Flying Solo

For some local execs, piloting their own planes pays big dividends personally and professionally
Mark Foster at the controls of his Mooney Ovation. Photo by Blake Discher

Todd Lloyd was relaxing in his Birmingham home one Saturday after a busy week running one of the nation’s largest event linen services, when a frantic phone call suddenly altered his weekend plans. A customer in Indianapolis had somehow failed to place a customized linen order for a wedding to be held that afternoon.

Within half an hour, the 46-year-old entrepreneur jumped in his car, picked up the necessary table linens and chair covers, drove to Oakland/Troy Airport, and flew his plane to Indianapolis.

“It may not have been the most cost-effective move,” he says, “but a wedding is one of those lifetime events you have to get right. You can’t quantify the goodwill that emergency service created. Sometimes I wonder how many business relationships we would’ve built if I didn’t have my plane.”

The most popular site for the use of private corporate aircraft in Michigan is Oakland International Airport in Waterford Township, where Fortune 500 companies fly top executives from the second-busiest landing field in the state, second only to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus.

Operating in a challenging economy, many larger companies no longer own planes. Some have opted for fractional ownership of aircraft, while others either lease, use blocked time, make charter arrangements, or simply fly commercial, says Ralph Margulis, an aviation attorney with Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, and Weiss in Southfield.

“Despite the economic downturn, there will always be a need for private aircraft, both for ease of flight, the avoidance of wasting time with commercial flight, the ability to get into smaller airports closer to clients, and also just because you want to have that luxury,” says Margulis, who advises individuals and corporations on owning or leasing an aircraft.

“If they want to purchase a plane, I ask my clients if it’s to satisfy their ego or whether it’s to satisfy an important business purpose,” Margulis says. “Regardless, I encourage them to examine the economics of the transaction, and if it turns out not to be a good business decision to purchase, [then I] suggest they look at alternatives like fractional ownership, blocked time usage, or chartering.”

Joe Borgesen, president of Oakland Air, a large flight operations company at Oakland International Airport, says more business executives have been taking flying classes in recent years as congestion has risen at major airports. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association operates a helpful Web site to get started at “You really have to be dedicated to get your pilot’s license; it may take six months or two years, depending on your situation,” Borgesen says.

Although it’s a given that the great majority of top executives who fly on private aircraft aren’t in the cockpit, it’s not hard to find business owners and executives like Lloyd who prefer flying their own plane and being able to combine their work with their fancy for flight. “It would be much rarer to find a businessperson flying their own cabin-class jet aircraft for work, but there certainly are executives who fly turbo props or smaller planes to conduct business, and I know several of them,” says David VanderVeen, Oakland County’s director of central services, which oversees Oakland International Airport.

Here we profile five local executives who operate their own plane for business, whether to help oversee far-flung operations or to better balance their corporate and personal life:

Mark Foster

When Mark Foster, of South Lyon, obtained his pilot’s license at age 22, he dreamed of one day owning a plane and being able to use it for business. “I liked the idea of combining something I love to do with something I need to do; that was always my premise,” says Foster, co-owner and president of Applied Geometrics Inc., which provides mechanical-engineering training and consulting for companies in several states.

Two years after getting his license in 1986, Foster, now 44, bought a Beechcraft Debonair, but when his employer at the time refused to let him fly it for business trips, he decided to start his own company.

Foster, who keeps his aircraft at New Hudson Airport just six miles from home, recently upgraded to a faster model — a four-seat Mooney Ovation plane he uses at least once a week for business trips that take him to Kansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Florida.

Foster points out that his upgrade was feasible because he flies the aircraft 95 percent of the time for business purposes and was thus able to take advantage of tax write-offs. “As a businessman, time is money, and I can’t afford [to be] sitting inside an airport to find out if the flight’s going to take off on time. Plus, I’m not at the mercy of an airline’s schedule,” says Foster, who flies between 200 and 300 hours a year. “I always know where my bags are, the flight never leaves without me, and I get to carry my own pocketknife,” he says with a chuckle.

Foster can easily rattle off numerous examples where his plane has been strategically used to his business advantage. He often has meetings in Nashua, N.H., which would normally require a commercial flight to Boston and renting a car for another hour-and-a-half drive.

“The airports I can get into are much closer to my ultimate destination than typical commercial airports,” he says. “I’ve done enough cost-benefit analysis to prove to myself that I could not serve my clients as efficiently if I didn’t have my aircraft as a tool.”

As Foster flies into many smaller airports throughout the country, he often runs into other executives flying their planes for business. “It’s more common than you might think,” he says. “For instance, I have a dentist friend who has an office in South Lyon and also a practice in West Branch, where he flies every Thursday.”

Foster’s latest dream is to someday build a home in Linden (in southern Genesee County), where he bought a vacant lot at a residential airpark subdivision built around a runway. The next step is to build a home. “I absolutely love to fly, and there would be nothing better than to live where my airplane is,” he says.

Todd Lloyd

Growing up next to an airport on his grandparents’ farm in Clare, north of Mt Pleasant, Todd Lloyd loved to watch planes take off and land, never dreaming that one day he would touch down on the very same tarmac to catch his niece’s dance recital after a short 37-minute flight from the Oakland/Troy airport.

Yet Lloyd’s initial motivation to obtain a pilot’s license in 2000 was based strictly on business needs. He believes flying his plane for work helped his “mom and pop” special events linen service, Chair Covers and Linens Inc., morph into 14 offices and 200 employees since 1996.

“As my business was expanding, I realized I spent too much time sitting around in airports,” says Lloyd, who often flies his Mooney Ovation2 to company offices across the country without his employees usually knowing it, at least until he arrives unannounced. “My staff knows that on any given day I could be on their doorstep, and I think that helps keep them on their toes and allows me to manage my people better,” he says. “It’s also allowed me to make some linen emergency runs over the years.”

Lloyd relishes the opportunity to fly but is ever mindful of the responsibility and potential dangers associated with it. “When I fly, there’s a small amount of fear,” he says, “but I believe that helps keep you safe.”

But he also acknowledges that planes can be “money pits.” Recently, he downsized from a faster turbo prop plane to the Mooney Ovation after realizing he couldn’t justify the expenses relative to the plane’s usage and more expensive fuel. “I figure that when you total the maintenance, storage, and insurance for the aircraft, you’re looking at costs that range from 5 percent to 10 percent of the plane’s purchase price on an annual basis,” he says.

Despite the expense, Lloyd, who averages about 26 business trips a year on the aircraft to Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and Boston, believes using the plane for business is still advantageous. “When we’ve considered cost-cutting measures, the plane has not been on the table,” he says, “because … our management team believes it’s a value-added item and not a burden.”

There’s also a more personal benefit for Lloyd when he’s flying solo: “What I love is the total freedom of flight, the pure beauty, and the fact that there are no stop signs or traffic to slow you down,” he says. “It’s just a very liberating feeling to fly your own aircraft. Every time I step into the plane, I’m impressed that I can do it.”

Kelly Burris

Last summer, Kelly Burris experienced one of the greatest adventures of her life. In June, Burris, 43, an intellectual-property attorney for Brinks, Hofer, Gilson, and Lione in Ann Arbor, competed in the Air Race Classic, an all-female aviation race dating back to 1929.

Along with a co-pilot, Burris flew her 1962 Beechcraft Debonair 2,400 miles from Bozeman, Mont., to Mansfield, Mass., while raising more than $15,000 for her favorite charity, the Air Charity Network, an organization that provides free flights for those in need of distant medical care.

“Although we were disqualified toward the end of the race because we had to clear clouds for safety reasons, it was an absolute blast. I’ve neverhad my flying skills so tested,” says Burris, a Pleasant Ridge resident who fondly recalls building model planes in her youth with her father, a Navy aircraft carrier air-traffic controller.

In 1984, Burris learned to fly at Western Michigan University while pursuing a bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering. Prior to attending law school, she worked for more than 11 years as an inventor and engineer in the aviation industry.

In 2004, Burris acquired her single-engine, four-seat plane, which she maintains at Oakland/Troy Airport. On average, she flies at least once a month for her law practice, often to St. Louis or Chicago for face-to-face meetings with clients. “Quite often, I’ll get an 11th-hour call from a client who needs an emergency patent application filed. So with my plane, I’ve been able to fly out the same day and accommodate them,” she says.

“In my business, time is worth money, and the more efficient I can be — like avoiding the airlines or driving around Lake Michigan to see a client — makes sense.”

Whenever possible, Burris tries to combine a business flight with her charity work. Before planning her trip, she contacts the Air Charity Network to see if a financially eligible medical patient is in need of a free ride to a city along the way. “I’ve developed some real friendships over the years with patients and other pilots doing my Angel Flight trips,” she says, “and for me, it feels great to give something back to others.”

Burris doesn’t see any disadvantages of flying her plane for business, although she is mindful of the expense. “There’s the money aspect to it, but you only go around once,” she says. “You just have to make sure you’re taking care of the other financial obligations in life. To be able to fly and combine it with business and charity work is a great stress-reliever and, for me, the perfect life.”

Tim Kurcz

Tim Kurcz remembers it like yesterday. Driving through the countryside near New Hudson on a cloudless summer day in 1980, he saw a gorgeous red-and-white biplane parked on the road towing a sign that read, “Airplane Rides.”

“I had always dreamed of flying since I watched planes take off and land at Metro Airport in the early ’60s, so I decided to try it,” says Kurcz, managing partner for Kensington Investments and Consulting in Milford. Kurcz paid $80 for a ride in the Stearman World War II vintage open-cockpit biplane that day and, while wearing a leather cap, goggles, and scarf, he tried his hand at the controls after pilot Lou Spanberger did some loops and rolls. “He asked if I ever considered being a pilot,” Kurcz recalls. “I told him, ‘Every day since I was 5.’ Lou said, ‘You either want to fly or you don’t.’ The words just stuck,” Kurcz says.

Within two years, Kurcz obtained his pilot’s license and began flying to entertain customers as a salesman for Loctite Corp. To his surprise, company officials told him he could also fly as needed for customer meetings. “I often flew two stops per day throughout the Midwest and Ontario in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk,” says Kurcz, 52. “It’s highly cost-effective transportation, and my customers were often very intrigued.”

In his current position, Kurcz flies a Grob G115 Bavarian from New Hudson Airport a couple of times a month to cities throughout the Midwest. He says a careful cost-benefit analysis clearly favors the use of a small plane for company business. “It’s a great time-compression tool,” he says, “and because some of the companies we service are in rural areas, the plane lends itself beautifully.”

For instance, traveling to Burlington, Iowa, would be an eight-hour trip using a commercial airline when you include driving to Metro Airport, going through security, waiting for the flight and connection, and renting a car. Or, he says, “I can jump in my plane and fly that trip in less than three hours.”

Nearly every weekend, Kurcz also enjoys recreational aerobatics, taking his plane through loops, rolls, and spins, often to the delight of enthusiastic passengers. He also lectures on flight safety to novice pilots interested in pushing the envelope. “Flying is probably the most complicated application of physics, but it’s also the greatest feeling of freedom you’ll ever have,” he says. “A side benefit is witnessing some of the most beautiful scenes you can imagine. To combine all this with business — and get paid for it — well, that’s a dream come true.”

Laura Pogue

As founder and CEO of Complete Consulting Inc., a Birmingham-based online adult-education and training company, Laura Pogue has always stressed to her clients the importance of lifelong learning and self-improvement.

So when Pogue, 41, decided to earn a pilot’s license in 2003 after completing her doctoral degree, she not only obtained a hobby, but also created a living illustration of her educational philosophy that she could share with students. Over the last five years, Pogue has climbed the ladder of flight proficiency. Last year, she earned approval to fly a Diamond Twin Star, considered a jet transition aircraft and one of the most advanced multi-engine planes in the world.

“As my flying has progressed, I’ve tried to set an example,” Pogue says. “Being a pilot requires you to remain current and a believer in lifelong learning. It’s been a confidence-builder.”

Pogue says she always wanted to fly, but quickly learned that her hobby could also reap benefits for her business.

“Flying has become a utilitarian hobby and a time-saver,” says Pogue, who leases the Diamond Twin Star and often flies from Oakland International Airport to Phoenix, where her company has a second office. In Arizona, she often flies on business to Tucson, Prescott, and San Diego, while her Midwest destinations include Grand Rapids, Columbus, and Cleveland. She recently opened a third office in Springfield, Mo., where Pogue anticipates even greater usage for her plane.

Last year, she logged an impressive 300 hours of flying time, including a 5,520-mile round-trip, cross-country flight in the Diamond Twin Star as a continuation of her flight training. Pogue acknowledges that at this point in her life it would be cost-prohibitive to own a multi-engine plane like the Diamond Twin Star and that, for now, leasing is her best option, especially since she’s been climbing the ladder of aircraft. “To be honest, it’s cheaper to fly commercial than to fly myself right now, especially with the fuel costs,” she says, “but the convenience is still a big factor for me.

“One of the reasons I followed this path it that I would have choices and the freedom to go where the opportunity took me — and flying is an embodiment of that,” she says. “It truly is a virtual work environment for my work, and because I have clients all over the country, the mobility flying gives me is the perfect fit.”

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