November 1, 2001
Michael P. Collins
Jerry Molter rolls out of the turn and finesses the throttle, pulling the power back so that the wooden, fixed-pitch Sensenich propeller is turning at 1,900 rpm. Leveling off about 500 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, the bright yellow open-cockpit Waco follows the throaty roar of its 275-horsepower Jacobs radial engine south along the Florida coast toward the sunrise. Its distinctive shadow follows obediently, with the form of a miniature biplane dancing in the white foam and green water right where the tide meets the sand.
Flying a dawn patrol for the sheer exhilaration of tasting the salt air and watching through the flying wires as clouds uncloak the sunrise? Not entirely.
Off in search of a $100 hamburger — er, omelet? No, not this morning.
Today Molter's working, but not at one of the computer jobs he has held for the past 30 years. Both he and his wife, Anne, quit technology jobs to buy the Waco and go into business selling sightseeing flights. Their business, Skydance Air Tours, operates from Palm Beach County Park Airport in Lantana, Florida, during the winter and relocates to Muskegon County Airport in Muskegon, Michigan, for the summer.
This early in the morning, the beach isn't too crowded. But Molter can look down and see the heads look up as he flies along the coast. When they do, they'll see "Rides" and a telephone number painted on the bright yellow bottom of the airplane's lower wing.
Think of it as a 100-mph billboard for their business. "Seeing the airplane fly overhead is the best marketing we can do," Molter says. "That's responsible for more customers than anything else."
Molter didn't anticipate the career change when he earned his private pilot certificate in 1974. "I learned to fly in [Cessna] 172s on a grass strip outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan," he says, adding that condos now occupy what was then a runway. "I just flew every fourth weekend or so."
Later, Molter landed in Lansing, Michigan, on a business trip and saw the Waco Classic Aircraft headquarters — since relocated southwest to Battle Creek — with four Waco biplanes sitting outside. "It was the most amazing sight. I dreamed about Wacos for years after that."
When the Molters decided to chase their dream, he spent months looking for financing and months shopping for insurance. "When I bought this plane about two years ago I had about 200 hours in my logbook," he recalls. "The insurance company wanted 50 hours of dual. I scoffed at it initially — but I ended up using most of it."
This model, the Waco YMF-5, can be challenging to land, Molter explains. "The airplane's a dream in the air."
The decision to quit their jobs to start the air tour business came easily, Anne Molter recalls. "The children didn't need us at home, and it was time to check out a dream. One newspaper in Michigan quoted me as saying, 'We're not living the Dilbert life anymore.'" Although the couple made some financial sacrifices and downsized homes, "we're doing fine."
As with most businesses, customer service is the key. "My job description is to make sure you get on the airplane with a smile," explains Anne. "His job description is to make sure you get off the airplane with a smile. It's as simple as that.
"A lot of people get in reluctantly, and get out with a smile," she continues. One couple enjoyed their biplane ride so much that both decided to pursue flying lessons. "We've had a couple of marriage proposals. They've always said yes."
One customer was a woman celebrating her ninetieth birthday. "She was sitting in a restaurant on the beach eating with her family when the plane flew by. She said, 'That's what I want to do.'"
The Molters put together a business plan and originally thought that they would tow banners in addition to selling rides — but the insurance cost for that was prohibitive. They bought the Waco new from Waco Classic Aircraft — the company had actually built it to serve as a demonstrator — and started the air tour business in Michigan during the summer of 1999.
Grand Haven, Michigan, just south of Muskegon, is a popular weekend destination, especially among vacationers from the Chicago area. The Michigan season peaks in October with the fall colors. "We do a whole lot of flying in two to three weeks' worth of time," Anne explains. Cargo ships and sailboats on Lake Michigan are also popular sights.
Looking to expand, the Molters visited Lantana at the recommendation of another sightseeing pilot. "We felt immediately at home here," she recalls.
Business tends to be steadier during the winter season in Florida, where celebrity mansions of the Palm Beach area and marine life, including manatees, sharks, and stingrays, are the biggest attractions. Longer tours depart Lantana and head south, passing Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, turning back north before reaching the Boca Raton Class D airspace. Then, brief negotiations with the Palm Beach Approach controllers usually result in a clearance to proceed north past Lake Worth and Palm Beach to Riviera Beach, at the south end of Singer Island. Occasionally a circle or two will be needed to accommodate arriving or departing Palm Beach International traffic.
"In Florida, half of our business is local residents and half is tourists — but the locals bring their visiting friends and relatives," Anne observes.
What have the Molters learned about business?
"We're finding out that we're great with customer service skills — but we're learning that for us, sales and marketing is the toughest part," explains Anne. Advertising is the second largest cost, following the airplane itself. "The other tricky thing is setting up businesses and households in two locations." This summer, they lost a couple weeks' business to flight restrictions that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks, but at press time their operations were returning to normal.
The Molters work from sunrise to sunset, six days a week — they try to take Mondays off. They begin the day by wheeling the big biplane out of its hangar, then Jerry conducts a thorough preflight — making sure to pull the propeller through several blades, ensuring that engine oil has not drained into the lower cylinders. Next comes the morning's first flight.
"The more we fly, the more people see us — and the more phone calls we get. But it's just not predictable," Jerry says. Light days bring just a few riders, but busy days can be back to back to back. Early on the Molters did hot loads — changing passengers with the airplane's engine still running — but stopped, because they thought that it diminished the experience of the ride.
This summer, they launched a corporate program that allows a business to buy a block of time so that it can give rides to employees or customers.
The Molters also decided this summer to abandon Michigan for now and concentrate on their Florida business. When Jerry hops into the big yellow biplane for the 15-hour trip to Florida — normally flown over two days — it will be the last repositioning trip for the time being. The Florida market has more potential, Jerry says — "a slow week in Florida is usually busier than a big week in Michigan" — and in the long run, it was too expensive for the family to maintain two households.
Already the couple is making plans for the transition. One includes donating more biplane rides to be auctioned at some of the many charity balls held in the Palm Beach area during the winter social season. In addition to exposure for the business, that will mean more flying for the bright yellow Waco.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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