Addison Pemberton keeps one foot firmly in the future, the other planted in the past.
By day he is president and co-owner of Scanivalve, a Liberty Lake manufacturer of sophisticated pressure instrumentation used in wind tunnels to measure the aerodynamics of aircraft, cars, bridges and skyscrapers.
At night, he and a cohort of volunteers painstakingly restore vintage airplanes, including an iconic 1942 twin-engine Grumman Goose that hasn’t flown in decades … but may next month.
During a recent interview at one of his two Felts Field hangars, Pemberton discussed dropping out of college, ice cream and how he got the name Addison.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Pemberton: San Diego.
S-R: What was your favorite class in high school?
S-R: How about extracurricular activities?
Pemberton: When not at school, I spent all my waking hours either learning to fly or working at Scanivalve, my parents’ business. I started doing machine work there with my brother when I was 12. By high school I was making three bucks an hour – enough to buy all the aviation gas I could burn.
S-R: Did you assume you’d go into the family business?
Pemberton: I did. My dad and I spent hours in the lab together and really bonded.
S-R: What’s one lesson that stuck?
Pemberton: Any technical or life problem you have, you can approach someone of consequence. For instance, when we read about (Paul) MacCready’s human-powered Gossamer Albatross in Popular Science we were fascinated, and my dad said, “Let’s call this guy. He lives in Bakersfield.” So we called him up, flew to Bakersfield the next weekend, and became lifelong friends. Another time we contacted an inventor in Germany, went to visit him, and his son ended up living with us for a year. Try to get the best gunfighter you can get, because they’re usually approachable.
S-R: Are you the best gunfighter for somebody?
Pemberton: Everybody has their niche, including me. One of the biggest privileges I have at Scanivalve is the technical interchange with customers. Quite often I’ll send them to a competitor, because they’re trying to overbuy. My stuff is very fast and accurate but expensive, and all they need is a Walmart-type solution.
S-R: Where did you go to college?
Pemberton: Initially two private Christian schools, and ended up at San Diego State. But I never graduated. I was 24 and one semester shy of a degree in mechanical engineering when Scanivalve found itself in a desperate state. We were transitioning from a smoky machine shop to an electronic company, I was working 80 hours a week, and suddenly our machine shop manager quit. My parents were overseas, so I left school to help run the business with my brother Jim. Those were crazy years.
S-R: Is he still involved?
Pemberton: Yes, we’re co-owners and business partners. Jim is the money guy, and I’m the technical guy.
S-R: Besides morphing from analog to digital, how has the company evolved during the past 35 years?
Pemberton: We’ve grown. We had 90 people at one time, but were very labor-intensive. Today we have eight CNC machine centers, each doing the work of 10 people. We farm more stuff out than we ever did, because we don’t want to be over 50 people. Annual revenue is around $7 million.
S-R: What have been some best and worst times?
Pemberton: The early ’80s were the worst. What saved our necks was being able to store-buy a PC in 1985 that would interface with my analog equipment.
S-R: And the best time?
Pemberton: The ’90s. Digital turned out to be quite lucrative. Then 9/11 hit us hard. The aerospace market evaporated for about two years. But that pushed us into wind engineering – the aerodynamic study of buildings and bridges – and turbine performance testing for power plants.
S-R: How about today?
Pemberton: These are trying times for small businesses. We do more paperwork than we ever did.
S-R: How many other manufactures do what you do?
Pemberton: Two. One in Virginia and one in Massachusetts.
S-R: Why did you relocate your company from San Diego to Spokane in 1995?
Pemberton: I wanted to leave California, which had become very restrictive and expensive, with too many dang people.
S-R: Why did you choose Spokane?
Pemberton: We could have been anywhere in the world. We looked at six small West Coast cities, including Bend, Oregon. We wanted to live where it was pretty, and Spokane offered the infrastructure we needed. I’d been here repeatedly in the late ’70s, because when I was in college I ferried airplanes to Alaska every summer, and the weather was always better on this side of the Cascades.
S-R: What’s a typical day for you?
Pemberton: I start my morning at 8, meeting with all my engineers to set priorities. Then I spend most of the day responding to emails – drafting quotes, providing technical support – or talking on the phone. People today expect instant answers. By late afternoon, things usually slow down enough that I can get out on the production floor and look at stuff. Then I come to the hangar, where my wife has dinner prepared, and we spend the evening restoring vintage aircraft.
When I get home around 11:30 or midnight, I read all my new emails so I know what I’m going to get hit with the next morning – problems or orders from all over the world.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Pemberton: The people I work with.
S-R: What do you like least?
Pemberton: Government bureaucracy.
S-R: What’s been the biggest surprise?
Pemberton: That we’ve been able to keep reinventing ourselves and stay competitive.
S-R: How do you market your testing equipment?
Pemberton: Web, trade shows, some magazines, and I have 13 international distributors. But a lot of it is word of mouth – Scanivalve is the Frigidaire of high-speed pressure instrumentation.
S-R: What qualities do you look for in job candidates?
Pemberton: Whether their hobbies are technical. Do they work on their own car? What projects did they enjoy in college? I’ve been very impressed with the quality of candidates we’re getting from Eastern – particularly someone who gets his degree when he’s married, has kids and is holding down a full-time job. That guy has hustle.
S-R: Do you have many women applicants?
Pemberton: Not for engineering positions. But I work with lot of women in this industry who are very, very capable.
S-R: When did your passion for vintage airplanes begin?
Pemberton: I’ve enjoyed aircraft since I was little. My dad bought an airplane when I was 8. That plane was 21 years old, but airplanes last forever. I have seven – from a Piper Super Cub to the Grumman Goose – and the newest one was built in 1961.
S-R: Where did you get the amphibious Goose?
Pemberton: From the Palm Springs Air Museum. It was never going to fly again. But after putting 8,000 hours into restoration, we hope to fly it next month. Most pilots would agree it’s one of the coolest airplanes ever built.
S-R: What appeals to you about restoring vintage aircraft?
Pemberton: The technology, and the diversity of character. If you go to a parking lot today, you can’t tell a Rav 4 from a Rogue – they all look the same. But every one of these airplanes has a very distinct character.
S-R: When you finish restoring a vintage plane, is it a shell surrounding modern technology, or an old aircraft with a few upgrades?
Pemberton: Structurally it’s accurate. The engines are later dash numbers, and we use newer avionics and alternators and backup power. But they fly just like they did. They’re still a piece of history. I have a Model 40 – the oldest functioning Boeing of any kind in the world. When I flew it around the country, some people drove 300 miles to see it.
S-R: How many flight hours have you logged?
Pemberton: More than 12,000.
S-R: Have you ever crashed?
Pemberton: No. I’ve had engines quit and ended up in a field, but I’ve never destroyed an airplane.
S-R: You work from 8 in the morning to midnight. That sounds like two full-time jobs.
Pemberton: And I’ve been doing it for 40 years. But it beats going home and sitting in front of the television.
S-R: What’s atop your bucket list?
Pemberton: I want to take the Goose to the Arctic Circle, and teach my five grandkids to fly.
S-R: Do you have a secret talent?
Pemberton: I have a knack for organizing people.
S-R: Any guilty pleasures?
Pemberton: Ice cream is my biggest vice.
S-R: What would you change about yourself?
Pemberton: I’d lose 30 pounds.
S-R: How do you relax?
Pemberton: Restoring vintage aircraft. The thing about Scanivalve is that the challenges are rewarding, but slow coming – it takes years to develop something. At the hangar, I can bend a piece of metal, reproduce a part, and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Instant reward at night, long-time reward at Scanivalve.
S-R: By the way, what’s the story behind your name?
Pemberton: I tell people my mother couldn’t think of what to call me, so when she added a son to the family, she called me “Addison.” But actually I’m named after my grandfather.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.