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Business & Technology

Flying high betters bottom line

March 9th, 2007 8:18 pm by Rick Wagner



BLOUNTVILLE - Alan Bracken makes his living with paving parking lots, roads and driveways for motor vehicles.


Roger Colby makes his living building pipe organs and drums.


But the owners of Kingsport-based Bracken Paving and R.A. Colby Inc. of Johnson City have something in common. They recently took their businesses skyward after getting private pilot's licenses, which two associations and a local flight instructor say is becoming a popular trend.


Facing increased security, delays and wasted hours waiting for connections at commercial airports, more and more busy executives are taking control of their time by taking the controls of small airplanes they rent or own, according to the National Business Aviation Association and the non-profit Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.


The NBAA reports that business trips in single-seat planes have increased 20 percent from 2001 to 2006.


"So many people have come in because of scheduling, delays and the security checks," said Beverly Barnett, owner and operator of Advanced Flight Training at Tri-Cities Regional Airport.


Bracken Paving, which Bracken started 16 years ago, is headquartered inside Kingsport near the airport. It does commercial and residential paving and operates A and J Asphalt just off Airport Parkway.


Bracken had 40 hours of flying about 10 years ago but never got his pilot's license. But as his business grew, last year he had the money and reason to pursue his license, which he received July 15, 2006.


Technically, someone could get a pilot's license with 40 hours of flight time, but Barnett said the average is about 78 hours.


She said the average cost for the training and other expenses to get a license is $6,000 to $8,000, and that the process generally takes six months to a year.


For the 35-year-old Bracken, getting his license and using a small plane for business boils down to a question of time with his family.


"Anybody that values their time, this is a lure, because time is precious," Bracken said. "I value my family's time."


For now, Bracken mostly uses planes to take aerial photographs of paving jobs. "I like to take my team leaders up and show them where they've paved parking lots," Bracken said.


But with plans to move into the paving market in Hilton Head, S.C., he will be able to do a two-hour flight instead of a six- or six-and-a-half-hour drive.


"I'm going to buy a plane eventually," Bracken said of a purchase he plans in the next one year to 18 months. "With a small aircraft, it's really economical for businesses to own."


Barnett said that the break-even point for owning an aircraft is for pilots to fly 100 hours a year or more. With fewer hours, it's more economical to rent an aircraft.


That's why she said some clients, including attorneys who fly themselves to and from depositions, generally rent planes.


Bracken rents a plane from Barnett's business often. For instance, he recently flew to Aiken, S.C., to pick up a Dodge dually truck. His return flight took about an hour, but the drive back by an employee took five hours.


"I've got a good friend in the roofing business, and he's got two airplanes," Bracken said. "He flies his crews around the Southeast."


Bracken trained on a Cessna 172 at Advanced but now mostly flies an Arrow Piper. Both can seat up to four people, but the Arrow can carry more cargo.


For a small business, Barnett said that a good prop plane can cost from $50,000 to $150,000.


Although a hefty investment, Barnett said that on the plus side, well-maintained planes appreciate in value.


Barnett said part of that is because manufacturers aren't making as many of the smaller prop planes, coupled with an increased demand for those planes in the post-Sept. 11, 2001 era.


Although the check-in process for a small plane pilot and passengers doesn't have the same security screening as riding a commercial carrier today, checks are definitely in place.


For instance, Barnett said that students and pilots who rent planes must show photo identification and proof of U.S. citizenship to meet Federal Aviation Administration regulations.


Coupled with insurance regulations and her rules, students also must fill out a form with address, phone numbers and other information.


Barnett said that 21st century technology has helped make small planes safer and easier to fly for all pilots.


Although pilots in training fly strictly with instruments, once they get a license, they can use a global positioning system that fits on the yolk of the plane. Also, onboard weather systems warn about potential problems.


Bracken said another advantage of small planes is that when flying lower, he can use his cell phone to call for directions or let his employees and family know when he is returning.


Colby, owner of the organ business, said that he started out as a recreational flyer but soon saw the obvious benefits of flying for business.


"We travel all over the United States, the Northeast, West and Florida," Colby said, adding that he used to drive 50,000 to 60,000 miles a year but has cut that in half since he began flying for the business.


"The flying started as a hobby then the practical application became clear," Colby said of flights that generally take one-third the time of driving.


Colby began the business in 1974 in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved it to Johnson City in 1979.


For Colby, the flights allow the convenience of multiple stops that would be all but impossible in a commercial service and time-consuming by car.


For instance, he recently traveled from the Tri-Cities to Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and back to the Tri-Cities in four days, a trip that would have taken more than a week by car.


Colby received his private pilot's license in 2004, got his instrument rating in mid-2005 and is working on his commercial license, not to fly jetliners but to fine-tune his flying skills and techniques.


He was a member of a flying club and tried using that for his business, but he bought a plane in April 2006 because it was difficult to schedule a club plane and keep it out for days at a time.


Colby bought a Gulfstream Commander, a plane with retractable landing gear, and that, he said, is designed for business travel. He said he flies it about 200 hours a year.


Flying instruction is available nationwide, at commercial airports with control towers like Tri-Cities as well as smaller airports.


For more information on getting a pilot's license, visit www.projectpilot.org, the Web site of the new Project Pilot a learn-to-fly education initiative, sponsored by the nonprofit Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. The site has information on learning to fly and a database of more than 3,500 flight schools nationwide.


AOPA estimates that more than 100,000 men and women take an introductory flight each year and that nearly half continue their training in pursuit of a sport or private pilot's license.


Bracken and Colby both received their training and got their licenses at Advanced.


Bracken said he liked training at Advanced because of the control tower environment, giving him practice and confidence in talking with the control tower.


Barnett, a veteran pilot, was a student who received her pilot's license in 1978 at the old Appalachian Flying Service. In 1994, she started Advanced Flight Training, which recently took over the space and business of another flight instruction service at the airport.


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