Bizav Owner-pilots Aim High on Safety, Professionalism

 - June 1, 2020, 9:00 AM
A Falcon 2000 owned and flown by actor John Travolta may not be a typical owner-flown airplane, but the principles of safety and professionalism apply no matter the size, speed, or capability of the aircraft.

There are some pretty rare birds flying in our airspace. These pilots are not professionals, but they strive for professionalism in completing every mission. While most owner-pilots focus on strictly personal transportation—or just simply getting off the ground to enjoy the miracle of lift, some pilots rely on flying for business transportation and supporting their company’s bottom line. Maybe it’s not on every flight or even most flights. But the owner-pilot flying on business is a relatively odd breed; somewhere between the paid career aviator and the dedicated amateur enthusiast. The challenge is recognizing and acknowledging the borders between those two.

Of course, every pilot, from light sport to ATP, strives for professionalism. It’s the gold standard that is universally revered within the global pilot culture. Professionalism means completing the mission calmly and routinely and never compromising safety standards that have made the mode of air transportation among the safest and most reliable in human history.

This report is not meant to be a how-to for owner-pilots. Rather, it is meant to illustrate the advantages—and challenges—that the owner-pilot segment faces. There is a wealth of resources covering guidance for single-pilot operations and issues specific to owner-pilots. This report is meant to point the way.

So, what does an owner-pilot business flyer look like? The diversity in that answer is key to a large part of the challenge. The range of business owner-pilots starts with a private pilot who occasionally uses a rented aircraft for business transportation, either for an employer or as part of an independent limited-liability corporation, such as a one-person consulting firm.

At the other end of the scale is a pilot such as actor John Travolta, who holds a dozen jet type ratings, including six as pilot-in-command (PIC). His current project is achieving PIC status on his recently acquired Falcon 2000 and 900 intercontinental jets. That training will start after logging 100 hours each as second-in-command. In the meantime, Travolta will fly his Falcons with two other type-rated pilots on board at all times. He also regularly flies his Eclipse very-light jet as its sole pilot. There will be more on how Travolta uses his airplanes later in this report.

In between are scores of pilots flying everything from light piston singles to jets, though most owners of two-pilot aircraft prefer to sit in the back—with some notable exceptions, including singer Jimmy Buffett (Falcon 7X) and Avfuel owner and CEO Craig Sincock (Falcon 2000—a company-owned aircraft). So there really is no “typical” profile of the business pilot flying a personal aircraft. One characteristic that is almost universal among these pilots, however, is a passion for flying and aviation in general.

Personal, Professional Challenges

There are also some specific challenges that set this pilot segment apart. For the pilot with a business meeting, sales presentation, or any other form of activity that brings home a paycheck or enhances revenue, the pressure is different than for a pilot who usually flies for personal transportation. The change in the risk exposure from personal flying to executing a trip with a financial purpose cannot be understated. Blurring the two mission profiles unnecessarily increases risk.

Here are some of the differences between pleasure and business flying, and some of the ways to help ensure there is no increase in risk:

  • “This trip is not the same as a vacation or a return home for a school play. Arriving late for those brings unpleasant but personal consequences, and my family will understand. When flying on business, I have to show up, on time, or my professional reputation suffers.”

There are a few ways to ensure this factor does not increase the risk of get-there-itis. The first is having a backup plan—either airline reservations for longer trips or getting up earlier and driving for more local flights. The pilot could also arrange to fly a day early if weather looks iffy on the planned travel date.

  • “I need to be planning my flight at the same time I’m preparing for my meeting, which, I’m afraid, could compromise my focus.”

There is no easy answer to this, but the solution is simple. The firewall between focusing on business and focusing on flying must be impenetrable. Modern apps and internet-based programs do make flight-planning a lot more streamlined.

  • “The flight home will come at the other end of a perhaps-momentous event in my professional life. I may be elated or deflated. Either way, I need to decide whether I’m too overwhelmed for the ‘home stretch’ flight at the end of a big day.”

Besides just plain fatigue, this could be one of the most critical areas for having specific limits laid out ahead of time in a prepared flight-risk assessment tool or a written collection of standard operating practices that has been compiled, reviewed, and vetted by all possible stakeholders (which could include spouses and children). Making room for emotional responses as part of a prepared document could be lifesaving. For example: “If the deal I’m pitching exceeds X percent of potential business revenue for the quarter, I, the pilot, hereby promise I will wait X hours before launching the flight home.”

  • “I make the same two-hour, 20-minute flight twice a month between my two main businesses locations. I’ve done it so many times, I worry about complacency and confirmation bias, as in, ‘I know the weather between X and Y waypoints is often worse than forecast, but it’s never been any worse than I can easily manage. And today, it’s more important than usual that I deliver this legal document.’”

The “slippery slope” of slowly increasing risk-acceptance over time in a familiar environment is a real concern for any pilot. Randomly contacting a type-club friend, flight instructor, or pilot buddy is a good reality check for whether or not your risk assessment might have become a little too lax over time.

These are just a few of the operational safety considerations that are not likely to impact a paid, professional pilot but are unique to pilots flying personal aircraft on business. There are also logistical and financial responsibilities that render this operational segment different from both professional flight crews on one hand and strictly personal pilots on the other. There is some overlap from both ends, but this sort of business flying is singular in many ways.

Maximizing the utility of flying one’s own airplane on business and balancing that effort against safety is a team game. One way to look at this team effort is to compare a safe, effective business flight with a perfect defensive inning of a baseball game. In such an inning, the team works together to keep the offense of the other team from scoring. Though not everyone on the field is going to touch the ball, everyone still plays a role in keeping bad things from happening. Further, the scouts and coaches have also played their vital roles, preparing the team by analyzing data and reviewing tapes of past performance by their own players, as well as those of the opposition.

The ideal result is an inning with no runs, no hits, and no errors. In other words, the best result for the defensive team is…boring. But if you string nine of those no-hit innings together, the resulting “perfect game” is one of the greatest achievements in sports. And that perfection is what we strive for with every flight operation, including those flown by owner-pilots.

No pilot can achieve perfection alone. Vital teammates include flight-planning providers; airport/FBO operators; maintenance and avionics shops; air traffic controllers; training institutions; aircraft manufacturers and type clubs; trade and user associations such as NBAA and AOPA; insurance underwriters; financial institutions; and last but far from least, support and buy-in from passengers. That can come in the form of in-flight assistance, understanding, and acceptance of “sterile cockpit” rules, or the acknowledgment that this trip might end up with an unplanned airline flight—or a long drive home in a rental car.

Flying Technology

Among the most important advanced technology, flight-planning apps are an ever-evolving tool that makes owner-flown business operations more practical and safe. Stephen Newman, executive v-p of sales and marketing at ForeFlight, told AIN, “We’ve moved from calling ForeFlight an EFB [electronic flight bag] to an ‘integrated flight planning flight-deck app.’ It levels the playing field, giving [single-pilot operators] so many of the large flight department tools.”

ForeFlight’s Trip Assistant
ForeFlight’s Trip Assistant estimates the time needed from departure point to destination, including ground time.

One tool of particular interest to pilots who fly on business is ForeFlight’s Trip Assistant, he explained. “At ForeFlight, we have a small flight department, and we’re often asking ourselves, ‘What time do we have to leave the office to get to a meeting at a certain location in mid-town Manhattan, on time?’” Trip Assistant helps flight departments of any size, he said, to understand with a few clicks how long a trip is going to take door-to-door—and what fuel stops they might have to make, if any.

The program uses filters to evaluate the choices of arrival airports based not only on geographic proximity, but also weather, fuel price, runway length, approaches, and other programmable factors. It uses Google Maps to estimate ground-travel time to the departure airport at the beginning of the trip and from the arrival airport to the ultimate destination address.

Other ForeFlight features that are especially useful include 3D preview and review functions, flight-risk assessment tools, in-flight safety features such as integrated customized checklists, and post-flight track logging and review, similar to more sophisticated flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) data collection and analysis. The app also has an integrated logbook.

ForeFlight’s Trip Assistant
Pilots can preview an arrival, departure, or approach procedure with Flight Preview and see what surrounding terrain and other terrain features look like.

ForeFlight offers an array of support services that can assist a business flyer, including a library of videos, on-site seminars at aviation events, and online webinars through its ForeFlight On Frequency and Pilot in Command series.

Aircraft manufacturers and type clubs are a tremendous resource for business owner-pilots. Virtually all aircraft models popular among business-oriented aviators have comprehensive type clubs, including those serving operators who fly Daher TBM, Pilatus, Piper, Beechcraft, Cirrus, Eclipse, and Embraer Phenom aircraft, among others. They provide resources, advocacy, information, training, and a huge, underappreciated benefit for this pilot segment—networking.

Citation Jet Pilots, an association for owner-operators of Cessna jets, is among the most comprehensive and active type clubs. With close to 1,300 members representing almost 800 aircraft, the association’s mandate, according to CEO Andrew Broom, is “to create an ecosystem that can help single-pilot operators operate like large flight departments.”

In the past three years, CJP has launched numerous safety initiatives, including the Safety and Education Foundation, a 501.C3 non-profit. The association’s safety committee, led by chair Charlie Precourt—former fighter pilot, Space Shuttle commander, and current CJ owner—has been working with training providers and avionics companies, among other outreach, and generated “huge dividends,” according to Broom. “The goal is to save lives.”

In January, CJP sponsored a FOQA summit, incorporating “all the players in the Citation space,” said Broom, including Textron Aviation, avionics manufacturers Garmin and Collins, ForeFlight, and postflight analysis providers CloudAhoy and Flight Data Services. The goal is to provide pilots with immediate feedback after each landing, reviewing performance at specific segments—five miles out; three miles out; height above threshold; runway used; and more. “They can see a color-coded rating of their performance—red, yellow, or green,” said Broom, adding that the program, still in beta testing, looks ahead to capturing and anonymously sharing data. “The object is to determine as a group, ‘Here’s 10 things we need to work on.’”

Citation Jet Pilots convention
At the annual Citation Jet Pilots convention, owner-operators learn and share information about operating their jets safely and with a high degree of professionalism.

The CJP menu of available resources, event participation, and programs is overwhelming in its scope. Broom stresses that the effort is not just for Citation pilots or association members but is dedicated to the entire pilot segment they represent, and everything on the website is available to anyone. “Those operating single-pilot jets,” he said, “they’re at the pinnacle. They need to demonstrate the safest operations there are. If we can build this safety infrastructure and filter it down—even to the Cubs and smaller airplanes—it would be great.”

Managing Safety

AOPA’s Air Safety Institute (ASI), led by Richard McSpadden, a former U.S. Air Force Thunderbird pilot, is another valuable resource built upon five principles. “If you take knowledgeable pilots, train them well, keep them proficient, with reliable equipment, and surround them with a good culture—they will fly safely,” McSpadden said. Recognizing that we all, especially the business pilot segment, have busy lives, McSpadden is dedicated to providing the best support through the institute, as well as AOPA’s extensive resources.

Because a full-on formal safety management system (SMS) is not practical for most owner-pilots, one effort involves developing a downloadable scalable safety framework through the ASI website, “like an SMS-lite.” Operators could fill in parameters that make the most sense for their operations.

Another key player in the safety game, NBAA strongly supports the owner-flown business pilot with extensive resources available on its website. It also fields an annual Single-pilot Safety Standdown just before the annual NBAA-BACE trade show. Attendance has grown to more than 100 participants, most being owner-pilots of high-performance aircraft. The trade association also sponsors its Small Operator Symposium (SOS). “It focuses on the administrative side of aircraft operations for those without the resources of a large flight department,” said Brian Koester, NBAA director of flight operations and regulations and its small-operator specialist. NBAA also has an extensive safety library and offers flight operations manual templates and sample standard operating procedures.

“For more than a decade,” added Mark Larsen, NBAA senior manager of safety and flight operations, “we’ve had training guidelines for very light jets and technologically advanced aircraft. Loss of control in flight is also a key an issue for this segment of the industry as it is to pilots flying full-time as professionals. That’s another area I would encourage operators to focus on.”

It’s a rare pilot who came into business flying without previous interest in aviation, strictly for its competitive advantage. Tom Turner, executive director of the American Bonanza Society’s Air Safety Foundation, once flew professionally for the head of an earth-moving company who did just that. “He got tired of spending all that time on the road,” Turner said, “so he learned to fly. The company had two Beech Barons when I joined them. He flew one and I flew the other. We’d fly out to visit two work sites a day, usually highway development sites, taking off early in the morning and landing around 5 p.m.” Turner’s former employer now flies a Daher TBM turboprop single, soaring through the heavens to help move the earth.

A more typical example of a business pilot, Phil Straub is executive v-p and managing director of aviation for Garmin. He still owns the 1967 Cessna 150 his father bought in 1968, along with a T-tail Piper Lance—but most of his flying these days involves business travel in Garmin’s King Air 350 and Citation CJ2. As a business pilot, Straub loves to talk about how far technology has advanced since he began flying in the 1980s. And how that makes it more feasible to fly oneself on business trips.

“I can sit in a meeting and, during a break, I can check to see how a front is developing and if there are flow-control issues I’ll need to consider for my return trip. In the old days, I’d have to get up and leave the room to make a phone call.”

With Garmin’s purchase of Fltplan, the company’s flight-planning assets have taken a big step forward, and the company is adding new features, including an expanded trip planning program that incorporates data on ground-time, contract-fuel availability, and more. The program also collates and securely stores personal data for Canada’s eAPIS U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data-exchange program.

Straub also noted how modern advances such as TCAS and TAWS have dramatically reduced midair collisions and controlled flight into terrain, respectively. And airport moving maps, such as Garmin’s SafeTaxi, have substantially reduced runway incursions. He sees controller-pilot data link communications—essentially texting with ATC—as one of the next advances sorely needed. Aviating and navigating have gotten much better, he said, but we’re still relying on antiquated voice communications technology in the digital age. “I’m acting as a robot inputting data in the cockpit that I’m hearing through a headset,” he said.

A Life of Flying

For the finale of our successful owner-pilots of note, let’s close with this month’s celebrity guest star, John Travolta, who was kind enough to spend 45 minutes talking with AIN about how he uses his Falcon 2000 and 900. His fixation with aviation is well known, but most people remember him flying his Qantas-liveried Boeing 707, which he kept parked outside his house on a Florida airpark. He donated it a few years ago to Australia’s Historic Aircraft Restoration Society and it’s now on display Down Under. Travolta is type-rated in the 707 and used the ex-airliner on business, as well as flying relief missions, such as during flooding in Haiti and New Orleans.

Besides the Falcons, Travolta also operates an Eclipse 500, which he calls the most pilot-friendly airplane he’s ever flown. “All my airplanes fly a lot,” he said, “about 600 to 700 hours a year, total. There are times when all three are in the air at the same time.” He estimated that 75 percent of the hours logged are flown on business-related missions.

Why two Falcons? “The second plane is backup. I equip my airplanes very personally for my needs, and if one is in maintenance—for one month, or two months—I’d have to resort to charter, which doesn’t really work for me.”

Travolta explained, “Most of my obligations are global. I’ve done work for Breitling, Qantas, Bombardier, and Boeing. They ask you to be at various places around the globe—Dubai, Europe, South America, Australia. If you have a choice in life of how to make a living—and I do—[for me] it’s not just films, it’s ancillary opportunities that demand flight. If I didn’t love aviation and travel, I wouldn’t work for those companies.”

He is currently type-rated as second-in-command on the Falcons and will begin training for his PIC rating after logging 100 hours in each jet; an insurance stipulation. Travolta has a full-time pilot on staff and has a list of contract pilots. He’s in the process of hiring two more full-time pilots but will still use contract pilots to fulfill his needs. His policy, established in 1992 when he bought a Gulfstream GII, is to always fly two-crew aircraft with at least two other pilots on board.

Besides carrying Travolta, himself, all his airplanes often fly missions to pick up clients and associates for meetings at Travolta’s house or at potential filming sites. The actor regularly flies his Eclipse as a single-pilot, but he will also use a staff or contract pilot to fly the Eclipse to pick someone up for a meeting.

Asked how he handles the transition from movie star/businessman/family man to the pilot role, Travolta said, “I handle it the same way a professional pilot would. You greet the passengers, discuss what you need to discuss with them, and then you go do your job in the cockpit. Anyone who travels with me understands that when I’m in pilot mode, they respect the bubble. I’ve never had an issue with that.”

Now 66, Travolta started flying lessons as a teenager in 1970, “squandering” all the money he earned from early TV commercials and summer stock theater. In addition to discussing his business flying, the rambling telephone conversation with AIN covered a wide range of pilot talk and aviation lore, including his amazement when told about Garmin’s new Autoland technology (“Oh, my God. That is unbelievable!”) and his musings on a documentary he had just watched on Amelia Earhart. It was a good talk. Before saying goodbye, he told me, “When I listen to your voice—and I hear my own voice—I feel like we’re both 12 years old.”