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Bashing a Million Bucks with a Hammer

Story by Byron Edgington

Back in Ohio I landed my first stable, long-term—I thought—commercial flying job. The position was with a start-up company in Toledo, with a brand new helicopter, and the promise of an experience many pilots never have, the chance to start a flight operation from the ground up. It was also the first time I got canned.

Inexperienced as I was in commercial aviation I should have listened better, or more, or to different veterans when I heard them rate my chance of success. Longtime commercial pilots told me that a helicopter charter business based in Toledo, Ohio would never fly. The overhead, aircraft acquisition costs, lack of a backup aircraft, unknown clientele and on and on would never allow the operation to get off the ground, much less thrive and show a profit. 

But taken in by the prospect of a new company, new aircraft, and a real job, instead of chasing bears in the Alaskan bush, I chose to ignore all that to chase a pipe dream. In the winter of 1980 I packed up my family and we moved to Toledo, Ohio. Just before Christmas I flew to Fort Worth, Texas, home of Bell Helicopter, to test fly and accept a brand new out of the box Bell LongRanger—a half million-dollar jewel of an aircraft. On December 24th I flew it back to Ohio, with the boss aboard. The fact that my boss, a fellow named Don, decided to schlep along to Texas and back to Ohio with me in the middle of the winter should have told me something: Don didn’t trust me. One problem was that it wasn’t his money. Funding for the new company—Fly By Helicopter, Inc.—came from Don’s old, eccentric boss, a fellow named Knight. Mister Knight had wanted to name his company Fly By Knight, until family members convinced him how unwise that might be.

To further sandbag Fly By’s chances, the old man’s family was alarmed at dear old Dad’s latest money-losing scheme, and they were quite vocal about it. A brand-new helicopter, office space, letterhead, advertising, and a salary for the likes of me were all part of the family inheritance. As it trickled (hemorrhaged) away, I understood their concern. 

The immediate tension came because Don didn’t trust me, or anybody else for that matter. Don had heard the very same odds against our success that I had, and he was as nervous as a burglar with Tourette’s. Old Mister Knight appointed Don official Fly By Helicopter chief honcho and book-cooker. Don said more than once that if the company went under it would be his “ass on the line.” Indeed, Don had little trust in the aviation business. An incident in Fort Worth at the Bell plant did nothing to alleviate his mistrust.

At the factory I’d flown the aircraft, checked out its systems, and made sure everything worked as advertised. Don handed the Bell cashier a big fat check, exactly $573,478.00. How do I remember that almost 40 years later? I still see Don handing it over, with a bit of hesitation, right after he slipped it out of his briefcase and showed it to me. You don’t forget a sight like that.

In any case, as we prepared to depart back to Ohio, our new half-million dollar bird developed a glitch.

Don and I were preparing to take off, destination: Toledo, Ohio. I climbed into the cockpit of our new LongRanger, FAA registration N5752F. I zipped through the checklist, mashed the start button, and spun up the blades. Everything appeared to be fine, until just before I lifted the collective. Then a single yellow caution light flickered on the panel. FUEL BOOST. One of the two fuel pumps had malfunctioned. I shut the engine off, and stopped the blades. The Bell guy wandered out to see what the problem was, and I pointed at the yellow light. He nodded. “Back in a second,” he said.

Don and I waited. The Bell mechanic returned. In his right hand he held the right tool to fix our errant fuel pump. It was a hammer. In his left hand he had a small section of a two-by-four.

The fellow told me to switch on the battery and fuel pump, which I did. Then he crawled under our shiny new, half-million dollar helicopter. He placed the two-by-four against the belly of the machine, and took careful aim. What happened next convinced Don that he needed to update his resume. The Bell mechanic landed three solid wacks with his hammer, smacking the two-by-four as hard as he could against the underside of the helicopter. Bam-Bam-Bam—he assaulted the belly of our new half-million dollar machine with his buck-forty board, yelling as he did so. “These filters—BANG—-get—BANG—shit in ‘em—-BANG, till they settle down. There, that ought’a fix you right up.” He stopped hammering, and yelled again. “Check it now.”

I looked at the caution panel. The boost light was indeed out; the problem fixed. I looked at Don, who studied the ground around his shiny Oxfords, the flight to Toledo stretching in front of him. Needless to say, despite the fact that my flight plan had us headed north out of Texas, things went downhill from the time we left the Bell plant.

The upshot of the tale is that, given the financial hurdles in the flying game, Fly By Helicopter was doomed from the start. The way to make a million bucks in aviation is to start with five million. And the quickest business model to make that happen is likely the very one we had: a helicopter charter service, using new (very expensive) equipment, with no backup aircraft, no idea who our customers were, based in Toledo, Ohio. We incorporated at the end of October. By mid-March it was obvious that we were taking on water, and the bilge pumps couldn’t keep up. The fact that there were no customers was the least of our concern. When we did the financials we realized that, even if we had clients (which we didn’t) we’d need to charge them a minimum of $500 per flight hour just to break even. That wasn’t fantasy; it was harsh reality. 

Oddly enough our first obstacle wasn’t a lack of customers, or bad weather, or ill will from the boss’s family as they watched their legacy skittering down a rat hole. Our first bit of turbulence came courtesy of the FAA. Instead of helping, guiding, and promoting our new venture, the Federal Aviation Administration made it as difficult as possible for us to open for business. Our first indication was the application process for an Air Taxi Commercial Operator’s permit. The FAA required this document’s (accurate) completion before allowing us to conduct charter flights. Don was an attorney; I was a pilot. Between the two of us we should have been able to figure the sucker out. Don and I pored over the FAA ATCO application, a ten-page dossier. We filled in information, checked data, scribbled every jot, tittle, underline, overline, strike-through and iota—using the FAA’s very own guidebook to do so—only to have the application rejected not once, but three times! We’d fill in a needed change; the Federals would send it back. We’d make the new change; they’d send it back again. A full month passed with no chance to fly, therefore no opportunity to make money. Don was incredulous. He threatened to sue everybody from Ronald Reagan to the Wright brothers.

At one point we contacted the FAA office in Cleveland by conference call to make sure the form was right. Finally, we received our so-called ATCO certificate. We framed it nicely, and hung it on the office wall just so, where the FAA said it had to be displayed at all times. Then we sat in the very same office, staring at our nicely framed ATCO certificate, and at each other, waiting for the phone to ring. We waited. And we waited a bit more. Silence. Utter, deep, expensive silence. What’s that C&W song: If the Phone Don’t Ring You’ll Know it’s Me? Well...

Don scared up a flight or two using his (meager) business connections in Toledo. Those short hops were freebies to get us out and about, and a bit of ink here and there. There was a five-minute flight to a downtown hotel to meet with a group from the Toledo Chamber. Another very short flight to check out a possible site for a helipad, in case we had to land near the center of town. There was precious little need for a helipad; the blessed phone appeared to be disconnected. We knew it would be too, and reasonably soon if cash didn’t start flowing.

Old Mr. Knight had written a check for a million bucks. Half that dough went into the aircraft, and the other half evaporated in office space, advertising, hangar rent, insurance, salaries and paper clips. I understood why the family had been anxious. So was I, and the only thing I lost was a job.

Excerpt from The Sky Behind Me, a Memoir of Flying and Life. ©2012 Byron Edgington. Available at Amazon in paperback & at Smashwords.com as an E-book.

 

Posted in: Humor & Poetry

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