Aviation company in rural Douglas County files plans for its fifth major expansion in recent years

photo by: Nick Krug

McFarlane Aviation mechanic Andy Pritchard hunches over the engine of a Cessna 337 Spymaster during an annual inspection at the aviation parts and production facility on Thursday, May 5, 2016, at McFarlane Aviation, 696 East 1700 Road in Vinland.

There aren’t big business jets that land on the grass runway at the Vinland airport. But there sure are a lot of jobs landing at the country airstrip between Baldwin City and Lawrence.

About every couple of years, it seems like McFarlane Aviation builds another 20,000-square-foot building, or more, to house more jobs for a booming business that supplies replacement parts for airplanes across the country.

That scenario is poised to happen again. McFarlane has filed plans with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department to build a 22,000-square-foot building on its privately owned airport property at 696 E. 1700 Road.

Plans call for the business to add more storage and manufacturing space for the business, which makes and sells more than 2,500 parts for various types of airplanes. This expansion, though, is the first since the company in late 2019 bought the business of a major propeller distributor.

As we reported, McFarlane became the largest distributor of a particular type of composite propeller when it bought Wisconsin-based Flight Resource in 2019. At the time, McFarlane Aviation president Scott Still told me he thought the market for the composite propellers was on the verge of doubling or tripling as aircraft owners learned of some of the advantages of the composite material.

Back in 2019, the company had 110 employees, but founder and CEO Dave McFarlane told me then he thought the company soon would hit 150 employees, especially as the company would need to be adding not only distribution workers but also engineers to support the design and installation of the aircraft propeller products.

I’ve got a call into McFarlane officials, but the plans filed with the county indicate the company is now planning for well over 200 employees at the site. I’ll let you know when I get a better update on the numbers.

But what is certain is that the company continues to be one of the better homegrown success stories in Douglas County’s business world. People — especially those who like chicken and noodles, pie and antique tractor pulling at the Vinland Fair each August — probably have seen McFarlane Aviation for years. The company and its airport is basically across the road from the Vinland fairgrounds. You can see the business if you take County Route 1055 into Baldwin City. To most, the business mainly looked like a typical rural airport with a few hangars for small airplanes, and a sign that promoted flying lessons.

But for years there also was a nascent aircraft parts business on the property. That business began in 1988 with three employees, McFarlane previously has told me. By 2011, the company had 38 employees, and bigger things on its mind. That’s when the company filed plans to rezone the airport property for industrial use, and built a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing building.

I believe this latest project will mark the fifth such expansion. The plans filed with the county show there will be just more than 90,000 square feet of industrial buildings on the airport property once the project is completed.

As for what’s fueling the company’s success, McFarlane previously has told me he was fortunate to get into a good industry years ago. As he explains it, airplanes are expensive, and owners aren’t eager to buy new ones because of those costs. But, airplanes also are durable, if they are properly maintained. That opens up a big opportunity for companies that make replacement parts.

“The big advantage we have is an aircraft is a durable product,” McFarlane told me in 2019. “They have a service life of 80 years, if you take care of them.”

The company’s latest expansion project already has the necessary zoning to add an industrial building, so the plans basically just need some technical site plan approvals. Given that, construction presumably could begin this spring or summer, but I’ll let you know if I receive updated information from the company.


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