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Superior Air marks 10th year

The company's Learjet averages three trips per week, but in peak times it flies nearly every day

From humble beginnings, Superior Air Charter Inc., has carved out a significant West Coast jet charter niche.

If it weren't for the audible reminder of its twin General Electric CJ 610 engines thundering overhead, Superior Air would hardly be noticed. But as the company celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, Superior stands alone as the only jet charter service between Eugene and the San Francisco Bay area.

"There is no other jet charter service in quite some range, and we're poised to run with that market," says Larry Brandenburg, president and chief pilot. "We've had loyal clients, and they've stuck with us through thick and thin."

Brandenburg, 41, earned three degrees - aeronautical science, aviation computer programming and aeronautical studies with management - from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. He was the top graduate in his class, earning the provost award.

He flew for E.P. Enterprise in Portland and Boise Cascade Corp. in Idaho before landing in the Rogue Valley in 1989. He flew for Pacific Flights for three years before he was laid off.

It was during a talk with one of his former clients that the possibility of a new air service was born. John Duke, owner of Superior Athletic Club and present chairman of the PremierWest Bancorp board, began quizzing Brandenburg about a possible venture.

"I told John that I had always wanted to start my own company, and he said 'Hit me with some numbers,' " Brandenburg recalls.

Within a few weeks Superior Air Charter was born, incorporating on March 16, 1992.

When Superior Air was launched. Southern Oregon Skyways, founded in 1967 by Elmont George, was the dominant charter service with a dozen aircraft, including its own Learjet.

Brandenburg assembled flight projections, finance information, start-up costs and projected income based on the amount of flight hours in certain types of aircraft.

"I put together a lot of graphs and tables," he says. "We needed an office to operate from, hanger facilities to house an aircraft ... the main item we needed was an airplane."

Federal Aviation Administration hurdles delayed him from jumping straight into jet service. It would have taken nearly a year to pass through the hoops for jet service.

"There are Department of Transportation requirements, insurance requirements, maintenance inspections by the FAA to make sure you're properly equipped and maintained," Brandenburg says. "There are manuals to be written on how you will conduct operations. They have to approve pretty much every procedure. They either approve or reject, with recommendations, each step of the way."

As a result, the first plane deployed was a seven-passenger twin-engine Cessna 421 Golden Eagle. The first trip was a short one - to Brookings - the second was to Riverside, Calif.

At first, it was a one-man operation, with maintenance contracted out. But immediately, Brandenburg pushed toward international service and air ambulance approval.

In 1993, Superior Air bought its first nine-passenger Cessna Conquest II and added a second Conquest II in 1994.

In 1997, Brandenburg achieved his dream of jet service, when the company obtained an eight-passenger Learjet 25, capable of flying 2,000 miles nonstop in less than 51/2 hours. It's the company's only plane currently, but Brandenburg says he is contemplating acquiring another plane.

The Learjet makes an average of three trips per week, but during peak periods it's in the air nearly every day. For a period of time, air ambulance service - much of it involving missions to Canada - accounted for nearly 70 percent of the business. Today, the overwhelming majority of business is classified as executive travel.

"People come to me and want to know how this valley can support this type of service," Brandenburg says. "But it doesn't depend solely on the local economy. Day to day, most of our business is outside the area. But logistically, this is a great place to be based."

If somebody in Boise needs a flight to another West Coast site, Superior could hop over and deliver passengers or freight as cost-effectively as any Northwest charter.

Superior Air is listed in international directors, with brokers about the country, the Internet and in a variety of phone books.

"But most of our business is word of mouth and referrals," Brandenburg says. .

Learjets cost about $2 million, Brandenburg says, and bill out at about $1,600 an hour. A round-trip to Los Angeles takes three hours and would cost its passengers roughly $5,500, he says.

"Typically in this industry a lot of time is spent overnighting away from home," he says. "But we're home almost every night. That's why a lot of people like charter jets. It gets you to where you're going, do your business and get home. You might spend all day in Los Angeles, but you get home in time for dinner.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail