PI­LOTS OF THE CARIBBEAN

CHAS­ING THE SO­LAR ECLIPSE BREITLING’S RECORD-SET­TING DC-3 FLIGHT

Flying - - Front Page - BY ROB MARK

The Navy says Paramount’sTop Gun 1986 clas­sic fighter-pi­lot flick per­suaded men and women to join up in num­bers not seen be­fore or since. Over a cup of cof­fee near St. Maarten’s fa­mous Maho Beach (pre-hur­ri­cane Irma), Rob Cer­avalo told me the film worked some of its magic on him and was at least par­tially re­spon­si­ble for him join­ing in 2001. “My en­tire life I wanted to be a fighter pi­lot. It’s so cool, I thought. They get to ride mo­tor­cy­cles, go to Top Gun, wear flight suits and cool sunglasses and date their in­struc­tors.” He went on to fly F-14s be­fore mov­ing on to the F-18 and fi­nally the F-5 af­ter com­plet­ing Top Gun’s Red Air train­ing. All that fighter-pi­lot bravado took a back seat on the day Cer­avalo pre­pared for his first car­rier land­ing on

Ron­ald Rea­gan.

USS “The boat looked

What the hell did

so tiny. I thought,

I get my­self into?”

There’s risk in­her­ent in fly­ing naval jets, he thought, re­mem­ber­ing his anx­i­ety about land­ing on the postage-stamp-size car­rier deck. Then his brain switched gears, and he re­called the great pi­lot train­ing the Navy gave him. “I took a cou­ple of breaths and calmed my­self down. I was still scared, but my train­ing helped me fo­cus on the three im­por­tant things I’d andmy train­ing.”been dis­tance taught: from air­speed,the boat. Back al­ti­tudeto 2014 Cer­aval­oas a lieu­tenantleft the Navy com­man­der Re­serve but in never for­got the valu­able lessons his mil­i­tary train­ing taught him. The Navy showed him the im­por­tance of fo­cus­ing on pi­lot de­vel­op­ment and stan­dard­iza­tion as a way to fly and a way to think. The Navy doesn’t just hire pi­lots ca­pa­ble of car­rier land­ings, it chooses pi­lots for their at­ti­tude. He came to re­al­ize that at­ti­tude can be far more valu­able than sim­ply ex­pe­ri­ence on a re­sume. But wait, there’s more. “Navy pi­lots study all as­pects of flight op­er­a­tions, not just the fly­ing. They taught us how to ac­cept and ac­tu­ally ex­pect crit­i­cism, as well as re­al­iz­ing we don’t know ev­ery­thing. Then they train us and train us and train us some more.” With 13 years of naval fly­ing un­der his belt, Cer­avalo would have been a shoe-in for Delta, Amer­i­can or South­west. The air­lines are hun­gry for pi­lots who’ve passed a host of per­son­al­ity screen­ings and gar­nered years of the kind of train­ing that taught them to land an F-18 on the deck of a mov­ing air­craft car­rier in dark­ness and bad weather. Cer­avalo knew he was in­ter­ested in the air­lines, sort of — but not watch­ing the days pass from the right seat of an Air­bus or a Boe­ing. “Most of the air­line pi­lots I knew said they weren’t chal­lenged in the cock­pit. That’s why most of them find other things to do when they’re out of the cock­pit. I was a Navy pi­lot fly­ing off car­ri­ers, and that sure seemed like an ad­ven­ture to me.” So now what? One Pi­lot’s Read­ing List In Navy, 2009, Cer­avalo while thought­still at­tached start­ing a to busi­ness­the would be more ad­ven­tur­ous than a tra­di­tional air­line job. Then it hit him. “Why not start an air­line of my own us­ing some kind of GA air­craft?” What could pos­si­bly get in the way, ex­cept his hav­ing no busi­ness or air­line

ex­pe­ri­ence and very lit­tle cash? But if you’re go­ing to dream, why not go big, so he de­cided on a sea­plane air­line to boot. At least he’d al­ready earned a sea­plane rat­ing — that was some­thing. “I re­ally wanted to be a sea­plane pi­lot,” he said. “I’ve al­ways been a big Jimmy

Buf­fett fan and re­mem­bered read­ing

Where Is Joe Mer­chant?, his book the novel about a guy who runs a one-man sea­plane op­er­a­tion from Key West. “I thought be­ing a sea­plane pi­lot would be cool some­day.” I no­ticed that some­thing “be­ing cool” seemed to mo­ti­vate him quite a bit. What he lacked in ac­tual busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence, though, Cer­avalo made up for by read­ing busi­ness books, dozens

of them, in­clud­ing Richard Bran­son’s Screw It, Let’s lessons-in-life trea­tise, Do It. Bran­son’s ad­vice, keep try­ing un­til you get what you want, per­suaded Cer­avalo to walk into dozens of banks around South Florida with what he called “a crummy lit­tle busi­ness plan,” try­ing to find money to buy a Cessna 206 on floats. The an­swer at each was

the same: “No.” Tim­ing was on his side, at least a bit. With Chalks Fly­ing Ser­vice hav­ing shut down four years ear­lier, af­ter an ac­ci­dent in one of its Grum­man Al­ba­trosses, no lo­cal sea­plane ser­vice ex­isted.

Then there was that serendip­i­tous meetup when banker Louis Beck, who not only took to Cer­avalo’s idea of sea­planes from Fort Laud­erdale-hol­ly­wood In­ter­na­tional Air­port (FLL), but liked his vi­sion of one day try­ing to es­tab­lish a dif­fer­ent kind of air­line, one with com­mer­cial ser­vice to Cuba, long be­fore the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion eased travel re­stric­tions in fall 2016. “It took us a year and a half to get our FAA op­er­at­ing cer­tifi­cate, but Tropic Ocean Air­ways was born in Novem­ber 2009,” he said. The new com­pany first of­fered char­ter and later sched­uled air ser­vice around South Florida and the Caribbean. Cer­avalo wasted no time find­ing good peo­ple and fell back on an es­tab­lished re­la­tion­ship to hire his first em­ployee, Marine he­li­copter crew chief Nick Vel­tre, who be­came Tropic’s first pi­lot. He also just hap­pened to be the CFI who’d trained Cer­avalo for his sea­plane rat­ing. Vel­tre’s still with the com­pany to­day, serving as Tropic’s

"Why not start an air­line of my own us­ing some kind of GA air­craft, like a sea­plane?" Navy pi­lot Rob Cer­avalo thought.

vice pres­i­dent.

While Beck’s ad­vice helped buy the first air­plane, it didn’t fund daily op­er­a­tions for Cer­avalo’s vi­sion­ary air­line. That left him with one op­tion: sell off some of the trap­pings of his fighter-pi­lot life. First went the Jeep Wrangler, then the Porsche 911, a mo­tor­cy­cle, a boat, a house, a kayak and all his mu­tual funds. He also maxed out his three credit cards.

Hardly a con­cern at that point was cover­ing Vel­tre’s pay­roll, some­thing Cer­avalo ac­com­plished out of his still-ex­ist­ing Navy pay. But it worked to get the com­pany fly­ing, with Cer­avalo han­dling the sales and mar­ket­ing and Vel­tre fly­ing the Cessna 206.

With­out much cash for mar­ket­ing, the pair be­lieved more peo­ple would choose Tropic if they knew the air­line ex­isted, so they flew the air­plane ev­ery­where around South Florida and the Ba­hamas to show it off. Cer­avalo knew the PR was be­gin­ning to work when peo­ple said they’d been see­ing his air­planes ev­ery­where. Only he and Vel­tre knew it was the same 206 on floats ev­ery­where. In June 2011, Tropic Ocean Air­ways be­came the first op­er­a­tor to fly to Bi­mini in the Ba­hamas from Florida since Chalks’ shut­down. It was also the year Tropic

Ocean Air­ways lost a hun­dred grand.

De­spite the losses, Cer­avalo and Vel­tre knew they needed a big­ger air­plane and be­gan plan­ning for a Cessna 208 Car­a­van. That’s when Cer­avalo struck it rich, sort of, by hit­ting up his fam­ily and friends for the down pay­ment on Tropic’s first Car­a­van on floats. He had no way of know­ing at the time that it would take an­other eight months to get the air­plane added to the FAA op­er­at­ing cer­tifi­cate. As the Car­a­van took to the air in 2013, Tropic Ocean Air­ways teetered on bank­ruptcy.

An­other serendip­i­tous re­la­tion­ship ap­peared not long af­ter, when Cer­avalo met a fel­low with his own Car­a­van who needed man­ag­ing and a re­sort owner who longed for sea­plane ser­vice to Bi­mini. By spring 2014, Tropic was run­ning pri­vate char­ters to Baker’s Bay in the north­east Ba­hamas. Dur­ing one of the early events to show off the Car­a­van, Cer­avalo met Ge­orge Matt­son, an­other man who would be­come in­stru­men­tal in Tropic’s suc­cess. Matt­son was con­sid­er­ing a house in Baker’s Bay, but was dis­cour­aged by the dif­fi­culty get­ting back and forth to the place. A friend of Matt­son’s in­tro­duced him to Cer­avalo, who con­vinced him a sea­plane would make life much eas­ier. Cer­avalo also per­suaded Matt­son, a re­tired part­ner from Gold­man Sachs, to in­vest in Tropic. Matt­son soon helped cre­ate Tropic’s first real round of fi­nanc­ing in Novem­ber 2014.

Since 2014, Tropic Ocean Air­ways has grown from 16 em­ploy­ees to 75, and the fleet from two air­planes to 11, now mostly Car­a­vans. Rev­enues in 2014 hov­ered around $1.8 mil­lion but climbed to just shy of $9 mil­lion last year as the air­line car­ried more than 15,000 pas­sen­gers. Here, you might ex­pect, “And the rest is his­tory.” But that would be a huge over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the work needed to cre­ate a new kind of sea­plane travel ex­pe­ri­ence in South Florida and the Caribbean.

As any­one who’s flown the U.S. air­lines over the past few decades knows, suc­cess breeds suc­cess, if you can con­vince cus­tomers to re­turn for the next flight. In the United States, the ma­jors have set the cus­tomer-ser­vice bar pretty low, treat­ing pas­sen­gers like a cap­tive au­di­ence with lim­ited op­tions, which hap­pens to be closer to the truth than most of us would like to ad­mit. The Se­cret Sauce “Tropic Ocean Air­ways isn’t suc­cess­ful to­day be­cause I’m such a ge­nius, even with great part­ners like Ge­orge Matt­son and Rob­bie Peres, our in­surance bro­ker,” Cer­avalo said. “I think we’re suc­cess­ful be­cause we be­lieve in a dif­fer­ent model of air trans­porta­tion and how the avi­a­tion in­dus­try ought to look and op­er­ate.” Early ad­vice told Cer­avalo to ap­proach lo­cal Caribbean gov­ern­ments with his hand out in search of sub­si­dies. Cer­avalo re­fused. What lo­cal gov­ern­ments did do, though, was of­fer Tropic a chance to prove it­self and the cus­tomer-ser­vice-fo­cused air­line Cer­avalo and his sup­port­ers dreamed of. “That’s what I love about en­trepreneur­ship in the avi­a­tion in­dus­try,” he said. “It’s about good, suc­cess­ful peo­ple giv­ing other peo­ple the chance to suc­ceed. That’s some­thing I hope to of­fer other peo­ple one day.”

He learned of­fer­ing peo­ple a chance could pay hand­some div­i­dends, as in the hir­ing of good em­ploy­ees. Like the Navy, Cer­avalo hires for at­ti­tude first. “If some­one comes to me with a good at­ti­tude but no re­sume, I’ll hire them. Our com­pany sales di­rec­tor started as a cus­tomer-ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive and now over­sees the gen­er­a­tion of $9 mil­lion in an­nual rev­enue.”

In the Navy, pi­lots de­briefed every flight, with no fin­ger-point­ing al­lowed. They talk hon­estly about their mis­takes and they cre­ate lessons for the next time. “My most ju­nior em­ployee could walk into my of­fice to­day

and tell me about some­thing need­ing im­prove­ment and I’ll gladly lis­ten,” Cer­avalo said.

Hir­ing for at­ti­tude and a just cul­ture might not sound ter­ri­bly unique, ex­cept few com­pa­nies ac­tu­ally do it. “Peo­ple told me the road to suc­cess was to use old air­planes and 10,000hour pi­lots. It didn’t work.”

Re­mem­ber­ing the Navy’s “train and train and train some more” con­cept, “I won­dered if we could do the same thing, so we started hir­ing based on at­ti­tude, will­ing­ness to work and will­ing­ness to ad­mit to a mis­take. If I in­ter­view a pi­lot who never made a mis­take, the in­ter­view ends right there,” he said.

Cer­avalo or­ga­nized a pro­gram with South Florida’s Broward Col­lege to hire new pi­lots and me­chan­ics. So far, Tropic’s grabbed a dozen for­mer Broward stu­dents over the past year. The com­pany em­ploys 24 pi­lots across a wide range of ages and ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els. “All have the same at­ti­tude and work ethic,” Cer­avalo says. Every com­pany new hire be­gins by com­plet­ing a week­long train­ing class un­re­lated to their job. They learn the com­pany’s cul­ture, and about our com­pas­sion for the cus­tomer. “I re­mind them that Tropic doesn’t pay em­ployee salaries, the cus­tomer does. All I do is trans­fer the money.”

Have the warm fuzzies at Tropic worked? “One of our Tropic pi­lots called an all-pi­lots meet­ing re­cently to ad­mit an oper­a­tional mis­take. He told ev­ery­one what hap­pened and what he thought the en­tire com­pany could learn from his ex­pe­ri­ence. I al­most cried,” Cer­avalo said. He also tried to imag­ine that kind of think­ing through­out the in­dus­try. Stan­dard­ized ver­sus in­flex­i­ble rules, so peo­ple don’t waste brain­power. Pi­lots fly­ing us­ing the same pro­ce­dures. “We don’t do that in lit­tle air­planes,” he said.

Tropic flies its sin­gle-en­gine air­craft with a two-pi­lot crew even though it’s not re­quired. Cer­avalo saw this as a good in­vest­ment in the fu­ture, al­though many peo­ple said the in­creased pay­roll was plain nuts. “We’re build­ing a pi­lot cadre at Tropic that doesn’t ex­ist any­where else, not to men­tion that sec­ond pi­lot of­fers a bet­ter safety mar­gin. Every pi­lot, no mat­ter how much fly­ing time they’ve logged when we hire them, spends time in the right seat of the Car­a­van be­fore mov­ing to a cap­tain’s slot.”

Tropic pi­lots fly var­ied mis­sions too, like when a hur­ri­cane struck the Caribbean last year. Tropic was asked to help de­liver goods to peo­ple des­per­ate for food and wa­ter. Rob tried to en­list other com­pa­nies to help, but when they be­gan ask­ing if they were get­ting paid, he de­cided that short­sight­ed­ness meant it was a job for his air­line. “We car­ried 100,000 pounds of cargo and res­cued 33 peo­ple,” Cer­avalo said, flash­ing that Top Gun fight­er­pi­lot smile. “The en­tire com­pany got on board, with no com­plaints over the long hours.”

The CEO some­times tells the board near-term profit mar­gins will some­times suf­fer to fo­cus on a long-term goal. He be­lieves run­ning a suc­cess­ful air­line means en­gag­ing with lots of peo­ple, em­ploy­ees, pas­sen­gers, re­sort part­ners, ven­dors and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. “And there are young peo­ple en­ter­ing the in­dus­try with some great ideas we should be lis­ten­ing to.”

“We don’t want Tropic Ocean Air­ways to be the per­fect-cus­tom­erser­vice air­line. We just want to be the air­line that 100 per­cent of our pas­sen­gers want to fly on again. Our em­ploy­ees play a huge role in that suc­cess. I also be­lieve the way we train pi­lots is right for the air­line in­dus­try. Im­prov­ing air­line train­ing pro­grams is the real key to deal­ing with the global pi­lot short­age.”

He summed it all up. “It’s so cool build­ing an air­line and get­ting peo­ple ex­cited and headed in the right di­rec­tion. Run­ning this air­line is the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

PHO­TOS BY JON WHIT­TLE

Tropic's se­cret sauce turned out to be its peo­ple, not just the em­ploy­ees, but the host of oth­ers who be­lieve in them. The lobby over­look­ing Maho Beach, where we con­ducted our in­ter­view, was se­verely dam­aged by Hur­ri­cane Irma. A just cul­ture and hir­ing for at­ti­tude might not sound ter­ri­bly unique, ex­cept few com­pa­nies ac­tu­ally do it.

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