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Delivering small planes worldwide is lucrative, dangerous

WIMAUMA — In the middle of a grassy 40-acre airfield bordered by a cow pasture, an orange grove and a two-lane road in rural Hillsborough County, Steve Hall was steward recently to three small airplanes that will soon be delivered to airports in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

With a roster of a dozen pilots who have an unusual knack for navigating pint-sized, single-engine planes across the Atlantic Ocean, Hall's aircraft delivery business is booming these days. Customers around the world are snapping up small airplanes from the United States, thanks to the weak American dollar. And they're hiring people like 63-year-old Hall to deliver those aircraft to their global destinations.

In 2008, Hall's Wings of Eagles Aircraft Delivery LLC, based at the small rural airfield in Wimauma, is projected to gross $2.5-million to $3-million in revenue based on Hall's pilots delivering 200 airplanes to countries in Asia, Africa and Europe. That's double the approximately 100 aircraft delivered in 2007.

It takes a different breed of pilot to hopscotch from country to country on a trans-Atlantic flight before landing a plane at its final destination. The job requirements for these "ferry" pilots: a sense of adventure, exquisite flying skills and an unwavering belief that veteran aviator Hall will keep them alive.

"I'm looking for a living paradox — a rabid wild man who has the integrity of St. Peter," said Hall of Carrollwood, who navigated his first flight in a Piper J-3 at 13 in his native Wichita, Kan. Hall said the job of delivering small aircraft to exotic airports around the world might sound like an adventure, but he cautioned about the flights, "It's hard. It's long. It's boring."

Hall began ferrying planes to international airports June 6, 1967, and his business has moved 5,500 aircraft to 105 countries in 41 years. Hall, married for 38 years with two daughters, is now a doting aviation supervisor who tracks his pilots with GPS systems and phone calls around the clock.

"I'm very specific in what I expect from them and how they will do it. If they can't do it my way, then tough," Hall said.

Five of his pilots have died over the decades, including three who were Hall's business partners. Safeguards against future tragedies adorn Hall's modest operation at the Wimauma airfield: the latest survival equipment such as radios, tracking devices, immersion suits (nicknamed "poo-poo" suits) and life rafts.

Hall set up shop at Wimauma in 1983. His staff includes a secretary, a part-time bookkeeper, two mechanics and a welder who fashions fuel tanks out of metal sheets that hold 30 to 250 gallons of fuel. The tank sits in the passenger seat in the plane's cockpit, which can be no bigger than the interior of an old Volkswagen bug.

A plane with an extra tank can travel 10 to 13 hours without a fuel stop, while an aircraft without one can fly four to six hours, Hall said. Hall's longest ride without a stop: 24 hours and three minutes in a single-engine Otter from Honolulu to the mainland.

Hall's pilots are a diverse lot, including an electrical engineer, the owner of a Tampa microbrewery and an aviator who flies corporate charters. On a typical week, about four of Hall's 12 pilots are flying airplanes to their owners around the world.

Hall's pilot lineup includes David Doble, co-owner of the Tampa Bay Brewing Co. in Ybor City . Doble recently returned from delivering a twin-engine Cessna 337 surveillance plane to Jordan. That flight to the Middle East included stops in North Carolina, Maine, Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, a UK Channel island, France, Croatia, Greece and Jordan.

"It's such a dangerous job. Every time I fly a plane over, I tell myself it's the last time I'll do it. You achieve such a sense of accomplishment," said Doble, who has flown aircraft for Hall for the past 3 1/2 years.

"But once you have a beer or two, it seems like a neat thing to do. And the bond I've built with the other pilots is something you can't find anywhere else," Doble said.

"It's worth the risk you take for the job."

It's not a bad gig — Hall pays $2,000 for a flight to Europe, $2,300 to the Middle East and $3,000 to Africa . Usually, Hall's pilot flies back to Tampa on a commercial flight.

The small planes that are ferried to their international destinations are valued anywhere from $250,000 to $6-million for a Beechcraft King Air, a twin turbo-prop.

The planes come fresh from the factories of Cessna and Piper. The buyers are primarily distributors who own Cessna and Piper franchises. Nearly 20 percent of the aircraft are destined for Germany; other popular markets are England, Sweden, France Portugal and Spain.

Not only do the pilots need superb flying skills, Hall said, but it helps to have a deft ambassadorial touch when dealing with some customs officials who might be interested in extracting a certain unofficial extra fee — a bribe.

"They'll say, 'Are you financially prepared to expedite justice?,' " Hall recalled.

Hall said he was jailed for nearly three days in central Africa in 1972 when he declined to pay such a bribe. "A guy wanted a bribe and I said, 'Blow it out your ear.' Those were the days when I would engage my mouth before I engaged my brain."

Delivering small planes worldwide is lucrative, dangerous 08/02/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 6, 2008 4:32pm]
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