Small players are a big concern
It was bright and warm as we crossed the Signature ramp at Orlando International and boarded the Falcon 900. It had been a good NBAA convention. And now to home.
The invitation to ride aboard Safe Flight Instrument's aircraft was especially welcome. Theflight scheduled to take my vacationing bride north days earlier had been cancelled and all subsequent flights were overbooked. So, the choices were beginning to look like Hertz or Avis until CEO/Pilot Randy Greene called to say there were seats for both of us.
As the Falcon neared New York, all eyes peered outside for signs of the devastation we'd witnessed on cable news while away. Hurricane Sandy had upended much of the region while we were away and now we were about to bear witness first hand.
What was not apparent at 30,000 ft. became so when we stepped off the plane at Westchester County Airport. The Landmark FBO was dark, its doors blocked open and fat black cables stretched from within to generators on the ramp. We returned home to a house without power, but otherwise in good order. We were very lucky. Some homes in town had been crushed by huge falling trees. As it happened, we had our power restored within 24 hr. For some on the coasts of Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey, the restoration will never come.
Several weeks later, in speaking with Greene, I learned that while Safe Flight's plant adjacent to HPN suffered no direct damage, it was totally without power and thus unable to function for two weeks. I was shocked.
Greene recounted his frustration in being told by Con Ed, the power company, that electricity would be restored soon, or the next day, then the day after that, but nothing happened. And then when he learned electrification prioritization was a political decision, he called his lawyers and despite their objections directed them to sue Con Ed. Now! Subsequently, probing questions by a judge at an emergency hearing seemed to unnerve the power company lawyers, because there were suddenly teams of emergency power crews all over Safe Flight's building, and the lights, computer screens, drills and coffee makers were back on within hours.
A selfish action by Greene? Hardly. He explained that without power, his 150 employees could not produce any of the electronic products essential to many new aircraft and, “The OEMs can't deliver airplanes with holes in the panel where our equipment should be.” An Atlantic hurricane threatened to add to Wichita's woes.
But by acting decisively, independently and then getting his troops to work late into the night and over the weekends, Greene plugged those holes without any schedule disruptions.
That episode served to remind me just how important the Tier 2, 3 and 4 suppliers are to the big guys. Operators (and editors, too) tend to focus their attention on airframe, engine, and avionics makers since their equipment represents the core of business aviation activity. But those products are assemblages of many parts made by others, and without suppliers like Cox Machine, ICE Corp., and hundreds of others, business aviation gets grounded.
Beyond that, it is often the small players who generate the big ideas and, in time, may become big themselves. Examples abound. Gary Burrell and Min Kao left Bendix/King in 1989 to exploit the government's Navstar positioning system. Garmin still does that, and a whole lot more. Not all that long ago, Burt Rutan made funky airplane kits; his latest kit is to take riders into space.
FltPlan.com, Redbird Flight Simulations and ForeFlight are just a few of the many small upstarts that are shaking things up, stimulating the community with new services, new equipment, and a new way of doing things.
The big outfits are essential for doing the big things — no upstart is going to create, certify and produce a Gulfstream 650, a Passport turbofan, or Pro Line Fusion flight deck, but that didn't stop little Aspen Avionics from creating its breakthrough Connected Panel.
Obviously, the importance of the small independent goes well beyond manufacturing. Service providers like Showalter Flying Service, Rudy's InFlight Catering, King Schools, and even Sporty's Pilot Shop, infuse the community with personality, passion, really clever thinking and, well, neat stuff.
James Raisbeck, founder of an eponymous engineering outfit known for its performance mods on King Airs, Learjets and other aircraft, has a special regard for outsized companies, which he likens to whales, namely: “No big corporation I've ever known invented a damn thing worth selling.” A bit over the top, but I see as his true point that small outfits are nimble, responsive, innovative and essential. And that is valid, generally.
To that view, Pete Bunce, the president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, is in agreement. He regards as “extremely important” business aviation's small suppliers. “A lot of the technology and innovation in the industry is pushed from the bottom,” he says.
With the foregoing in mind, industry and government need to concern themselves with the impact the years' long fiscal decline is having on all those small companies. When severe cutbacks come, big outfits tend to cut their small suppliers early. And yet we can't afford to let those small contributors go. The well being of the industry depends on them.
Oh, if you were wondering, Safe Flight paid its idled employees throughout the unexpected shutdown. Like lots of small companies, it seems determined to protect its own.