Being a “Professional Pilot” as a Business Owner
by Denise Wilson
For many CJP members, learning to fly and moving into a Citation was the result of becoming a successful entrepreneur and needing to juggle the demands of a busy business and personal life.
My journey was a bit backwards – I was a professional pilot for ten years before I started my first business, Desert Jet. I flew for several commercial airlines, private owners and charter operators and was lucky to fly a wide variety of aircraft in some beautiful places.
The business started accidentally; as a charter pilot, I was regularly approached for advice on the various ways people use private aviation (charter, jet cards, fractional shares, whole aircraft ownership). The advice I provided then led me to my first customers who wanted to get into aircraft ownership and have charter revenue offset their ownership costs. This launched the start of my business, Desert Jet, in 2007 as an aircraft management, charter, acquisitions and sales company.
For many years I worked in the business as both CEO and pilot, flying up to 700 hours a year in the first few years before settling in around 400 hours annually. I started two more companies – Desert Jet Maintenance, an FAA Part 145 Citation Certified Repair Station, and Desert Jet Center, an FBO in Palm Springs/Thermal (TRM). Before long, I was wearing way too many hats (CEO, Director of Operations, Chief Pilot, Check Airman, Instructor, and Captain, not to mention leading efforts in business development, charter sales, aircraft management and acquisitions). A year ago, I decided to prioritize the scaling of the businesses over holding a pilot position. I hired a COO and four other experienced aviation professionals to cover all the different roles I held and slashed my flying obligations with the company to about 50 hours a year.
Going from 700 to 50 hours of flying a year was an eye‐opener. Getting into the cockpit after a stretch of months of not flying forced me to really focus on the differences between my approach to flying, then and now. When I was flying full time, I had this level of comfort that comes from intimately knowing your aircraft. With over 2000 hours in the CJ3, and another 2000 hours split between the Citation Encore, II, V, and Bravo, I felt very comfortable. Too comfortable at times.
Flying the same Citations day in and day out, multiple legs each day, led to both confidence and complacency. After a while, my sim training events grew monotonous, flying the same profiles over and over. I started asking the sim instructors to throw surprise runaway trim scenarios and multiple failures at me to overload me. Full electrical failures and flying single pilot ILS approaches using the standby instrument was no longer a challenge for me. Perfect steep turns were nothing more than manipulating a video game on a machine. Complacency had hit my flight planning routine as well. My flight planning would happen just prior to my flights and I spent little, if any, time thinking about the preparations for a trip. I was so busy with phone call distractions up to the time I arrived at the airport that I had to mentally shift gears to think about the flight ahead of me.
Now that my flying schedule has decreased, I can clearly see how complacent I became when flying every day. Because months can go by without a flight, I’m now on high alert when I do fly. I no longer automatically have that comfortable feel when I jump in the cockpit that I am “ready for anything”. I have to take a couple of minutes now to get the geography of the cockpit back under my fingers and my memory items back into the forefront of my mind. I’ve now established a pattern that is more befitting my level of currency. I do all of my preliminary planning the night prior. I show up an hour before my planned wheels up time. Most importantly for me, I turn off my phone one hour prior to my planned wheels up time and instruct my team to hold off sending issues when I am flying. These steps have helped me mentally transition between being a business owner and being a professional pilot.
Complacency is like fatigue – when you are in the midst of it, you are too close to it to recognize you are being affected by it. I have a new‐found appreciation and respect for the level of concentration and preparedness that needs to be in place prior to pressing that start button, and I’m thankful that I was able to realize my own limitations balancing the demands of running a business and being a pilot.
About Denise Wilson
Denise Wilson is the founder, President and CEO of Desert Jet, a group of aircraft management, charter maintenance and ground handling companies based in the greater Palm Springs area of California (KTRM). Denise was a professional oboist‐turned‐commercial pilot who founded Desert Jet with no investors or start‐up capital and led the company to rank on the Inc. 500|5000 list of the nation’s fastest growing, privately‐owned companies five consecutive years and rank one of the “50 Fastest Growing” women‐ owned/led companies worldwide.
Denise is a pilot with over 9000 hours of flight experience, in aircraft ranging from the Cirrus SR22 and the Boeing 737, with type ratings in eight different aircraft. She has flown for several airlines including Aloha Airlines and is a former airline captain. She is qualified by the National Business Aviation Association as a Certified Aviation Manager and served two terms on the program’s governing board. She currently is a member of the Board of Directors for Angel Flight West.