintenance with founder Francis Nelgion.
Front desk of Total Aircraft Parts and Maintenance with founder Francis Neligon.

 

Piece by Jean Germano     As was typical of my myriad journeys on Hartford’s public transit system I found myself hurriedly consulting the Transit Application on my phone as I boarded the Locust Street Line on the first day of Spring Break, the sole option to make my way into the industrial areas to the south of Colt Park. I had been in the Southern Industrial Park on past occasions out of curiosity of how it measured up to similar locales in the Midwest. A recent visit to Trinity by Professor Sarah Bronin who heads Hartford’s planning commission returned my thoughts to the area as her discussion on the latest comprehensive zoning plan for Hartford mentioned a desire to rezone and redevelop the areas in southeastern Hartford near the Connecticut River. Particularly noticeable on the plan is a “Connecticut River overlay district” over the footprint of the Hartford airport. This led me down a line of inquiry ending at the offices of Total Aircraft Parts at the Brainard Airport.

The Brainard Airport when it opened in 1921 was the only airstrip between New York and Boston. Since then the establishment of Bradley International and other municipal strips has filled the gap between these two major cities. It is a “general aviation airport” meaning that most flights from the airport are not tied to a fixed schedule. Some Hartford proponents have questioned if the large tract of land occupied by Brainard couldn’t be redeveloped to better serve the city’s need for revenue. In response the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT), the airport’s operator, performed an inquiry into the matter launched in 2015. A Hartford Courant article from December of 2016 said the report was submitted to a committee but failed to mention results. This was the last journalistic report I noticed so it made sense to inquire with a business owner at the airport whose prospects would be directly be impacted by any announcement.

Total Aircraft Parts and Maintenance is located on the Brainard Airport’s tarmac a short distance from the airport’s main terminal building. They are a parts dealer for Cessna and other small aircraft manufacturers, in addition to that the company also services piston and turbine powered aircraft. After registering at Brainard’s front desk and getting buzzed onto the tarmac I made my way through the front door of a multipurpose hangar that also hosts the offices of the Connecticut Flight Academy. Total Aircraft located on the first floor features storerooms for parts and a front reception desk that connects to a hangar area where customer planes are serviced. My first visit was focused on learning about the conclusion of the CTDOT inquiry and if I’d be able to find someone interested in talking about Total Aircraft’s history. I was pleasantly surprised to find Total’s founder at the front desk and that he was willing to talk.

Total has done its part to contribute to Hartford’s economic environment, the company’s founder Francis Neligon (or “Fran” for short) spent his earlier years pumping fuel and performing aircraft maintenance at local airports in the Hartford region. While working at a seller of parts for small aircraft quartered in Brainard he learned that his employer would be shutting down, seeing an opportunity for filling a niche he contacted the company’s existing customers and found that they were still interested in procuring parts at the airport. In 1989 Mr. Neligon founded Total Aircraft Parts and was able to reconnect with the client base of his closed down employer. Total Aircraft’s clientele is a mix of private and corporate aircraft owners in the Hartford region, many of them have worked with the company for twenty years or more. With Total established Mr. Neligon continued to look for ways to better serve his customers and in 1996 expanded into small aircraft maintenance hiring the best local mechanics he could who came with their own base of pre-existing clients. Presently Total employs six full time and two part time staff members most of whom are mechanics.

When I completed my first interview with Mr. Neligon I largely focused on getting answers about the future of the Brainard Airport and acquiring a base line knowledge of his business. I was interested to hear about the conclusion of the CTDOT study and Mr. Neligon was kind enough to forward a copy of the report’s abstract providing detail on the investigation. CTDOT’s investigation covered both the airport and the neighboring waste-to-power plant also located near the Connecticut River and was conducted with input from stakeholders from Hartford, the airport, and local developers. It was concluded that the airport provides a $43 million dollar value to the state and encourages the continued presence of major insurers in downtown Hartford. The report also acknowledges that state PILOT payments for the airport don’t completely offset Hartford’s lost taxes, but notes that site tear down and rehabilitation would be an expensive burden for cash strapped state and local governments that would fail to attract the mixed use development that might have been envisioned as a possibility for the area. The report’s ending is particularly important to businesses like Total Aircraft with a statement that speculation about Brainard’s future should end and that a decisive plan to maximize its value should be undertaken in order to encourage private investment that may have been scared away by uncertainty in the airport’s future.

Knowing that Brainard has a future during my visit to Total a few days later I focused my inquiry on Mr. Neligon’s thoughts on his company’s future. Small aircraft service is a line of work that encourages strong connections between aircraft owners and mechanics due to the specialized knowledge required to service aircraft and regulations that require a complete inspection by a qualified mechanic once a year. Meanwhile dealing in aircraft parts and being able to offer mechanics to install those parts opens up the chance to draw in new customers to the business. By expanding Total’s repertoire of parts suppliers and training company mechanics to service new generations of small aircraft (like the Cirrus SR20s manufactured in Duluth, MN, not far from my home) Mr. Neligon aims to keep up with his clients who want to fly newer craft while also drawing in younger pilots to replace some of the company’s older client base who are starting to retire from regular flying. While getting the necessary manuals and training for Total’s mechanics can be expensive the investment is a valuable one as it ensures the company can continue to sustain a reliable customer base for the maintenance arm. After completing the interview and thanking Mr. Neligon for his time I trudged through the snow to await the CT transit bus confident that while at first glance a general aviation strip like Brainard can seem like a large empty space companies like Total Aircraft choosing to call it home allows the city to maintain a valuable niche catering to small aircraft that few other urban cores can offer.