Michael Hutchins began his aviation career in the vast and complex world of aerial application, initially loading aircraft and eventually, through hard work and determination, working his way to flying for the company that he now owns, Custom Air. Starting over 30 years ago, Michael Hutchins started working ground operations for Custom Air during high school and learned to fly while he was attending college. 1996 marked his first season as an agricultural pilot. Michael flew for Custom Air for the next 10 years until he purchased the business in 2006. Based in Roe, Arkansas Custom Air has evolved over the last three decades from aerial spraying, to custom fabricating parts and STCs to now bifurcating into two distinct disciplines, with his newest venture focusing on serving the aerial firefighting industry, Coastal Air Strike.
After a successful acquisition of Custom Air, Michael Hutchins began his journey into aerial firefighting by gaining accreditation to work as an aerial firefighting pilot during the off-season. He worked his first season fighting fires in Oklahoma for John Schwenk, then owner of AeroSpray Inc, which would later go on to be bought out by another company.
In 2010, Hutchins began investing in aerial firefighting aircraft as an additional business focus, purchasing the company’s first Air Tractor AT-802, adding a second in 2015 and a third in 2019. This growth pattern continued to build over the years into what is now a purpose-built business from the ground up that serves multiple states on fire contracts. Over the next several years, Hutchins would continue to build the business reputation as a quality operation under the Custom Air brand.
In 2019, Michael along with some of his friends in the industry became aware of Fletcher Flying Service potentially being for sale. Fletcher Flying Service was a Florida-based operation that functioned like Custom Air as part agricultural spraying operation and part aerial firefighting operator. After negotiations, the sale was finalized in 2020. At that time Custom Air became a separate business from the aerial firefighting operation, and Coastal Air Strike was formed. This created a new brand dedicated to the aerial firefighting world. With the purchase, came the addition of aircraft and business premises in Florida.
In addition to the purchase of Fletcher Flying Service, a decision was made to convert two of the company’s 802F aircraft to the FireBoss configuration, on amphibious floats, which allow the aircraft to fill from any water source with enough room to land and scoop on, versus being limited to only returning to base to refill the hopper. Both aircraft’s conversions are now complete, and both Colby Smith and Coastal Air Strike Chief Pilot Aaron Vince will begin operations this summer with Michael Hutchins as a relief pilot.
Each FireBoss is identically configured with the Wipaire float system, Spidertracks aircraft tracking platform (which are fitted to all aircraft company-wide), HydraMax Fire Gates and a MaxViz Infrared Enhanced Vision System. One of the aircraft also was upgraded to the MT Composite Propeller, an item that has just recently received its STC for the FireBoss.
“I have run the MT Propeller on personal planes, so with the weight savings on a standard prop and the added performance it offers, it was worth the added investment. You need all the performance you can get flying a FireBoss, and I can already tell the difference that the MT prop provides,” said Hutchins. The company has ordered an additional MT prop to be fitted to the second FireBoss based on initial testing and performance.
With the addition of Fletcher Flying Service into the operation in 2020, four aircraft were also added to the already growing fleet. Still, to continue growing and to provide enough aircraft to meet the requirements of some of the larger contracts, Hutchins turned to friends Shaun Harris (B&S Air) and Brent Carpenter (Hog Air) to start leasing aircraft to help with the expansion of the Coastal Air Strike fleet. The addition of these business acquaintances and their aircraft brought the total number of aircraft under the Coastal Air Strike brand to 12 – two FireBosses and 10 Air Tractor AT-802s.
Making it All Work
Although two other operators supply additional aircraft on a lease agreement to Coastal Air Strike, Hutchins serves as the company CEO, steering the company’s direction and what future growth the company continues to pursue. Managing large contracts, a fleet of 12 aircraft, 17 pilots and multiple bases around the country, as well as looking for more work throughout the year does not, however, fall squarely on the shoulders of Hutchins. Coastal Air Strike employs two contract development managers, Bobbi Jo Otte and Sarah Lucas to fulfill those roles; completing new bid development and input from Chief Pilot Aaron Vince and office manager Maria Castaneda who assists in keeping the day-to-day operations of the company moving forward.
As with any company when commencing operations, Michael Hutchins had to look for an area that was underserved in the industry; hence converting two of the existing aircraft into the Fireboss configuration, banking on the marketability of having a fast-filling aircraft that can be back on the fire quicker than one that has to return to base be refilled. The FireBoss can stay on station for an entire fuel cycle, only needing a nearby water source to stay on a fire and continue drops.
“The biggest thing we saw was that it would be advantageous to come into this market with the FireBoss, which adds value to our market when compared to a company that only offers straight SEAT aircraft, where the FireBoss side is not nearly as congested. So we merely see it as an opportunity to diversify our portfolio of airplanes. In the future, we will move some over to floats and keep some on wheels, to not have all of our eggs in one basket,” said Hutchins.
The COVID pandemic caused Coastal Air Strike to make training adjustments like many others around the world. At the same time, Hutchins stated that the adjustments were minor, focusing on splitting training into smaller groups; he is looking forward to next year when things can hopefully return to normal.
The company completes all of its training in-house at its base in Roe, Arkansas, where pilots are put through both classroom and practical training focusing on firefighting operations . Hutchins noted that while 2021 training was somewhat scaled back due to Covid, his plans for more in depth training in 2022 include putting pilots through all the stresses of real fires – launching an air attack aircraft to conduct overwatch duties so that pilots are challenged with all the aspects that they would be on a real fire, simulating as much as possible of the real-world environments seen during an active firefight.
“My goal is to shape our company training into something similar to what used to take place in Safford, Arizona, that was put on by the federal government years ago. Next year, we’ll have our crews fighting fires around our home base. We’ve secured land that we can conduct actual burns on, so we‘re going to have real fires going. We can send guys out to drop where they are pretty much doing every possible thing they’ll be challenged within the real world, except mountains, as we don’t find too many of those in this part of Arkansas.“
“The idea is that you take some new guys, incorporate them with our more experienced guys in the company training session, where they start out really really simple with classroom stuff in the morning, then talk about what we’re going to do in the afternoon. Then in the afternoon session, we take what we learned in class and apply it to the real world.”
Hutchins’ training syllabus focuses from day one to the end of training on challenging new pilots, making sure they can handle the rigors of the aerial firefighting industry and the complexities that can occur on a fire. While not only aiming to put out the fire in the fastest possible time, but also safely. To do that Hutchins and other senior pilots at Coastal Air Strike will challenge pilots in a controlled environment to make sure that any mistakes made or knowledge increase needed is made before hitting the ground running in the fire environment.
While there is no “perfect solution” for the ideal aerial firefighting pilot for Hutchins, due to the nature of the work and the need for experience in a SEAT aircraft, Hutchins needs to look no further than pilots with agricultural expertise that are looking at getting into the aerial firefighting industry. As an ag pilot himself with over 18,000 hours of low level, precision flight time, Hutchins knows how to spot a “good stick,” which he states is the essential part of being an aerial firefighting pilot.
In a perfect world, Hutchins says that his ideal pilot would have a good mix of military/ commercial and agricultural flying as a background. “You can’t teach a good stick, you either have it, or you don’t” said Hutchins, referring to the natural ability to fly that many high-time pilots have developed.
“Me personally, I’m probably going to lean towards an ag guy because I have 100% confidence in the fact that if something goes wrong, that guy is going to be comfortable in whatever situation happens in the airplane. I think if somebody has the right mindset, I think you can train them. And that’s the whole point of company training. I think you can train pilots on procedures and radio work easier than you can train somebody to be a stick and rudder guy.”
Even as CEO of Coastal Air Strike and Custom Air, Michael still climbs in the cockpit on a daily basis. He can‘t envision a time where he becomes a non-flying CEO. “This is actually going to be the first year since I started in 1996 that I’m not going to be flying full-time. So, it’s a big transition for me. I can’t walk away from it and just be the guy at the desk on the phone. But I do have to be realistic about it and realize that a larger percentage of my time does need to be managing the operation. I am, however, really blessed from the standpoint that I am surrounded by outstanding pilots where I don’t feel like I have to be that gap anymore, which takes a load off my shoulders.”
Even as a somewhat newcomer with the rebranded operation of Coastal Air Strike, Michael Hutchins and his team are not newcomers to the aviation industry, which seems to run in his veins. Coastal Air Strike continues to grow rapidly, which suits Michael just fine. His calm demeanor and affinity for aviation business ventures seem endless, as do the possibilities in the aerial firefighting world for Coastal Air Strike.