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Air 1st:
Building on the MU-2 and building business.

Specialization is nothing new in aviation. Specialization continues across the spectrum of business aviation- with vendors- maintenance shops- insurers- financiers- support and sales operations focused on a single model or single element. Down in the South Carolina city of Aiken- the airport boasts an example of specialization in the businesses of one Mike Laver. Laver- a transplanted Australian- stands out as an aviation entrepreneur who’s built a small conglomerate of businesses based on an expertise in- and dedication to one aircraft type.

At Aiken Municipal Airport (KAIK) Laver’s company Air 1st specializes in the Mitsubishi MU-2 – one of only a couple of firms so focused on this aircraft. Not far away- another of Laver’s enterprises- Carolina Turbine Support takes his focus on the MU-2 into the support and maintenance realm- while back at KAIK he owns and operates Aiken Aviation Enterprises- KAIK’s sole FBO.

“Air 1st's immersion in MU-2s extends the borders of South Carolina to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida where the company operates and maintains a fleet of eight Mitsubishis on contract to provide flight training services to air traffic control trainees for the U.S. Air Force.”

So just how tough is it to build a business on the back of one aircraft (a) out of production for more than 20 years; (b) with a reputation for being difficult for those who fly it; and (c) in a buyers’ market?

Laver’s familiarity with the MU-2 is total - down to the models and sub-models- STCs- Airworthiness Directives- upgrade options – and its operational challenges. “The airplane itself is not a dangerous airplane-” he clarifies. “If you train the pilots properly- maintain it properly- and fly it properly- it’s an excellent airplane. Not only do I buy and sell MU-2s- I operate them – and have for more than 25 years.”

Between approximately 5-000 hours a year flown annually- Laver’s operational experience totals more than 140-000 hours of MU-2 flying – without accident. Employing proper training for all MU-2 pilots is critical to the safe flight of the twin propjet. “I think it is more demanding than some other airplanes-” Laver observed. “I won’t claim otherwise.”

Originally started by a prior owner more than 30 years ago- today’s Air 1st reflects Laver’s expertise and his experience with the company going back more than 15 years – first as a partner- then- starting about five years ago- as the sole owner of the company and its affiliated enterprises.

Today- short-body models of the MU-2 upgraded to 1-000 shp hot sections can deliver high-speed cruise performance in the 330- knot territory at fuel-consumption levels that would make even a VLJ a bit cost-conscious. “Performance and capability at good economies of scale help keep them in demand-” said a broker who asked not to be identified.

“For buyers and sellers alike- dealing with someone with depth of expertise is critical to both a satisfactory transaction and to making a deal with full knowledge and understanding of the condition of the airplane. Like many other designs- the MU-2 brings too many of its own peculiarities to the table-” the broker outlined. “Trying to buy or sell one without the specialized knowledge can be dangerous for your wallet. You want expertise on your side.”

“There are certain parts of the airplane you look at very closely- and I know where to look- and what to look for-” Laver added.

Readers of this publication well know how tough times have been- and still are essentially. Among the barely recognized canaries in the coalmine were the pre-owned aircraft dealers. Their throughput started declining at a disturbing level nearly 30 months back. “Business is not as good as it was-” Laver notes. “About 10- 15 years ago- we used to sell one a week. These days I’m lucky if it’s one a month. But business is still out there – it’s just taking a lot of work.

“I’m taking airplanes here and there- and doing things I normally wouldn’t have done to get the deals done a couple of years ago. When you sell an airplane now- you face a buyer who is educated; he’s studied it on the Internet- he knows the ADs- the market- and you’ve got to work that. All of their demands have to be met – and he knows it; price- conditions… every last thing. I’m just working to make everybody a winner.”

When Laver says he’s “taking airplanes here and there-” put a global picture in your mind. For example- travel to Germany to look at a prospective addition to his inventory; delivery of an airplane to South Africa; ferrying an airplane to a prospect somewhere- anywhere in the U.S.- Canada or the Caribbean.

When dealing in an airplane type with a limited pool of examples- no new production- and you work in it as long as Laver- you get to know what’s where- its history and much of its life story. Laver makes that information work for him. Before making an overseas flight to look at a prospect he can know its history. “There are airplanes out there- but I’m picking my way through the inventory to find the best one at the best price-” Laver explained- “so that after we clean it up- it will fetch a fair price and the buyer will sell it next.

“I’ve never had a problem finding airplanes to keep in inventory-” he related. “I’ve always tried to treat the seller fairly- pay a fair price- and tried to make my money not out of one airplane but out of 10 or 12…so I’ve always found it fairly easy to acquire inventory.

“I pretty much know all the airplanes out there. I do my own inspection when I’m buying an airplane. But in the case of one I bought from Germany- I knew the maintenance shop and was comfortable with its work - so I flew over and looked at the stuff I know I need to look at- and flew it home.”

Once back in South Carolina- what happens next depends on the condition and equipment of the example. Before any aircraft sells it has to be in show shape. “When people walk into your hangar to look at your airplane- they have to say ‘Wow!’ If they don’t- they’re going to find a different airplane.”

If the plane needs attention- Laver has his preferences for achieving the required look and performance. “If the airplane needs it- we’re going to get new paint. The paint shop is on the field- and it knows what I’m looking for. If the interior is tired- the interior job is done by another vendor on the field.”

The avionics all need to be up to contemporary standards. “Usually- we have a Mitsubishi service center that does the avionics” (a vendor in Green Bay- Wisconsin). “I’ve got an MU-2 up there with upgraded engines- and it’s getting the Garmin G600 put in the panel. That airplane also has a new interior and sound proofing…we took a couple of hundred pounds of avionics out of the airplane.”

The result is a turboprop twin capable of challenging LSA and the slower light jets when up in the flight levels. “It gives me 330 knots (true) easily with the (Honeywell) TPE331-10 converted from Dash-6 engines.” 330KTS on 90 gallons of fuel per hour will make some VLJs look ravenous; the 315 knots using only 75 gph will make some propjet twins look askance. “It’s going to make someone a great airplane-” Laver stressed.

How Laver treats prospects reflects a level of respect for their time and privacy that seemingly defies the stereotype of the successful sales operation. “The point I want to get across is I don’t sell hard. There’s no high pressure-” he explained. “When someone makes an inquiry- calls us up- I want to respect that they should be able to do that and be left alone.”

So his approach starts simply enough: answer the questions- make time for the prospect- and leave it at that. “If they make a second or third inquiry you know they’re serious and we go from there-” Laver continued.

“If that turns into a deal- well- that’s great. When we finish a deal I want to make sure the customer is happy with every element.

“There’ll always be one out of 100 - you can’t make everyone happy – but if you do a deal correctly I find I usually wind up making a friend-” he stressed.

Once a buyer is found- Air 1st assists owners with fulfilling support- maintenance- training and operating elements peculiar to the aircraft – and at a level more like what you’d expect from an airframe OEM.

Credit for the Air 1st support benefits comes from another affiliated company- Carolina Turbine Services (CTS). Based a short distance off the airport- CTS specializes- as you might expect- in parts and maintenance support for the MU-2. In the mind of the prospective buyer few things help elevate the credibility and trust level of a seller more than knowing how much they can relate to the buyer’s concerns.

The total package of Air 1st at Aiken- the training operation and the support element of CTS helps Laver present customers with a seller wholly versed in their own concerns. “The training operation gives us a lot more credibility- because they know we understand the airplane and what it takes to fly it- and keep it flying-” Laver explained. “Then they stop treating you like just a sales person when they realize we operate and support.

“When I take a prospect around to CTS they come away knowing they’re going to get the support they need. Thousands of square feet of warehouse space with thousands of spares and specialty parts for the MU-2 can make a convincing display of commitment.”

More information from www.air1st.com

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