Eagle Aviation Cessna Citation Jet
There are hundreds of FBOs strung along the Eastern Seaboard between Portland, Maine and Key West, Florida. Few lay claim to a half-century in Business Aviation - but Eagle Aviation does. Dave Higdon catches up with David Lipski and Lee Thomas to reflect on 50 years of success…
Based in Columbia, South Carolina, Eagle enjoys a reputation far beyond being a local FBO and service provider. “Aircraft sales are our largest profit center and the focus of our business,” long-time president David A. Lipski tells AvBuyer. “After that comes line service, then maintenance and paint, and interior completions.
“We focus our aircraft sales efforts internationally as well as locally,” he adds. Over five decades in Business Aviation, Eagle's sales force has moved aircraft into and out of many countries. “It's up around 50 countries,” confirms Lee Thomas, Eagle's aircraft sales manager.
A quick overview of the company’s activities shows that it serves as the main FBO and contract fuel supplier for air carriers at Columbia Metropolitan Airport (KCAE), where Eagle also operates a full-service maintenance center, a paint and interior completions operation, charter operations, and a flight support shop. “We do have (FBO) competition on the field and another sales organization,” notes Lipski, “but as outlined, our sales are not only local, they're worldwide.”
David Lipski, President, Eagle Aviation
A few miles east of Columbia Metropolitan, Eagle Aviation also serves as the contract FBO operator at county-owned Jim Hamilton L.B. Owens Airport (KCUB), Columbia's near-downtown aviation facility. In addition to FBO, tie-down and hangar services, KCUB is the base for Eagle's Part 61 flight-training operation.
Specifically, Eagle Aviation is a Cessna Citation and Beechcraft King Air specialist and a service center for Textron Caravans and Piston Powered aircraft, including Barons and Bonanzas and Cirrus Aircraft, which is beginning to deliver its SF50 Vision single-engine jet.
These points all contribute to Eagle Aviation's half century of success in Columbia. But aside from a great location, Eagle's success also rests on three other crucial words in aviation: Service, Quality and Connections.
50 years at KCAE
Columbia serves as the capital of South Carolina – and the city is home to the University of South Carolina. In a basketball- and football-loving region like the Carolinas, college game days attract large crowds.
With the university's football stadium capable of seating about 80,000 spectators, home games make for busy days at both airports Eagle Aviation serves. “We fill up at both airports when there's a game at the stadium because the downtown airport is almost walking distance from the game,” Lipski explains.
The Masters golf championship (running 3-9 April) is an hour away from Columbia in Augusta, Georgia and draws large numbers of aircraft flown by golf fans. “We get a lot of people flying in because hotels and restaurants are available at the last minute, and in addition we have US Customs and some hangar space available – and we're less expensive than flying into Augusta itself. We don’t have the traffic and ground delays often seen in Augusta,” Thomas adds. “We'll have full ramps at both airports.”
Lee Thomas, Aircraft Sales Manager, Eagle Aviation
The company has grown significantly since it opened with five employees in the late 1960s. Today the depth of services offered helps keep 116 employees busy year-round.
“Our owner is the original owner of the company,” Lipski expounds. “He bought a small business in 1967. It was basically a single, small hangar offering a little gas sales, a little flight training, a little of this and that.” That owner “expanded it and grew it from its inception to where we are today.” And business aircraft sales quickly became the major focus it remains today.
The non-sales growth was all concentrated at KCAE until Eagle Aviation took over the lease at KCUB, an uncontrolled, non-towered field with a single runway and about 120 based-aircraft.
A major appeal is KCUB’s proximity to downtown, the state capitol, and the university that helps keep it busy.
“The county has an airport manager who runs the field and we provide the services,” Lipski explained. “Flight training is a smaller part of our business, and it's handy because the downtown airport doesn't have the traffic from the airlines and overnight shippers that we have at Metro.”
Thomas and Lipski noted that KCUB boasts an historic Curtiss-Wright hangar, currently undergoing a conversion into a micro-brewery and restaurant called ‘The Hunter-Gatherer Brewery at Owens Field’. It will feature a taproom and an observation deck overlooking the airport.
Even through tough times, Eagle Aviation continued to offer flight training – something missing at many busy FBOs. “The reason we stay in the business is we feel an obligation to pay back, to help grow the pilot population,” Lipski explains.
Growing Metro, Growing Sales
According to Lipski, Eagle Aviation's future holds more of the same successes it enjoyed in the past through a continued focus on service and client satisfaction.
Aircraft sales in 2016 totaled about 25, Thomas reveals. That’s a bit lower than the previous year (a common report among dealers and brokers). Meanwhile, the company's avionics shop, which took a hit during the Great Recession, is the focus of efforts to rebuild business. Currently, light maintenance and installations are the main focus– and Lipski wants to revive and revitalize that component of Eagle's business.
That plan parallels other plans to continue to grow Eagle Aviation's full-service, in-house completions center, where craftsmen and tradesmen handle upholstery, cabinetry, carpeting, bright-work upgrades and paint (all focused at Metro).
However, both Lipski and Thomas voiced confidence in the aircraft sales market.
“Our phones have been ringing more like usual since the start of the year,” Thomas explained. Along with an expectation of growth in sales, Lipski sounded an optimistic note about the company's service operation.
With the new products coming out of Cessna and Beech, Lipski expects to expand the maintenance staff and avionics, this year. “We're in the hunt for good people,” Lipski adds.
Lee Thomas took over sales two years ago, with a staff of five. His predecessor passed away after a long career at Eagle Aviation. “We're like family here,” Lipski explains. “We are growing continually – there is no end. We've just been a solid, steady grower as the years have rolled past.”
“We're never satisfied with where we are,” Thomas emphasizes. “We've made a lot of good friends and repeat customers, and we value them. You come into the office and you can sit down with Dave or me, and chat; go to lunch. We know our customers. I'm optimistic about the business in the US and worldwide, but particularly in the US.”
“I see the next few years very positively,” Lipski concludes. “The economy has improved. We've moved in the right direction in the past couple of years, and there are greater things on the horizon. We're very, very optimistic.”
It appears that after a half-century cultivation, Eagle Aviation’s approach to the business of aviation positions it very well indeed for its second half century in the industry.
More information from www.eagle-aviation.com