The Chicago Rockford International Airport is a busy place, but there’s a lot happening there you may night know about.
Fighter jets come and go at the airport all the time. It’s not a military base, and they aren’t active Air Force planes. They’re retired trainers, and they’re the focus of Rockford’s Code 1 Aviation.
Nathan Jones started the business in 2012. “I don’t think there’s a company in the country, or even the world, that does what we do at the level that we do it,” he said.
What Code 1 Aviation does is work on jets called L39’s. They’re originally from Czechoslovakia. From the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s, many of the aircraft were imported into the United States. There are about 250 or so flying in the U.S.
Many owners bring their planes to Code 1 for maintenance.
“We’re re-engineering the airplane. We’re putting in new avionics. We’re designing wet wing fuel tanks to use in the airplane to extend the range for the airplanes,” Jones said. “We take an engine off from a corporate aircraft here in the United States, modify it for installation into the L39, and do that installation, which has been very popular.”
Nathan will be the first to tell you that he can’t do the work alone. There’s a lot of manufacturing work that goes on. Code 1 has its own machine and paint shops.
“Right after high school, I went and got my private pilot’s license, thinking I was going to be a corporate pilot or an airline pilot, that’s the route I thought I wanted to go,” said Restoration Specialist Chris Koks. “Then, I found Code 1 Aviation and it changed all my ideas. There’s a lot of different avenues. There’s paint, there’s wiring, avionics, fabrication, and then what I’m doing, the restoration side.”
Code 1’s first home was in Lakeland, Florida in April 2012. By June, there was a DeKalb location. In November of 2012, the company moved to the Rockford airport. They moved into their current building in 2016.
“We have grown in leaps and bounds,” office manager, Carolyn Reynolds, said. “Our customer base has grown. Our staff has grown. When we first began, I think we had five employees.”
Now there’s about 30 employees in three locations. Many of them come from Rock Valley College’s Aviation Maintenance Program.
“I would say half of our staff has probably gone through that class,” Jones said. “And that’s a great lead in. And we hire a lot of guys that come over, part-time, while they’re going to school.”
Kos said, “Even though we’re primarily only working on L39s, we can jump from one L39 to another. And something’s gonna be a little different. We’re gonna have to re-think it, re-imagine it. That’s what makes it fun.”
In case you were wondering, a nice L39 plane will set you back anywhere from $200-$400,000.