Albuquerque-based CSI Aviation, a 35-year-old aviation services company, is about to become a manufacturer of low-cost surveillance aircraft following its acquisition of Australian firm Seabird Aviation.
Seeker America, a subsidiary of CSI that formed in 2005 to market Seabird planes in the Western Hemisphere, acquired the Australian firm for an undisclosed price March 24, said CSI President and Chief Operating Officer William “Rock” Collins.
“We originally formed Seeker America as a sort of franchise with rights to make and sell the planes in the Americas, but with the economy in such bad shape, we decided to put those plans on hold,” Collins told the Journal. “Now, the economy is better and many agencies are looking to acquire an observation plane at an affordable price, so ultimately the franchise company Seeker has bought out the original aircraft manufacturer.”
The Seabird planes, called Seeker 360 Alphas, offer surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities similar to helicopters but at a fraction of the cost, Collins said.
The plane has a high, fixed wing with a rear-mounted “pusher” engine and a helicopterlike cockpit that allows for 270-degree visibility. It’s designed with docile handling characteristics that allow for safe, low-speed stall capability and easy maneuverability, increasing pilots’ situational awareness. It’s also easily configured to accommodate a variety of surveillance and sensor equipment.
Depending on the configuration requested by customers, the plane sells for under $500,000, Collins said. For comparison, a helicopter not only could be more expensive but cost nearly 10 times more to operate than the Seeker plane, he said.
Manufacturing temporarily will remain in Australia, where the company has capacity to produce 12 planes per year. But CSI will relocate the manufacturing operation to the U.S. within 18 months.
“When we move it, we’ll create much greater production capacity,” Collins said. “We haven’t made any decisions yet, but we will definitely consider locating it in New Mexico.”
CSI was formed in 1979 by Allen Weh, former chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party and a candidate for the U.S. Senate in this year’s elections.
The company provides a range of aviation services to corporations and government agencies, including air charters, aircraft leasing and aircraft purchases. It currently employs 30 people in Albuquerque, where both CSI and Seeker Aviation remain headquartered.