June 12, 2002 11:00 pm
‘There is a need for this service here. This shows a lot of promise. I'm excited about it.'– Ronn Witcraft Pilot ().
‘There is a need for this service here. This shows a lot of promise. I'm excited about it.'– Ronn Witcraft Pilot ().

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

A pilot has been hired, the twin-engine airplane is being refurbished and things are still on schedule for SkyTaxi's on-demand air service to begin in La Grande about July 1.

The pilot is Ronn Witcraft, who said he's flown planes up to 44,500 pounds gross weight. He and his wife, Ellen, have moved to Union from Wenatchee, Wash. There his most recent job was as captain on an air ambulance, flying the Commander 840 over Washington and adjacent states.

"I've got 40 years of flying experience," Witcraft said in La Grande this week as he and other SkyTaxi officials visited with local groups to help explain the new service, which will have a Cessna 414 based at the Union County Airport.

"As soon as we hire another pilot, the two of us will go to five days of training. The plane is in Salem now being modified extensively, basically for safety," Witcraft said.

The second pilot, who will accompany Witcraft on all flights, should be hired by July 1, he said.

"I've flown from Wichita to Long Beach, in Central America and Mexico and Africa. I have more than 8,300 hours of total domestic and international flight time," Witcraft said.

He has flown a variety of planes, from Pipers to Lear up to a 44,500-pound Howard 500, he said.

He's flown a variety of passengers from those in need of medical attention to corporate executives and has transported medicine and United Nations' workers to remote jungle airstrips in West Africa. Humanitarian efforts have taken him to Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast.

The Cessna 414 he'll be flying out of

La Grande is 7,000 pounds gross weight and can land on a runway as short as 3,000 feet. Beside the two pilots, it can carry up to four passengers and is designed to have plenty of work room or room for storage of such things as golf clubs or ski equipment.

SkyTaxi officials said the La Grande plane would be the third one in the air for the new service, which already has planes flying out of Newport and Corvallis. The plan is to have 20 planes flying in the state as soon as franchises can be lined up, officials told the Noon Lions Club meeting on Monday. La Grande's SkyTaxi franchise is owned by Union County Economic Development Corp.

"We want to have 50 planes in Oregon, Idaho and Washington and plan to take this completely across the country," Doug Van Boening, SkyTaxi service development manager, said during his presentation to the Lions group at Ten Depot restaurant. Another invited group heard the presentation Wednesday at the Presbyterian Friendship Center.

It will be a true on-demand service, he said, citing an example of how the service is working.

A doctor in Eugene got a call at 1 p.m. to do surgery in Bend at 5 p.m. She was in the air by 2:30 p.m., did the surgery on time and was home by 8 p.m., Van Boening said.

Reservations can be made by phone, but in 60 days a prospective client will be able to make a reservation via the company's Web site. The company advertises that it serves Oregon, Washington, southern British Columbia, Idaho, northwest Utah, western Montana, northern California and Nevada.

Available flights can be looked up on the company Web site and fares can be calculated. Anyone making a reservation 14 days in advance "automatically triggers a flight" and other people then can reserve remaining open seats for that particular flight, Van Boening said. SkyTaxi will fly to more than 300 Northwest cities, he said.

Witcraft, who has flown into and out of La Grande since 1994, said, "There is a need for this service here. This shows a lot of promise. I'm excited about it. It's a personal challenge and an advancement for me," Witcraft said.

One of his sons is an air traffic controller in Missoula, Mont. Another is an avionics expert in Corpus Christi, Texas. His daughter also lives in Corpus Christi, where Witcraft was stationed when he was in the Navy.

When not flying, Witcraft's interests include traditional bowhunting for elk and deer.

On the Web: www.skytaxi.com