During a cold winter night in 2009, I was sitting at home with my wife, watching “Pretty Woman” with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. There is a scene in this film that would inspire the start of my own aviation adventure. In this scene, Edward invites Vivien to the opera. She wears a glamorous red dress and joins him on a private jet, which he organized for their journey. When I saw this scene, I looked at my wife and said just two words: “One day…”
All names of companies and private persons were changed or omitted in this entry, to prevent possible detrimental impact.
How the Idea of a Private Jet Came About
I have always loved to travel, be it privately or for business, and have done so frequently. The frequency of my travels intensified in 2015. Oftentimes, I would have several appointments in two entirely different cities on the same day.
This led to a business decision of flying private, using small airports with shorter distances to travel. Sometimes, my appointments would be in the General Aviation Terminal, which was only a short distance from my plane.
Flying private meant it was possible for me to first fly from Altenrhein in Switzerland to Warsaw in Poland for a trade show and some handshakes, then fly directly to Vienna so that I could meet up with my notary in the terminal and sign off on some papers.
Right after, I would fly off in a helicopter that was parked next to the airplane with a couple of friends to Schladming in Austria for the winter season opening to party all night. The helicopter would drop us off in front of the hotel just before nightfall.
Citation Mustang – most flights in the first year I have completed with this aircraft.
At that time, I always flew with the same company, which operated two Mustangs and several smaller private jets for up to four people and with a good range of distance. I quickly befriended the Chief Pilot of this company and eventually had the idea that I could buy my own airplane to use for charter flights.
I let my former business partner in on this plan and soon thereafter, we were counseled on how such an airline operation would be run. Over the course of our research, it became clear that chartering an airplane would not make a lot of money. However, the Chief Pilot was a very active, bustling man with a lot of good contacts. At the very least, an airplane would be well used. In turn, this meant that my running expenses would be lowered, and the jet would be chartered pretty regularly. This, on top of a fair contract and hopefully smooth operations, possibly meant a small profit.
I was interested in my own need for the airplane, so the idea of owning one for myself was already very attractive. In addition, this also meant that I could diversify my investment portfolio because operating such an airplane is also a solide business model. Finally, in the summer of 2017, the idea became tangible.
My friend began his search and traveled to the US to look for an airplane that fit my needs. After a couple of weeks, he struck gold. He found a nearly brand-new Phenom 100E, which Embraer used as a showroom model. The airplane came with only a few flying hours and the best equipment for its kind.
It was a perfect match for 3.3 million US dollars. Of course, there would be additional costs for bringing the airplane over to Europe and a few small adjustments that were needed, but Embraer in turn would help us pay for the pilot licenses.
Back then, I didn’t yet know yet that this type of airplane barely had any certified pilots in Europe. The plane was relatively standard but was also so modern that it might be complicated to operate. Additionally, I was much too busy to look deeper into this matter, which meant that I had to trust my friend, the head pilot, completely. He was, after all, already operating two airplanes.
My then-business partner and I bought the airplane and planned to pay in cash, as this would eliminate the question of financing and allow us to sign the contract right away. However, in between confirmation of the purchase and the day on which the payment was due, my main bank unexpectedly terminated my accounts, for reasons that are too complex to go into at this juncture. I was now under pressure to find a new bank, and until then, I could not pay the deposit.
Due to being caught up in a civil procedure in the US (through no fault of my own), none of the banks I contacted on the following day would allow me to open a commercial account with them. Every time, I received the same reasoning: “Due to the ongoing civil procedure in the US, we currently cannot do anything for you, sir.”
What felt like an eternity later, a friend of mine found an attorney, who in turn knew someone working in a large asset management position. This man introduced me to a financier, who was finally able to help me. It took several weeks, but at the beginning of December 2017, I finally made my deposit of 600,000 US dollars.
When my friend, the Chief Pilot, finally returned from the US, we met up and began planning out our next steps. We were still lacking pilots and realized that it would take some more time before we could start operating at full capacity. My friend, however, had a couple of young, motivated colleagues who were on the verge of completing their training. Until February 2018, we could operate the airplane with freelance pilots.
Before that, in December of 2017, my wife and children expressed interest in flying to Tallinn, which we visited about two to three times per year. I took my family to the airport, from which they were flown to Tallinn in a Mustang (not my own plane) by my friend, the Chief Pilot. I intended to join them a couple of days later, since I first had to attend a Christmas gala as a guest and sponsor. As my family left for Tallinn, I started driving towards Munich in my car.
That day, I was so busy that I didn’t have an opportunity to call my wife. I attended the gala but didn’t look at my phone. The next morning, close to midday, I read a headline in the news that made my heart sink.
The airplane with my friend had crashed. All onboard had died in the crash.
It was a short article, but it was enough to make me completely distraught. I was physically unable to read past the headline. All I could focus on was the image of the airplane wreckage strewn about in the woods – the same airplane my family had boarded just one day before.
Time stood still. I never felt such intense fear as I did at that moment, and it took me several long minutes before I could finish the article and discover where and when the crash had happened. I found out later that the pilot had safely landed with my family the night before the crash and had even sent me a picture of him and my son sitting in the cockpit. Afterward, he had flown on to pick up another guest. It was during that flight that the accident occurred.
I originally planned on traveling on that day, but I couldn’t. I was too shocked and grief-stricken. Two days later, I was finally able to go to Tallinn and meet up with my family. I can assure you that I have never been happier than the moment that I hugged my wife and children that day.
How to Proceed?
Still rattled, I considered just how close I came to experiencing a complete disaster. The night before the actual crash, my own family had flown in that plane.
My own business venture, which was still in development, had suddenly grown into a much bigger operation with several companies contacting me to close the deal on the airplane. I had absolutely no experience in this field since I had entrusted my friend (the Chief Pilot) to take care of it. Since he was no longer with us, I had to make some difficult decisions. The airplane was en route to be delivered, and I had to deal with it personally.
Of all the choices that were laid out for us, we decided to operate the airplane with the exact same team that the head pilot had built up. We had the customers, sales team, and experience. During this very overwhelming time, this seemed to be the most logical choice, so we closed the deal with the company.
Only days later, the owner of the carrier decided that he actually didn’t want to continue operations, so the company was dissolved, and the second Mustang was retired. In one fell swoop, we lost the operator, sales team, and the rest of the flight operation.
Due to my then-business partner’s passive demeanor, I had to once again decide everything on my own. I had to trust my gut in this case, so I delegated the airplane to a company from Vienna, which was already operating various airplanes and had connections to the recently dissolved company.
My business partner then provided his pilot licenses for the two Mustang airplanes. I was hoping that we would be able to take on two or three employees from the pilots and the sales team. I started to feel despair, as I was very busy with work and didn’t have much time on my hands. All responsibility had fallen onto my shoulders, and I had to persevere.
I still owed 2.7 million US dollars for the airplane before I could start the whole operation. This transaction was supposed to go through my former business partner from Dubai, but it was taking weeks.
We repeatedly asked for confirmation from the banks and were sent SWIFT messages, but ultimately kept receiving more and more excuses. After eight weeks, I was over being patient. I released my then-business partner from our contract and paid for the airplane with my own money.
The payment debacle in Dubai was a complete mess, and it would sadly not be the last chapter of this odyssey. Today, we know that the financier took money from my then-business partner, then went on the run but was later captured. He’s currently in jail in Dubai, yet to this day the money still hasn’t resurfaced.
Since I paid for the airplane with my own money, I became the sole owner of it. It was finally brought over to Europe in January 2018 and stayed in Bremen for the following few weeks, so that it could go through the necessary technical modifications to allow it to fly commercially in Europe. Beginning in the middle of February, the airplane was ready for private flights. Charter flights would be possible starting in June.
We had a wonderful reception at Friedrichshafen airport with the fire company and water fountains, but the mood was morose since many of those who came to celebrate were closer friends of the pilot who had died in the accident. Although our great personal loss was the main reason the event felt sullen, there were other things that contributed to the mood. I was very much aware that I would have to work hard to not hemorrhage any more money from this operation. Even if nothing went wrong from there on out, all responsibility laid with me, and everything connected to this airplane felt ill-fated.
Welcome to the new Home-Airport – Friedrichshafen
The first Flight on my own Airplane
During that period of time, I was flying privately almost every week, just with different aircraft.
Starting on February 4th ,my own airplane was ready for use, along with a Captain who would fly me.
This turned out to be a wonderful event: I could fly my first flight with my wife. We did not fly anywhere; our destination was the opera ball in Vienna, to which she wore a wonderful red dress.
We checked into the opera suite at the Hotel Bristol with friends and spent a truly wonderful evening at the state opera.
Two words, spoken in an emotional moment ten years prior to that opera, had laid the groundwork for a truly adventurous series of events. Some had been wonderful, most had been tragic, but they all led up to this wonderful evening. It was almost like this was meant to be.
This was the absolute (and sadly only) pinnacle in this whole adventure, as it would go on to be quite patchy.
Two Years of Patience, Full of Setbacks and Failures
I will restrain myself and tell you just a few of the setbacks (out of many) that occurred in the years to follow, many of which were unlucky coincidences.
First, we trained a young pilot who had previously flown a Mustang and attended the welcome party. He went through an expensive landing training (about 25,000 Euros), which I of course paid for.
I actually already knew the young pilot, so I was a bit surprised when he began acting passively towards me, even though he seemed to always be very open and kind in previous interactions.
Only one week after completing his training, that I paid for (around 20.000 EUR) the pilot quit and began flying for another company. Sadly, the person in charge of setting up contracts had completely neglected the prevention of this.
As we finally had all necessary certifications, we could fly, but did so with freelance pilots. When we finally found a Captain for our first crew, he subsequently developed a complex set of fractures in his hand and couldn’t fly for five months. Outside of a couple of flights in 2018, we were mostly grounded.
My wife wanted to fly to Tallinn on another occasion, and on this flight, they had to make a stop in Berlin to refuel. Upon landing, a large bird collided with the airplane. Its feathers actually got stuck in the landing gear, and the plane had to be grounded. We had to arrange a second airplane so my family could reach their destination.
On a later flight, I wanted to go to Berlin, but we had to do an emergency landing at Nuremberg since the landing gear would not retract. A hydraulic pump was damaged, which would not have been too much of an issue if the airplane hadn’t been to the repair shop twice for that exact same problem the week prior. Because it hadn’t been properly repaired the first time around, I had to pay for the same repairs three times. Each round of repairs cost me 40,000 Euros.
In 2019, we finally had a crew. We actually needed two crews for continuous operations, so that each crew could switch off every two weeks. In the event that we didn’t have a pilot, we had to use freelance pilots.
We started to fly more regularly and soon realized that when the airplane actually flew, we were able to make good money. The airplane was relatively efficient and popular with customers.
After some uncertainty in 2019, we finally found a second head pilot. He had left his previous company after 15 years and started with us on March 1st , 2020.
With a complete crew, and not having to rely on freelance pilots, we could finally fly our customers: artists and DJs attending performances and music festivals, and businesspeople attending fairs and conferences. We were slammed with more booking requests than we could handle. We charged roughly the same price as a Mustang, but could offer far more comfort, luxury, and a bigger airplane. We finally felt relief enough to hope and be happy about our success.
And then, Corona Struck…
When the coronavirus appeared in late March of 2020, we had to demote all our pilots, whom we had assembled painstakingly over two years, to part-time on May 1st , 2020. The airplane was parked except for maintenance, which had to be done every couple months. We were used to being patient and were hopeful that the summer season would pick up, as we did not know what to expect with the pandemic.
However, while other private flying companies could still fly out their customers, our customers didn’t have any reason to fly. There were no concerts, festivals, or DJs who had to play in clubs or in Ibiza. There were no fairs or conferences. But still, time marched on, and we were painfully reminded every month that, even though our airplane was parked, it still cost about 30,000 Euros to maintain. Even a grounded airplane is an expensive airplane.
We Needed to Act Quickly
As the lockdown dragged on, I finally realized that I would most likely have to give up on this enterprise. There was still hope that many people would fly privately during COVID, but we had to honestly ask ourselves: where would our customers go without any concerts or fairs taking place?
There simply were too few booking requests. I made the authoritative decision to end the business rather than let it drag on without an end in sight. I would sell the airplane and leave this opportunity behind.
That decision was made in May 2020, and as soon as the airplane was on the market, I had several interested parties. We had the leverage to negotiate a good price and the sale was to be concluded at the beginning of July since the interested parties wanted to buy immediately.
The first interested party could not properly fund this purchase, which meant that the month of June was squandered. Next, we decided on a buyer who would keep on the pilots, so they could fly without interruption. We started the sale in July and hoped to be finished with it in about four weeks.
However, it wouldn’t be the same airplane without something going wrong.
Déjà-Vu – Waiting for the Money from Dubai…
The buyer was from the EU, but similarly to my former business partner and me, he wanted to pay for the airplane himself without financing it and send us the money through one of his companies in Dubai.
We were in for several more delays. I was sadly already familiar with the process since even if the money has been deposited in his Austrian account, the compliance division would have to do its due diligence and demand proof of origin. That, again, could easily take a couple more weeks.
During the summer of 2020, I was extremely busy. Africa was practically devoid of mountaineers due to the pandemic, so I used this opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro with my brother and a small team from Switzerland. It was a welcome distraction, as we were practically alone.
Despite everything that had already gone wrong, we stumbled upon another obstacle. My bank couldn’t do any transactions in US dollars, which is the standard currency in any airplane-related transaction. I did not have a bank to close the deal with and even though this was an unfortunate situation, I wasn’t really nervous about it anymore. I had become used to the feeling of not knowing what comes next.
Every single new development regarding the airplane seemed to be just another hurdle to jump over. There were additional costs for pilot training, another mandatory airplane service, and further delays with the transaction from Dubai. Eventually, I threw my hand up in the air and just gave up. During the pandemic, I tried to filter out anything negative and focus on the positive aspects of life, which I plan to work on in the future as well. This was beneficial to me and my family.
On the whole, though, everything felt like a déjà-vu. The transaction from Dubai into the Austrian account of the buyer took seven weeks, and when it was complete, the account was immediately suspended for the above-mentioned reasons. To no one’s surprise, everything dragged on even longer.
The first purchase contract mistakenly had the wrong currency, as we had managed to put down Euros, not Dollars. The second purchase contract ended up containing the wrong serial number and was considered null and void. All good things come in threes though, and after such a long run of bad luck, we were due some fortune.
Closing the deal on a special day…
On my birthday, I finally signed off on everything and brought this long series of
miserable events to a close.
I wished the buyer well and hoped that he wouldn’t be too superstitious, since the last contract was signed on Friday the 13th, in the “special” year 2020.
What did I learn?
If I was asked today if there is anything I would change, there is one clear answer:
If you send out a wish to the universe, be sure to be very concrete and precise!
I wished for an airplane, in which I could go to the opera with my wife, while she wore a stunning red dress – and that is exactly what I got.
What I didn’t wish for was to build a successful flying operation, that makes me a good profit every year …. but I have to say: It was still pretty cool to pick up some friends in an other City with my own airplane to fly to Ibiza or Amsterdam for a Party… 🙂
In the future, I will return to being a customer for someone who actually dared to go into this business and hope that they are more successful than me.