The fact that the Bridgewater Air Park, a privately owned, public-use general aviation airport in rural Virginia, has its own nine-member police force is testament to the special missions work that airport owner Dynamic Aviation performs here.
Inside Dynamic's hangars, maintenance and modification work is taking place on numerous Beechcraft King Air 90, King Air 200 and Bombardier Dash 8 twin turboprops by hundreds of technicians and mechanics. Some of the work is secret, some is not.
Since 2002, Dynamic's largest growth engine has been the US military, with modification work primarily dedicated to sidecars or pods for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) packages, most likely to be flown over Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, other core portions of the business have also grown in that time, including modification, maintenance and leasing arrangements for agricultural spraying operations, photo missions or even "bird dog" work for aerial firefighting.
"Our core is service," says Dynamic Aviation president and chief executive Michael Stoltzfus. "If the customer has an idea for modifying [those aircraft], we can respond to that need, anywhere in the world."
Despite the inescapable cutbacks affecting the military sector, Stoltzfus is taking a glass-half-full outlook, seeing the slowdown on the military side as giving the family-owned company more time to do what it has done since his grandfather started an aviation business in 1937 - coming up with creative solutions to make aircraft productive for any special missions, whether commercial or military.
"There are some other niche markets we've had interest in getting into," says Stoltzfus, "but we have been too busy the past couple of years with responding to ISR needs. We continue to put off some of these other ideas we have. We believe what's going to occur is, as things [in the military] taper off, we're going to be able to take our mind space and resources and invest in some other niche markets, both civil and military, domestic and international."
He adds that while there is less "new work" coming from the defence side today, "there's certainly still new work".
The Bombardier Dash 8 twin turboprop is a core platform for Dynamic Aviation
Dynamic Aviation was started by Stoltzfus's father and uncle in 1967 in nearby Harrisonburg, Virginia, primarily building training aids for high-school vocational classes from parts pulled from wrecked Vietnam War fighters.
In 1981, Dynamic began modifying and flying Beech 18s for spraying insecticide to tackle the gypsy moth and mosquito problem in the mid-Atlantic area. In 1992, it added sterile insect release capability - an autocidal technique where sterile flies are released from an aircraft to eradicate problem insects such as the screw-worm fly and medfly.
In 1998, Dynamic began providing Beech King Air 90 aircraft to the US government as lead planes for aerial firefighting water bombers. Another new commercial capability the company added in 1998 - aerial photography and airborne data acquisition for missions such as geophysical surveys - eventually paved the way for ISR work in the aftermath of the September 2011 terrorist attacks in the USA.
"After 9/11, we got a strong feeling in the gut that there were going to be major needs," says Stoltzfus. "We couldn't articulate what those needs were at that point, though."
Dynamic's sterling reputation in the airborne data acquisition community led to discussions with a government "customer" in 2003, leading to a one-year contract for a King Air 200 (US Army C-12) ISR sensor package modification in 2004.
At the time, the company had 150 employees, a number that has rapidly risen to 750 today, with about 350 on the campus in Bridgewater on any given work day. The non-unionised workforce typically works single-shift days.
"During the first contract, we established in the customer's mind that we could respond rapidly," says Stoltzfus. "Down-range we had phenomenal dispatch reliability compared with other assets at the base we were on. In niche markets, if you serve them well, everyone is talking to each other, and now we have a broad customer base."
Stoltzfus says all of Dynamic's businesses grew in the 2002-2007 timeframe, but "not to the level the ISR biz has grown". He says the company is involved in five business segments and 15 markets, each with "one or two" competitors. Rapid growth in facilities at Bridgewater was matched by an extension of the single 837m (2,745ft) runway to 1,220m, although the extension is now designated as an overrun area, with white chevrons painted along its length.
While Stoltzfus is unwilling or unable to identify his customers, the company retains ownership of more than 100 aircraft in the US Federal Aviation Administration registration database including N45E, a King Air 200 public websites reveal is part of the US Army's Desert Owl operation in Iraq.
Desert Owl was deployed to find command-wire improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using synthetic aperture radar and advanced image-processing algorithms to detect when terrain has been disturbed, as when someone plants an IED on or near a road.
The GlobalSecurity.org website states that the Desert Owl system includes the King Air 200T, or C-12 in military parlance, fitted with a PenRad 7 synthetic aperture radar system and the L-3 MX-15 electro-optical/infrared sensor.
The site says Desert Owl provides full-motion video feeds in the electro-optical and infrared modes, as well as laser illuminator and designator "for precision targeting".
Dynamic often works as a subcontractor to SAIC for the ISR aircraft modifications, a relationship highlighted by SAIC's facility on Dynamic's campus at Bridgewater.
SAIC's website displays several King Air and Dash 8 aircraft which have been modified with pods or sidecars developed and installed by Dynamic, including a Dash 8-200 with nose extension, payload sidecars and other modifications. Stoltzfus says the sidecars are a standard offering through SAIC and allow the customer to carry "any sensor he wants".
Stoltzfus adds that Dynamic generally uses a five-step process for its aircraft deals: buy it on speculation of a future sale; overhaul it; modify it; fly it; and maintain it. "The customer comes to us with an idea and we already have the aircraft on spec," he says. "Engineers work with the customer, and we use the shops here to make the modifications."
Facilities at Bridgewater include a welding shop, machine shop, avionics shop, sheet metal and composites shop, and an engines shop. Most of the modifications are "one-offs", says Stoltzfus, and use the FAA's Form 337 method for airworthiness certification.
Beech aircraft were an early driver of Dynamic's modifications business
The aviation shop installs a standard pre-wired panel layout for all King Air 200s, which includes two Garmin 600 primary flight displays and space mid-panel for ISR equipment controls. Stoltzfus says he plans to eventually install the Garmin systems in all of Dynamic's aircraft.
Pilots make up a significant portion of Dynamic's workforce. Stoltzfus says there are about 200 pilots on staff. Those working the military programmes in combat theatres will typically be on-station for 60 to 90 days, returning home to have the same amount of time off.
Special-missions training for King Air 200 pilots takes place at Bridgewater using two fixed-base simulators with King Air cockpits driven by Merlin Simulation systems. The simulators are used daily for about four hours per day.
Stoltzfus himself has 6,000h of pilot time, checked out to fly the Beech1900 and DC-3, and a flight engineer's rating in the DC-6 from when he worked for Northern Air Cargo in Anchorage 17 years ago. He says he was a "late-comer" in his family - he decided to start flying at 20 when others had started at 16, the minimum age to solo a powered aircraft in the USA.
As for what new special missions work he intends to pursue, Stoltzfus will not say. Whatever the company gets involved in, however, the rural can-do mindset is sure to make Dynamic a top competitor. "You find out what the job is, put your head down and get the job done," says Stoltzfus. "Every day, we get out of bed and go in and create value."
John Croft contributes commentary on civil aircraft programmes to the FlightBlogger blog