“Growing up in my family, you didn’t talk about other airplanes. King Airs were bad. And God never made a low-wing bird; he filled the skies with Aero Commanders.” That’s how Kevin McCullough remembers his larger-then-life grandfather, Swede Ralston, who founded Hillsboro Aviation and, later, Aero Air.
“On my and my twin brother’s fifteenth birthday Swede came to the house, sat down with us, and said if you want to learn to fly we can start now. So we started flying that weekend,” McCullough recalled. They trained in –– what else –– Darter and Lark Commanders. “He wouldn’t have a Cessna on the ramp.”
They often flew to Flying M Ranch south of Portland, which at the time had a 2,000-foot-long gravel strip with a lodge at one end. “We used to go there for breakfast,” McCullough said. “Swede said if you can get me in and out of that strip I’ll solo you. I soloed on my sixteenth birthday.
“For my long cross-country I flew across the United States. Swede, my brother and I hopped a ride on a Gulfstream GII that was going to Bangor, Maine. In Bangor we picked up a used Lark Commander that we flew back to Oregon over a week, landing on my parents’ mile-long gravel driveway. The next day Swede signed us off for unlimited solo cross-country flying.”
McCullough earned his private certificate, and began adding to his aviation credentials. In 1998 he approached Jack Erikson, founder of Erikson Air-Crane and a loyal customer of Aero Air, with a proposal to purchase the company from Ralston. “Erikson and his dad bought over 20 brand-new aircraft from Swede over the years,” McCullough said. “Not only was he a client, he also was very good friends with the family. Jack was there when I was born, and I grew up around Jack.”
Erickson agreed to partner with McCullough, who had big plans. “We changed it to an aircraft operations company,” he explained. “Our focus has been on supporting Commanders and other types of aircraft, and also operating our own aircraft.” Those operations include managing customer-owned aircraft, operating a growing medevac fleet and, more recently, converting and operating firefighting water bombers.
“Jack is still involved in the company, especially since we started the firefighting effort three years ago,” McCullough added. “We’re just in the final months of getting the STC on MD87. We have worked closely together on that. He’s just a great guy to work with.”
McCullough is an active and passionate pilot, and has played a key role in Aero Air’s flight operations. He was a check airmen in the Commanders for several years, and stayed current as a company FAR Part 135 pilot. These days his flying is for Part 91 business and personal missions in Commanders, a Cirrus, and a Cessna Mustang.
Swede Ralston created a legacy born of his love of Commanders, and that has not been lost on his young grandson. “It was an Aero Commander family,” McCullough agreed, “and certainly Swede was a huge part of my growing up, especially in my teen and young adult years.”
A lasting influence, as it has turned out.