Heart of America flies forward

King Air C90B and Cessna 182 let management visit 13 hotels and 17 restaurants across Upper Midwest.

Aviation Mgr Gary Lewis in the left seat of HoA's King Air C90B. Lewis frequently operates the King Air single-pilot. He also flies in a 2-man crew with CEO Michael Whalen in the right seat.

Supporting this business is a flight department based at DVN (Davenport IA) and consisting of 2 airplanes—a 1996 Raytheon King Air C90B and a 2000 Cessna 182 Skylane.

Later next year or early in 2014 HoA expects to trade its King Air on a new HondaJet.
The structure of HoA's market is particularly well suited to a small, flexible flight department.

"Most of our destination cities are 6 to 8 hrs away by car—and about the same on the airlines by the time you fly to a hub city and then to your final destination," Whalen says. "With our airplanes, most of the destinations are an hour or so in the King Air, and up to 2 hrs in the Skylane."

Moreover, most destinations are non-airline airports that are close to the facilities Heart of America owns. In the Kansas City market the airport of choice is IXD (New Century, Olathe KS), while in Omaha it's MLE (Millard, Omaha NE). In St Paul it's STP (Downtown, St Paul MN) in the King Air and 21D (Lake Elmo, St Paul MN) in the Cessna. For Milwaukee it's UES (Waukesha WI) and for Madison it's C29 (Middleton WI).

Michael Whalen is no stranger to aviation. He earned a private pilot certificate in the late 1970s and added multiengine and instrument ratings as he went along. He routinely flies HoA's King Air, but always with another rated pilot aboard to meet insurance requirements and ensure safe operation.

Gary Lewis is aviation manager for HoA and also serves as chief pilot. Lewis says he learned to fly in a Cessna 150 from a private grass strip at Goren MO, taught by a local farmer who warned him to "stay away from tower controlled airports because you'll get in trouble there."

Ignoring that advice, he went on to acquire the rest of his ratings at FFL (Fairfield IA), financed through the GI Bill, and landed his first job as a flight instructor and FBO manager at FSW (Fort Madison IA) in 1972.

After building some time, Lewis joined Horizon Airways, a Missouri-based regional carrier operating between IRK (Kirksville MO) and MKC (Downtown, Kansas City MO). In 1975 he relocated to Muscatine IA, where he still lives, to take a corporate flying job with the Grain Processing Corp. Over the next 13 years he flew increasingly complex equipment, advancing from a Beechcraft Baron to, ultimately, a Cessna Citation from the company's base at MUT (Muscatine IA).

Senior VP Damen Trebilcock is responsible for operation of all hotels and restaurants for HoA, as well as all new development and renovations. He says he simply couldn't do his job without the company's airplanes.

Lewis then accepted a position with Carver Aero to manage the FBOs at MUT and DVN. While there he began flying as a contract pilot for operators with airplanes based with Carver.

Among them was Heart of America, which had initially based its King Air with Elliott Aviation at MLI, but subsequently relocated it to DVN to avoid issues with bridge traffic for the HoA executive passengers who mostly live on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. Whalen says that he liked Lewis's approach to aviation and that Lewis was his preferred pilot.

In 2004 Lewis was contemplating retirement, tired of the daily grind of managing operations at 2 airports. He related his plans to Whalen, adding that another pilot would need to be found to crew his airplane. Whalen countered with an offer for Lewis to join Heart of America as its full-time pilot and aviation manager.

At the time HoA had just the King Air, but was about to add a Cessna 182, in part to support a bid by Michael Whalen to become the Congressman for Iowa's sprawling First District during the 2006 election cycle.

The First District extends from Davenport north almost to Minnesota and in places almost as far west as Des Moines, and the 182 was critical in allowing the candidate to run a strong, albeit ultimately unsuccessful campaign.

HoA retained the 182 after the campaign, finding that it provided an excellent low-cost alternative to the King Air when just 1 or 2 executives needed to travel to the company's growing list of business locations.

As aviation manager, Lewis formalized some reporting procedures, including the addition of flight logs and spreadsheets to provide accountability.

Collectively, HoA's aircraft logged about 350 hrs last year. Both aircraft are normally flown single-pilot. King Air operations are limited to runways of 3000 ft or more, while the limit for the 182 is at least 2500 ft. All HoA flights must be approved either by CEO Whalen or Senior VP Damen Trebilcock.

Kirk Whalen, vp and general counsel for Heart of America, reviews a document with Receptionist Elizabeth Odum at the company's headquarters office in Moline IL.

Along with Whalen, Trebilcock is one of the most frequent users of the aircraft. He is responsible for operation of all the hotels and restaurants, all new development, renovations, strategic planning and strategy.

It's a job that calls for personal visits to the company's various locations on a regular basis.

"I couldn't do this job without the airplanes," he says. "As an example, when we were building the hotel properties in Olathe, we made perhaps 20 trips down there over a 60 to 75-day period. Sometimes we were in negotiations that needed to continue until a deal got done—but at the end of the day, even if it was 8 or 9 o'clock at night, we could still get home to sleep in our own beds."

The airplanes also give him the flexibility to visit multiple locations in a single day. "I can do St Paul in the morning, swing over to Milwaukee in the afternoon and be home in time for dinner," he says. "There's only one way to do that—with a business aircraft."

"The airplane is our tractor," Whalen says. "It's the tool that allows us to do business efficiently and effectively. We couldn't run this company without it."

Recently, the company added a 2nd pilot in a part-time role. Brian Johnson was actually hired in HoA's IT department with the title of IT technical support/backup pilot. A Davenport native, Johnson started in aviation as a line technician for Carver Aero at DVN when he was 18, before he had ever flown in an airplane.

Johnson went on to study at the University of Dubuque, earning his bachelor of science in flight operations, along with his commercial, multiengine and instrument ratings. Going on to earn his CFI and CFII from Carver Aero at DVN, he began working there as a flight instructor and Part 135 charter pilot.


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