There’s a new boss at Wipaire, but he’s definitely not a stranger to the business or the GA community. Late last year Chuck Wiplinger was elected by the board of directors president of the company founded by his grandfather, Ben, in 1960. He takes over the reins from his father, Bob (known as Wip), making Chuck, at just 31, the third generation of the family to run the company.
It’s a job he’s been preparing for his whole life.
“As a child I didn’t dwell on it, but I used to think, ‘yeah, I want to work in the family business,’” says Chuck, who is also known as Charlie to friends and family. “Now, it’s starting to dawn on me that I have to run this beast.”
But while he has a lot of new responsibilities, he notes he is not being “hung out to dry.” “Dad is still here daily, so I don’t have to completely fill his shoes,” he says, adding, “it’s a lot easier than being thrown in the deep end.”
The business, based in South St. Paul, Minn., has changed dramatically over the last five decades. It all began with Ben Wiplinger’s mission to “build the toughest float anybody ever stuck under an airplane.”
Fascinated with aviation from childhood, Ben studied aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota before going to work for Douglas Aircraft in California. At 25, he returned to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area as just one of six certified aircraft mechanics in the area. With the war raging in Europe, he was drafted into the Army Air Force, where he achieved several decorations for his engineering contributions. After the war, he started Wiplinger Aircraft Service at South St. Paul Airport, converting surplus military aircraft into business aircraft for companies like 3M.
Things changed when he bought his first seaplane in 1951, instigating a passion for seaplane flying. He developed an improved hydraulic system for his Edo floats, setting the stage for his next venture: The creation, in 1960, of Wipline Inc.
He began designing and building his first floats, working with 3M to develop a metal bonding technique that allowed him to use fewer rivets, achieving a smoother and lighter float. He also incorporated flat top decks on the floats, allowing the pilot and passengers to maneuver into and out of the airplane more safely. In 1961 he bought a Cessna 185 to flight test his new floats. In 1962 he sold his first set of floats to Ontario Central Airlines. Over the next few years, he received FAA certification for the Cessna 185 and 206 on Wipline 3700 floats.
Wip, the second generation, joined the company in 1970 after receiving his aeronautical engineering degree from the University of Minnesota. In 1971, the company was moved to a new facility overlooking the Mississippi River. Production increased and, by the end of 1974, the 100th set of Wipline amphibious floats had come off the production line. During the 1970s, Ben and Wip took on an extensive engineering project to float the Nomad. Though the Nomad aircraft had a short production run, the design for the Nomad float opened the door to other larger scale projects and became the forerunner for the popular Wipline 8000 float. In 1974 Wip started Wipaire, Inc. to perform maintenance as a certified Cessna Service Center at Fleming Field. In 1979, he purchased Wipline from his father.
Under Wip, the company’s product line expanded, starting with the introduction of Wipline 6000 floats for the de Havilland Beaver in 1982. In 1985, the first Wipline 8000 floats for the Cessna Caravan were launched. Wipaire’s largest float, the Wipline 13000, was certified on the de Havilland Twin Otter in 1992, while the company’s smallest float, the Wipline 2100, was certified in 1997. The Wipline 2350, 3000 and 4000 also joined the Wipline line of floats during the 1990s. The company also branched out into other modifications, such as certifying a co-pilot door and Wip Tip wing extensions for the Cessna 206 and gross weight increases for the Piper Cub and the Cessna Caravan. In 1996, Wipaire introduced the Boss Beaver, which combines a selection of Beaver modifications, a turbine engine and Wipline 6000 floats.
That was followed in 2002 with the introduction of the Fire Boss, a single-pilot fire suppression aircraft equipped with the company’s 10000 model amphibious floats. It’s been credited as being key in saving millions of acres of forest and buildings in Spain, Canada, and other countries, according to company officials. Six years later, the dual-pilot version was introduced, marketed as a trainer. In true Wipaire fashion, the company continues developing other configurations of the Fire Boss, including a 1600-hp engine on the single pilot version, and adding a vortex generator array on the dual pilot model without float provisions, lowering stall speeds 5-8 knots.
Engineering innovation continues at the company, which already has more than 100 Supplemental Type Certificates for a variety of modifications. One of its latest is the installation of Wipline 7000 amphibious floats on the Quest Kodiak.
The company, which was recently named a Kodiak Service Center, boasts a full service maintenance department, avionics installation and repair, a paint and refinishing facility, and custom and luxury interior installation. In fact, it just opened its 7,800-square-foot interior shop and is starting work on a variety of other interior projects to follow up on its recently completed Twin Otter Executive Interior.
Keeping all this organized is a challenge, Chuck admits. “At 8 a.m., I am organized, by 5 p.m., I’m disorganized,” he says with a laugh. “There is a lot going on — it’s a dynamic environment.”
But the constant innovation is one of the keys to the company’s success, he says. “We’re always doing something new and the avionics and interiors, for example, complement our base business, which is building and installing floats. A few more revenue streams gives us the ability to do more.”
The concept of a “one-stop shop” is often mentioned about Wipaire, he acknowledges. “We do offer a wide array of services. We can completely freshen up an airplane from the engine to avionics and, of course, floats.”
Fueling a lot of the new products and services at the company is the elder Wiplinger. “He’ll come in and say, ‘I’ve been scheming on something,’” Chuck says with a laugh, noting there’s no formal process for developing new ideas. Rather, Wip will say, “what would I want?” “He thinks of himself as a pilot, so if it is something he wants, he figures other pilots will want it as well,” Chuck says.
Others in the company, of course, also develop ideas, but bringing them to life is the company’s crack engineering team. Chuck, who also graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in aerospace engineering, is an integral part of the team, which has grown over the years to include 12 people from draftsmen to engineers. Adding to the team was critical to the company, according to Chuck. “It got to the point that we were known for STCs and there was so much to do that we had to add engineers. It was painful at first — it wasn’t cheap.”
But it’s an investment that’s paid off. Besides developing new products, the engineering team also has a few structural DERs who are very useful when an airplane comes in that needs structural repairs, he says.
And, of course, the engineers are hard at work on a number of projects that are in the works. Expect to see some announcements in the coming months.
As for the next generation of Wipaire leadership? Chuck’s son Kaleb is just 11 months old, just learning to walk and talk. He’s been flying, of course, but “I can’t say that he enthusiastically enjoys it,” Chuck says, noting he’s “stuck in a car seat.”
Chuck’s sister, Nancy Pone, who is vice president of the company, quadruples the odds that a future generation will be involved in the company with her daughters — two sets of identical twins — Ingrid and Helen, 5, and Nora and Stella, 2.
Whether the girls or Kaleb will follow in the family business is up to them, according Chuck. “Like my dad, I’m not going to push him,” Chuck says of his son. “It’s his choice. A lot of times I would tell him to run, go to school to do something else.”
Other times, Chuck would expound on the importance of the company, which has about 155 employees, remaining a family-run business.
“There’s a lot of pride here,” he says, noting that besides his sister and father, his wife, Sara, also works at the company.
That pride is evident when customers visit the company’s operations, he adds. “That’s the best sales tool we have,” he says. “I enjoy customers coming here so they can get a feel for what we are and what we stand for.”
For more information: Wipaire.com