April 1, 2013
Photography by Mike Fizer
Matt Hagans went from selling Cessnas in Wichita to prominence as a Twin Commander and Phenom dealer in 25 short years. He’s made 54 trips to Embraer’s Brazilian factory, and at last count had sold and delivered 35 Phenom 100s.
In case you hadn’t noticed, general aviation is a comparatively small community. After a few short months, you begin to run into the same people, hear the same names, and learn who the movers and shakers are. That goes double for those making the move from piston- to turbine-powered airplanes. That’s because there are fewer turbine airplanes on the market, and fewer firms that specialize in the step-up market.
In the market for a Twin Commander or a Phenom 100 or 300? Then sooner or later you will most certainly meet Matt Hagans. In those two markets, Hagans is the 900-pound gorilla. He’s the owner and CEO of Eagle Creek Aviation Services (ECAS), which is based at Indianapolis’ Eagle Creek Airpark (EYE)—and he’s also CEO of the Naples Jet Center, a subsidiary of ECAS located at the Naples Municipal Airport (APF) in Naples, Florida.
Hagans began his career in aircraft sales at Cessna’s Wichita headquarters, where he sold everything from 152s to Conquests during the late 1970s. Sensing more opportunity in retail sales, he started Eagle Creek in 1984 and began selling small piston singles and light twins. Small to medium-size used jets and turboprops soon followed.
A Renaissance. One fateful day in 1986, Hagans got a call from White Trucks Inc. Could it trade in its aging Twin Commander for a used Citation? Of course, the answer was yes. Hagans then completely refurbished the trade-in, sold it, and “made as much as I could selling 10 single-engine airplanes,” he said. A light went on, and Hagans acted on a hunch.
In those days the dollar was very strong against European currencies. “So I bought every Twin Commander for sale in Italy and Spain—about 50 over four to five years—and flew them back to Eagle Creek for restoration,” Hagans said. “I figured there was a market for something other than a beat-up old airplane that’s cheaper than a new one.” He was right, and thus began ECAS’ long relationship with the Twin Commander brand.
A storied airplane with roots as a classic Ted Smith piston-twin design from the 1950s, the Twin Commander line evolved into a Garrett-powered fire-breather by the 1970s. But in 1990 then-owner Gulfstream Aerospace sold off the line, making them orphans. The inevitable slide into obscurity/neglect/disrepair began—until Hagans developed what he called his “radome to tailcone” restoration package. It was the model for what was to become the Twin Commander Aircraft Company’s Grand Renaissance program—an initiative that restored the airplane’s value and boosted its level of service and support to the highest levels. ECAS and Naples Jet Center have 12 to 15 Twin Commanders in their maintenance shops at any given time.
A dealer’s investing $600,000 to $700,000 in fixing up each of these older turboprop twins is certainly a mark of faith in a design, but then they must be sold. Hagans approaches the task by marketing them as new airplanes—complete with warranties and pilot training. The tactic must be working; he’s sold more than 500 Twin Commanders over the years. “That’s about two to three a month, on average,” he said.
Phenoms. Back in 2004, when Embraer was in the conceptual stage of its Phenom designs, Hagans was invited to be a part of the company’s “man-machine interface” committee. One of his recommendations was to have an airstair door, complete with hand railing. Eventually, ECAS and Naples Jet Center earned slots as Embraer factory-authorized service centers, and the companies began selling the first of what would become 50-plus Phenoms.
By 2005, Hagans began to research ways to expand his business. He discovered that from 2001 to 2006 the total number of turbine aircraft registrations stayed the same across the United States. But in Florida and Georgia there was, on average, one new turbine registration per day for that five-year period. This, together with the lack of any turbine maintenance shops in southwest Florida, told Hagans he needed a presence in the area. In 2007 he opened the Naples Jet Center. Today, that facility provides half of ECAS’ annual revenue, and its business is growing at a rate of 25 percent a year.
Bread and butter: ECAS and the Naples Jet Center rely on the Phenom 100 (top) and Twin Commander (above) for the lion’s share of its business.
If you buy a Phenom from ECAS or Naples Jet Center, your introduction to the airplane starts in an unconventional way. First, the pilot receives five to 10 hours of dual instruction—mainly to get the student’s instrument skills up to par. Then comes earning the type rating at the Embraer-CAE Training Services facility in Dallas. “That’s a good course, and a good simulator, but there’s a problem. All your training there is geared to one thing: passing the checkride, period.” Hagans said. “After that, we take it a few steps further and give our customers 25 to 50 hours of hands-on training that’s geared to flying in the real world. Some pilots may need up to 100 hours of supervision to become really comfortable in the airplane.”
This training uses a customized syllabus and individual flight instruction that includes coursework on weather radar operation and type-specific operating tips. Each buyer flies with one of five assigned instructors on routes the customer would normally fly, and faces the operational and weather challenges typical of those routes. “It’s line-oriented flight training that gives the pilot new to turbines more than enough to fulfill any SOE [supplemental operating experience] requirements,” Hagans says. SOE of 25 hours with an appropriately rated instructor is often added as a restriction to first-time jet pilots’ type ratings.
What’s next for ECAS and Naples Jet Center? “We’ll continue to refine what we do,” Hagans said. “We want to be good, not big; serve client needs; and be the first choice of the highest-skilled employees.” When asked what he likes most about his business, he said, “I used to say, you know, that I have a passion for it and that I’m a real airplane freak. But I found out later that I just like airplane people. They’re fun, energetic, and have a zest for life. For many people, flying—especially flying a jet of their own—is the culmination of a life’s work. Making that happen, well, that’s what I really enjoy today.”
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