The chilly sun is just rising into the tall, swaying grass as the massive hydraulic door swings slowly out into the late-summer dawn in Hood River, Oregon. Brian Prange, co-owner of TacAero strides across the clean-swept floor past two-seater planes both freshly-built and storied and vintage. Even amid the immaculate and colorful planes, the cobalt blue mustang with thick white racing stripes is impossible to miss.
As the thick door completes its slow rotation, neatly lined flags sway in the breeze, and the runway comes into view. “Jeremy’s grandpa—like mine—was into aviation. That part of our stories is very similar,” Brian explains as he catches us gazing up in awe at the walls stacked with an incredible collection of old-school aviation mementos and memorabilia. “He ran mail routes in the 20s,” he says of his business partner’s grandfather, “and was a massive collector. Jeremy’s been paring down the last few years.”
Looking back to the newly-built CubCrafters aircraft, he says, “working—having a business—in aviation is different these days. Our work at TacAero is pretty multifaceted. On the one hand, we stay pretty busy helping to build, test, and refine emerging drone technology. On the other, we run backcountry aviation instruction program that blends survivalism with flying. And,” he says as he gestures towards the desert sand-colored Cub at the front of the hangar, “we’re moving in more towards the design and build of customs.”
Pausing, he clicks the Tailbone™ out of the sheath lashed to his survival backpack, the one he always has organized and on hand even if he’s just flying across the Hood River Valley. He quietly chuckles, looks back up at me and says, “we like to do things a little differently, too.”
A Pilot’s Pedigree
Later, back in his office, we learn that Brian’s Grandpa is the start of his story. Busy, but not quite content with the farming lifestyle he had inherited, he decided to take out some of his farmland and turn it into a runway. “It showed a real hunger for flying; a commitment to it,” Brian says, “this was production land—income—that he sacrificed for his dream. And he made it happen.”
Brian lays grainy photos on his desk as he explains, “he bought an airplane he could fly right off the farm. It was an iconic J-3. A bunch of kids learned how to fly the same way. But,” he says as he reaches behind him for another stack of photos, “what set my grandfather apart is when he started to build. He tore through popular mechanic plans and built a few planes himself. One of the first ones was a gyrocopter. Grandma would pull him behind the car to help him get airborne,” he laughed.
“I don’t remember it well,” Brian says after a short pause, serious again, “I was about four years old. Labor Day of 1988. Just over 30 years ago. I remember parts of it. He had a fatal crash in an aircraft he built.” Another pause. “It’s been pretty influential. I knew it was a big deal. Growing up, I never knew him but I knew a lot about him.”
“Weeks after the accident my uncle took me to the wreckage—thought it might be good for me to see a part of my own story with my own eyes. He let me pick out something from the wreckage to keep as a memento. At four years old, I selected the altimeter,” he says as he gestures at the small instrument that has a permanent spot of honor above his desk. “I like to think I knew then I would become a pilot.”
Following Footsteps, Forging a New Path
“I always looked for different things to do with aviation,” Brian says back at the hangar. “I was on the aerobatic team at the University of North Dakota, a big school for aviation. The competition was a lot of fun. I mean, you’re building your own roller coaster in the sky. But I knew there was something out there that fit me a bit better.”
Soon, Brian joined an organization of which he would soon be president. “The wilderness pilots association,” he says with a smile. “We would get away after classes were finished. Go out to different farms, grass strips on the farm This is a richer, more romantic relationship to flying.”
One thing led to another and he soon found himself graduated with a floatplane license headed to Alaska. “The mission was ultimately six weeks at sea with a few guys from Evergreen Aviation. We were working with an Insitu ScanEagle. The guys were training and I was there for coordination. It was my introduction to basically where I’m at now. It was how I got wrapped up into the world of unmanned systems.”
Then, after a few more months of training on the ScanEagle in Hood River, Brian deployed to Afghanistan.
TacAero = Tactical Aeronautics
After deployment, and success with unmanned aircraft, Brian knew he wanted to make his way back to flying the airplanes he loved. TacAero was created at the crossroads of the two things he knew best: flying and technology.
“Yesterday I spent the whole day flying a cub just like the one my mom learned to fly in. Although it was nicer and newer,” he added with a grin. “The plane had radar reflectors all over it and I was flying back and forth over Parkdale where we had radar sites set up. The whole production was part of a research initiative with Stanford and the Air Force. It was a pretty good day.”
A License to Learn
By now, the sun was high and I was following Brian around as he did a pre-flight check before venturing over to the TacAero landing strip on a piece of raw land alongside the West Fork of the Hood River. “People always say learning to fly is a license to learn,” he explains. “That’s what we do. The growing side of the backcountry and wilderness aviation school at TacAero is rooted in the belief that to be the best you can be, you never stop training.”
“What you’re wearing is the only thing you should expect to have with you if you crash,” he explains as he loads his pack into the back of the plane. “We all carry knives. But a vest with first aid and a full kit of survival tools is the minimum,” he says.
“More than preparedness, this is a mental state when I go fly,” he says. “This is what we teach all of our students. It’s important to be the one that’s prepared. Realistically we’re more likely to come up on an accident than we are to need help ourselves. So for all our students we put together a comprehensive kit.” He looks at me seriously, “we keep them close.”
In June of 2018, TacAero successfully flew 13 aircraft—most of which were operated by students—from Hood River through the backcountry of Canada, eventually making it to Anchorage Alaska and back in their first-ever Expedition Alaska. The journey took 18 days and covered more than 5,500 miles. They plan to execute many more in the future.
The Right Tool for the Right Job
After we landed on the primitive runway and pulled the Cub up next to his Unimog, Brian answers my leading question: “CRKT® entered my story when I deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan and I bought myself an M16®. I bought what I thought was a phenomenal knife,” He explains. “I didn’t know much about CRKT® but I liked the tanto blade and the Veff serrations were great for boxes. Now, the serrations are completely worn. It was my daily carry for many years but I stopped carrying it because it’s very valuable as a keepsake.”
“Deploying overseas, growing up on a farm,” he continues, “we are addicted to gear and tools. To me,” he pauses, “anything that is purposeful is beautiful. A machined part—it doesn't even matter what it does—it could be the most boring job in the world but if it performs its job, it’s artful in that way.”