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VOL. 36 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 20, 2012

Business Class

Pilots turn passion for flying into jobs they love

By Tim Ghianni

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The man who had spent his life in politics or its shadows – as a Metro Councilman, a lobbyist and consultant – can hardly believe his good fortune in finding a career path for the rest of his life.

“It’s an affirmation of life,” says John Summers, 60, whose Music City BiPlane Tours take him and Miss Milly regularly over the West Nashville neighborhood he served in the eight years before his term “limited out” in 2007. He previously served eight years when he lived in East Nashville.

For passengers in Miss Milly’s front seat, it is an exhilarating, hair-whipping experience, soaring 1,000 feet above the Cumberland’s cliffs and barges, state prisons old and new, the Titans’ practice facility and, eventually, the massive water heater plant in Ashland City.

In the pilot’s seat, the former councilman handles with ease his Waco YMF Super D, a biplane hand-built in Battle Creek, Mich., that for the last year has been his family business. “My office is right here,” he says, pre-flight, exposing a compartment behind the cockpit, in which he stores briefcase and cell phone.

No, he’s not yet in the black – “you always want the business to grow quicker than it’s expected to grow,” he says – and he really didn’t expect to be. The first year has been all about getting established.

“No business is in the black the first year,” he says, noting that beyond the $200,000 invested in the plane’s purchase a year ago, “there’s always expenses you don’t anticipate, like the amount of white rags you need to buy. A biplane is a real bug-catcher.”

In all, he says, business expenses – including advertising, hangar space, fuel and the like – have been $100,000 to $200,000.

Most of that advertising so far has been through the Convention and Visitors Bureau, tourist fliers and magazines, rack cards for hotel lobbies and in entertaining hotel concierges so they’ll recommend flights to tourists looking for the thrill of perhaps swooping low over the riverside mansion Kenny Chesney evacuated permanently after the May 2010 floods.

And the expenses also include the four ladders he bought so far in an attempt to find out which was the best type to use while wiping splattered bugs off the front of his two sets of wings. “I finally realized what I needed was a rolling ladder. Cost me $400 or $500 to figure that out,” he says, poking fun at his own inexperience.

“There’s no school for operating a biplane tourist business,” he says. “You learn by trial and error.”

His piloting, however, is not by trial and error. Summers, the company president, and wife Catherine Hayden, corporate secretary, got their pilot training 11 years ago. It’s just taken them this long to figure out how to use the passion for the air as a way to make a living.

There are, he says, about 20 other urban tour operations like his throughout the states. Many more line beaches and other resort destinations. And he has relied on input from some of the others – particularly in similar markets including Louisville and Atlanta – for help fashioning his business.

The most important part is getting people to pay the price of riding a few football fields above the city and Cumberland with completely unfettered views of the scenery below.

It’s not cheap, with trips for two (the Waco is the only biplane with a front seat that can take two passengers) costing $225 for 15 minutes, $299 for a half-hour and $449 for an hour.

In the first year, he estimates he has taken Miss Milly up for 150 tourist excursions, 80 percent local thrill-seekers, 20 percent from elsewhere.

Only twice, by the way, has anyone had to pull out one of the airsick bags in the tourists’ cockpit.

“He was so embarrassed,” Summers says. “He got off and said ‘I really feel bad about this. But I loved the flight. Loved being in a biplane.’”

Summers shakes his head and laughs. “The best type of advertising really is people who have gone up there telling others about it. Slowly but surely people tell their friends.”

And that surely will be the case with an older couple who flew earlier on this summer’s day. They were using their Groupon discount for an anniversary fly over the Music City. When they climbed off and walked with the pilot to the John Tune terminal, they couldn’t help but beam and engage in happy chatter.

“It’s nice to do something and people be appreciative of it,” Summers says. “A lot of other jobs, people aren’t appreciative of what you do. Trust me, as a councilman.”

Appreciation is reward, but of course not enough. After all, since they invested their future in this bird, Summers and his wife want to keep the passenger cockpit filled.

By the way, Miss Milly is a 1992 Waco, one of just six built that year, as any year, at the Battle Creek, Mich., facility where the workers do it the old-fashioned way: By hand.

“It was a trade-in. They totally restored it in 2008, so it’s a totally new plane.” The plane was used as a demo at the factory and visited air shows before Summers bought it.

The plane’s name comes from Summers’ mother, who died just about the time the business was taking flight.

“We bought the plane in April (2011) and she died in June. She was 90. You know, when your mother dies, you get to go through all the old pictures. And I realized my mother was a knockout, so beautiful, when she was in her 20s. So I named this beautiful lady – planes are always ladies – after that beautiful lady.”

He says his mom would have been among the first to volunteer for a test flight. In fact, some of his happiest passengers are the older generation.

“Last week, I had a 9-year-old boy fly and an 80-year-old man,” Summers says. “They both enjoyed it, but I’d have to say the 80-year-old was more excited.”

As Summers nurses the controls and the biplane takes a wide turn over Ashland City and drops for a closer-to-the-ground return to the airport, tracking the Cumberland, the former politician is gleeful as he describes the sights – homes of country music stars, landmarks, factories, condominiums – to the passenger in the front cockpit.

It’s almost as if he doesn’t yet believe that he’s flying the “tail dragger” – biplanes are weighted in back rather than the front like most planes, engineered for the rear wheels to touch down on the grass landing strips of old.

“I imagine this plane would still rather land on grass,” he remarks.

Summers is living a dream sparked years ago during a trip with Catherine to a meeting in Seattle.

“I was at a conference,” he recalls. “We had an afternoon off. We wound up taking a sightseeing trip around Mt. Rainier in a seaplane.

“My wife, who was 40 at the time, said ‘I was always going to learn to fly by the time I’m 40,’ so I said, OK, we’ll go out and learn.”

And that’s what they did, taking ground courses at Nashville State and flying lessons at Metro Nashville International Airport.

“She got her pilot’s license one day before I did. The joke is she was talking about getting pregnant and learning how to fly at the same time. I thought ‘OK, we’ll learn how to fly and maybe that will dissuade her from getting pregnant.’”

Daughter Hayden Summers turned 10 in June, joyfully proving to Summers that “once your wife makes up her mind she is going to have a child, she’s going to have a child.

“She was eight months pregnant when she got her pilot’s license. I wouldn’t trade Hayden for the world. She’s been flying before she was born. She’s my favorite pilot. She’ll tell you she can fly the plane.”

When they learned and got licensed, flying was just for fun. Summers was a popular councilman and worked plenty in his consulting and lobbying ventures. Catherine is a nurse practitioner at the Frist Clinic, and “loves her job,” her husband says.

The eventual course, opening a biplane tourist business, was fueled on another business trip. “We were in Sedona, Arizona, and they were giving biplane and helicopter rides. We quickly said ‘We’ll do the biplane,’ and we flew around the Red Rocks of Sedona. It’s definitely gorgeous. That stuck in the back of my mind when I started to think about what I wanted to do in aviation.”

As he and Catherine began to ponder what Summers would do as his “next career,” she said “whatever you do, do something you enjoy.”

There was little doubt that it was going to include aviation. But Summers says he was too old to be an airline pilot, didn’t want to be a charter pilot and “I certainly don’t have the nerves to be a flight instructor.”

The memory of the Sedona flight helped push him in the direction he eventually chose, finally opening the business a year ago.

And while the financial rewards are minimal, there are emotional rewards. Couples have proposed in flight. In fact, the Summers helped one client by staking “Marry Me” in large, cutout letters in a mustard field near the airport.

“She said ‘yes,’” Summers says. “As a former Council member, I could marry someone in the plane, but nobody’s taken me up on that yet.

Miss Milly settles to the ground, awaiting another passenger or passengers.

“Flying this type of plane is an experience of pure joy that you don’t get in a 737 or even in a Cessna or a Piper,” he explains. “There’s something about the open cockpit, of seeing the whole landscape spread out before you in a panorama. You can literally see for 30, 40 miles.

“It’s an incredible view. It really makes you appreciate being alive and experiencing the moment.

“It’s an affirmation of life. Every time I fly I see something new, something different, see a sunset, a cloud. It’s a real life-affirming moment. It’s the thrill of a lifetime”

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