“Come to work for me. Here’s what I’ll pay you. And oh yeah, here’s your Baron.”
That’s the short version of how I, a former FBO manager, FlightSafety International instructor, production test pilot, Air Force officer, aircraft insurance underwriter, and holder of a masters degree in aviation safety, ended up as safety and training director for a large highway construction company. Of course, I wouldn’t have taken the job if it didn’t present an interesting challenge, and the money was good, but I doubt I would have accepted without the tremendous benefit of being able to jump in the airplane on a whim and launch off to one of the company’s far-flung job sites—for above all, I’m a pilot, and aviation enthusiast.
How I Got the Job
This is a classic case of “knowing somebody,” in this case the Chief Operating Officer of the construction firm. He is a former flying student. Seven years before I accepted his offer of employment, he first came to FlightSafety as a VFR-only pilot of an A36 Bonanza. We worked together and hit it off; as he moved through the ranks, first adding his instrument rating and later his multiengine, he continued to come to FlightSafety about once a year, and he usually requested me to be his instructor. Even after I left FSI for other endeavors, I often saw my future boss at the Wichita FBO—it just sort of happened I was there when he’d come in for another year’s refresher.
What I didn’t know was that all this time the construction COO was facing a growing problem of recruiting, training and retaining heavy earthmoving equipment operators. When he finally called me with the offer a couple years later, he pitched it as developing a “FlightSafety equivalent for the construction industry”—a ground-floor opportunity with good pay and benefits, not least of which was essentially exclusive use of one of the Company’s two well-equipped Beech Barons, a 58TC. I said “yes.”
How We Use General Aviation
Our company is based near Chattanooga, Tennessee, but our job sites are spread throughout North Carolina, Alabama, west Tennessee, and often times Georgia, Virginia and Mississippi. I joke that we can’t bid on a new highway, a major shopping center, or an airport expansion unless it’s an hour’s flight from home in the Baron. My boss, most certainly, couldn’t maintain his hands-on style without his Baron—“management by flying around,” to adapt from the classic business texts. With the Baron, I can replace a six-and-a-half hour drive through the mountains with a one-hour hop over them, turning a two-day training session or safety inspection into a one-day (or even in some cases, one-half day) trip.
Our company is dedicated to safety, so we two go to FlightSafety for refresher training once a year (it’s interesting to go back as a student, to where I was once a teacher!). This year we replaced the annual simulator trip with some emergency maneuver training (for my boss) and my Airline Transport Pilot certificate training (see my series on earning the certificate in last spring’s iPilot: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4), all at company expense.
At the height of our two-Baron days my boss and I averaged around 250 flying hours per year each—about two flights a week, enough flying to feed anyone’s addiction, but not so much that I got “burned out” on aviation. Personally, about 5% of my flying was of the “corporate” nature, flying someone somewhere they needed to be, but I did not; around a third of my flying was delivering or picking up one of the two airplanes for/from maintenance; and the remainder was me using the Baron as a “fast pickup truck” to go to work, often taking along one of the company officers, engineers or mechanics, but basically going where I wanted to be, more or less on my own schedule. It’s a wonderful way to fly!
Maintenance costs and reliability of a pair of 20+ year old piston twins recently convinced management to trade them in on a single 1998 Baron, but already the company is feeling the pinch and we’re considering adding a “new” second airplane. We can’t do the job without business aviation.
Getting a Business Flying Job
You want to fly, but the traditional airline (A to B to A to C to A to B, repeat, repeat, repeat) or corporate (answer the pager, fly an hour, sit for ten hours, and fly an hour again) life might not be for you. You might be suited to be one of the thousands of “business pilots,” the majority of those flying high-dollar piston twins and even turboprops and light jets, as an interesting and integral part of your job. Here are some hints:
- Network. Like any other profession, the more people you know around airplanes, the most likely someone will think of you when it’s time to hire. Many airplane owners also run businesses, so flying is often the “foot in the door” you need.
- Be professional. People remember excellent service. You may only have 300 hours and are instructing in a beat-up Cessna, but your next student may be the one that offers you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Your professionalism now is what will impress your future boss.
- Hone your skills. Work on those skills that make you employable in business. Are you a good teacher, or accountant, or engineer? You’ll be hired for a business flying job not because of your piloting ability, but because your business skills make you desirable.
- Never stop learning. Four years ago I knew nothing about building highways. Now I’m becoming an expert on regulations, environmental issues, employment practices, traffic control, and heavy equipment safety and technique—and I’ve only begun to learn the job! If you’re willing to keep learning, opportunities will open up for you.
Bottom Line: It’s amazing how business airplanes add to a company’s profitability. If you have solid business skills and are attractive to a company that owns airplanes, you may find business flying to be the outlet that makes a job worthwhile.