It was 20 years ago that Sebastien Heintz and his father, Chris Heintz, both natives of France, held their official ribbon-cutting ceremony, opening their new light sport aircraft company, Zenith Aircraft, in Mexico. Now two decades later, dad is retired, and Sebastien continues to carry on the family business.
"Going into it you never do it for the sake of longevity, but in longevity, you look back and say, 'Wow, we've been doing this for 20 years,' and it's an awesome feeling,"' Heintz said.
This weekend, a 20th anniversary celebration will take place during the annual Zenith Aircraft Hangar Day and Fly-In at the Mexico factory, based at the Mexico Memorial Airport-Hagan Brothers Field. Heintz said he expects some 500 or more aviation enthusiasts, from throughout the nation and beyond, to attend the weekend event. Workers at the plant spent Wednesday washing planes and assemblage preparing for the festivities.
A Zenith banquet will be held at the plant this evening, with the Open Hangar Day and Fly-In activities following on Saturday. Zenith suppliers and makers of engines and avionics will attend the celebration to meet with Zenith builders and pilots. Educational seminars, workshops and demonstrations will take place on both days. Dozens of Zenith customer-built airplanes will fly in for the activities and many builders and owners – some of whom have been flying Zenith/Zenair designs since the 1970s – will be on hand swapping stories and tips with first-time builders. Heintz said customers from as far away as Canada and Brazil have indicated they will be flying in for the event.
A brief proclamation presentation will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. at the plant, followed by the annual group photograph taken in front of the Zenith factory. Heintz encourages residents in the community to come join the fun – especially those who don't normally frequent the airport.
"Mexico has a wonderful airport that is vital to the community, but there are a lot of non-pilots and non-aviation folks who don't see it as a vital asset – which is why we like holding the fly-in, so they can see the important role the airport plays in Mexico," Heintz said. "The one reason we chose to move to Mexico is because of its excellent small airport and infrastructure around it."
Heintz opened his Zenith factory in 1992. The company manufactures the parts that make up the airplane kits and then ships them (crated in one big box) to aviation enthusiasts throughout the world. The company produces the aluminum alloy airplane parts using hi-tech modern machinery and the labor of a dozen skilled, dedicated workers – who, Heintz says contribute daily to the company's longevity, reputation and success. One of Zenith's first employees, Roger Dubbert, has been with the company from the onset and Travis Kobush, Zenith's production manager, started with the company 18 years ago.
Page 2 of 2 - "When something like this happens, it's very gratifying and one of the reasons why we're still around; cause we have good people helping us," Heintz lauded.
Zenith produces a popular high-wing STOL (short take-off and landing) light sport utility "sky jeep" airplane that is used around the world in off-airport locales (typically missionary work, humanitarian aid, crop spraying, flight training, medical relief work and anti-poaching campaigns). It also produces a new long-wing Zenith CH 650 – a sleek, two-seater cruiser with a bubble canopy. This newest design has already been featured on three magazine covers (one in the U.S., one in the UK, and one in Spain).
After 20 years, Heintz said the Mexico community has remained supportive of his family's endeavor and he expresses "special thanks" to retired U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, who Heintz said "has always viewed the airport as a priority." Now with the construction of a new hangar in progress there, Heintz said, "It's a very positive sign for the future economy."
Zenith Aircraft Company was the recipient of the 2009 Commerce and Industry Award from the Mexico Area Chamber of Commerce and the CIty of Mexico. Previous awards also include the 2003 G. Andy Runge Ambassador Award in appreciation for bringing great statewide and national recognition to Mexico, the 1999 Missouri Industry of the Year Award from the Missouri Department of Economic Development for outstanding contributions designed to make Missouri a better place to live and work and the 1998 Excellence in Tourism Award from the Chamber.
Though Chris Heintz – a famed CH-series aeronautical engineer – had been developing and selling planes and kit aircraft since 1974, Heintz said their move to Missouri marked a huge milestone for the company and the whole Heintz family. Today, with several thousand kit-built aircraft in the air and several more thousand under construction, Heintz said their attention to customer service and factory support and involvement are apparent at hundreds of airports across America and around the world.
One of the hallmarks of their designs, he noted, has been a readiness to allow flexibility in design features that customers want.
In his description of Mexico, Heintz refers to it as "a town in the middle of nowhere, but the center of everywhere," and he enjoys bringing new people into the area.
The company's success, Heintz said, has not only benefited him, but the Mexico community as well. "It has a trickling down effect on the local economy, because those visiting are spending money on gas, food and lodging, which is always nice to see … [and] we at Zenith look forward to many more years of improvements, innovations and helping dreams take flight."