Name: Bill Perry

Age: 78

Title: President and owner

Company: Maine Instrument Flight, Augusta

About: Fixed-base operator at the Augusta State Airport, offering flight training, charter service, aircraft sales and maintenance.


What’s your biggest challenge right now?

To get good technical employees. I better explain the technical employees. Basically it’s pilots and mechanics specific to this industry. And nationwide there is a critical shortage, in fact, to the point where some carriers are shutting down or scaling back routes and this kind of stuff. We’re well recognized because we’ve been in business 72 years, and we also are partnering with the University of Maine at Augusta, offering a Bachelor of Science degree in aviation. We’re training a lot of our own pilots.

In fact we just went through a period here where we were down to a couple of mechanics and we normally have four, five over there. We’re competing with the automobile dealerships and everybody that needs those kinds of technical employees. Fortunately, we’ve been able to add mechanics recently and we’re fully staffed there.

We’re kind of growing our own (pilots). We’ve got five of our graduates from the university program that we offered flight instructor jobs to. And then the flight instructors stay with us two or three years. They mass enough time to move up and start doing some of the charter flying with us. After they get to whatever the airlines’ prescribed number of hours are, then they move on with an airline or go to a corporate aviation or whatever.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Probably an awful lot by my parents, but I’m not sure I remembered much of it. I can’t think of anything specific except that you have to treat people exactly the way you’d like to be treated in all areas. A business like this wouldn’t be going anywhere if it weren’t for the people. Our employees are the most important commodity that we have here.

How do you foster creativity in your employees?

We like to make sure they all know that their opinions count, that they don’t have to come running back to me or to some of the other management people here to say, “Can I do this or can I do that?” We’ve hired some extremely fine people over the years. We’ve probably got the best crew we’ve ever had here right now. All the pilots are independent thinkers, and we have quite a few right now. They all, by federal aviation regulation, are pilot-in-command. They’re in charge of that airplane. They don’t ask anybody else whether they could go or not go, whether the weather is adequate for them to be able to.

They make all of those judgments themselves. As far as having some confidence in their ability to make decisions and to lead, it’s set up so that it has to be that way.

The mechanics at the maintenance facility are extremely important because if you can’t fix (the planes), you can’t fly them. We do maintenance on these airplanes continuously. Sometimes we have to do complete inspections from stem to stern on every 100 hours of flight time on our training airplanes. These things are rolling in and sometimes every five, six weeks. In the summer time, our charter airplanes are running even more frequently and we have more frequent inspections on that.

These guys have to look at every single part on that airplane, if there’s any tolerance issues. We have our director of maintenance, and they could go to him because he’s got an awful lot of years of experience. Some of the younger mechanics might not be quite so sure. There’s certainly plenty of backup to help make those decisions.

The people here mostly understand that we have complete confidence in them. If they do do something that wouldn’t be exactly the way I might’ve done it or another of the management people might’ve done it, we’re not going to get all on them about it, either. That’s the point. We support people unless they get it wrong, and if they’re dead wrong, that’s a learning experience.

What’s your biggest concern?

The country is not creating enough pilots. It’s kind of a worldwide situation. We’ve been approached by the Chinese government to train 200 students at a time, and they’d foot all the bills and build all buildings. They offered the world, but this is Augusta, Maine. We’re not set for that kind of volume. The airport is fine. But as far as hangar space and this kind of stuff (we don’t have the space) to put it in the kind of airplanes we need.

That’s how we’re doing the pilot thing and that just ups the pilot stats. And that’s a very important job, obviously. Then as they get more time, they check out with one grade of our charter airplanes, and move up through a single engine, twin engine, turbo prop airplanes on charter.

Nationally, the industry depended on a lot on the military, and the military is not putting out the number of pilots now. There’s an awful lot of the emphasis now in military tactics with drones and unmanned vehicles. Therefore there aren’t as many people coming out of the service looking for these civilian jobs. For the airlines, it’s kind of a perfect storm. (Pilots) hit 65, and they have to retire and some are 62. You combine all those things and the increased demand for pilots, the demand’s not waning. It’s actually increasing.

Where do you see your business in five years?

We have grown tremendously, and it incrementally just keeps growing.

And with the student program right now, there’s a lot of discussion with the university. This is the university program, that I am talking about. It’s about 30 to 40 students right now in that program. Our capacity we feel could be up to 60, 70 students. These are cream of the crop as far as students are concerned. We are focused on Maine right now. But the point is, if we could get this dormitory, we’d have to be picking and choosing (kids.)

Everyone knows these kids that are looking at career paths, they all know what the possibilities are in aviation. The sky’s the limit, and I didn’t mean to try to go for a pun, either, but it’s really true, and these guys are writing their own tickets.

We had one student the airlines found on Facebook. They offered him a job for a substantial amount of money and he wasn’t even finished with the course. Then they paid us over $20,000 to finish him up to be qualified for the job they’d already given him.

We have a gateway program now that’s tied in with JetBlue and the university, where a student as a sophomore can come into that program. As long as they stay on track, they would graduate the university, then go to work for us for two or three years as instructors. Then they go to Cape Air for two or three years and then, once they’ve attained the hours, step on JetBlue for six figures to start. There are not too many jobs that a kid can get out of college knowing that within five or six years he can be earning that kind of money.

We do flight training for people off the street who can take lessons. And we also have GI training and we’ve been GI training since 1946.

If we were to have the university program went up to 60 or 70 students, we’d have to add another six or eight airplanes probably. That would be an amazingly big fleet.

I keep diverting, but that would be one of the growth areas.

And our charter business is growing all the time. The airlines, their models are that they want to fly full airplanes all the time. And it’s a hub-and-spoke situation. I just had to go down to Florida last week and for three or four days with Beechcraft matter of fact, and it’s a tiring day. But when you fly a charter with us, you want to go at 10 minutes after 11, you go at 10 minutes after 11. If you want to take your bags with you, they always arrive with you. And then if you want to say, well, my meeting’s going over, your pilot’s right on the phone. That’s fine.

We can go to several thousand airports around the country where the airlines can go to several hundred airports around the country.

We did have two or three airplanes on charter; I think we’ve got seven right now. And we’re getting into the bigger stuff, the turboprop, and we’ve got a Beech King Air out there. We’re crewing and managing the Pilatus, a PT 6. It’s a jet-prop kind of an engine. We’re already talking about the addition of maybe another King Air, a bigger King Air, maybe another Pilatus.

People are mobile, and charter is one of the very best ways to get from point A to point B. We do charter, you know, year round, but in the summer some days it’s almost unbelievable.

We do a lot of flying to the islands, especially Islesboro. The people there find our service is really important, because they’ve got three or four ferry possibilities during the day. And if they need to go and they need to go when they want to go, you don’t have to ride the ferry.

Between the students and the charter, and then as we get more airplanes based here, then there’s more work for our shop. So as that continues to grow, and we have a lot more transient planes coming in here that we don’t own — we take care of them and the fueling — the whole thing grows together.

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