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Roughriders learn to flyRoughriders learn to fly

In sparsely populated North Dakota there are 86,850 miles of road. It’s nicknamed “the Roughrider State,” and business people who must drive all day to reach just a few customers say the moniker fits.

Or, as Mandan businessman Cody Fleck puts it, “time is money.”

“In the last few years, we’ve had 40 or 50 students who have learned to fly, mostly for business,” said Jeff Horan, operations manager for Bismarck Aero Center, Bismarck Municipal Airport (BIS). “Right now, we have a student waiting list. It’s been years since we’ve seen that.” The burgeoning oil fields near Williston in the northwestern part of the state have helped, but Horan credits the nation’s economic recovery for most of the flight school’s student increase.

Time savings are what have business people knocking on flight school doors. “Booming population centers are up to four hours’ driving time from Bismarck,” he said, “while businessmen using even a Skyhawk can reach those people in under two hours.”

Fleck, 36, is one former North Dakota roughrider who has recently traded the seemingly endless roads for the sky. “One day we had a meeting that was six and a half hours away by car,” he said. “We were literally 10 minutes away when they called and postponed the meeting, so we drove six and a half hours back, then six and a half hours to the meeting the next day.” The next week he bought an airplane—a Cessna 182—and asked Bismarck Aero flight school instructors to teach him to fly.

Since then, Fleck and his wife, Jamie, who owns a small business, have traded up to a well-equipped Piper Saratoga and thoroughly enjoy the productivity boost. “The airplane helps us please our clients by getting to them much faster than if we had to drive,” he said.

Rick Anderson, 51, owns Dakota Sanitation Inc., which provides rural residential and commercial garbage services and rents roll-off containers. His family has owned the company for 38 years, and Anderson had resigned himself to being a road warrior, just as had his father. Then he learned to fly. Today, he estimates that his company airplane contributes 5 to 7 percent of the company’s profitability every year.

“Time is something people just don’t have a lot of anymore,” he said. “Having an aircraft has become a way of life for this corporation. I can’t see ever not flying.”

Horan credits word-of-mouth advertising, often from one Bismarck-area businessperson to another, for much of Bismarck Aero’s success. “As business people, they understand the value of their time, especially in a big state like North Dakota,” he said.

While high-paid CEOs in large corporate jets get often-unwanted headlines, local owners of small businesses in North Dakota are increasingly taking the left front seat in Cessna 182s, Cessna 206s, Cirrus SR22s, Diamond DA42s, and similar aircraft to help productivity, increase profits, and still be home in time for dinner.

Kevin D. Murphy is president of Kevin D. Murphy and Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based aviation public relations and marketing business.

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