Sky Pilot

Posted on May 1, 2009 :: Down Time
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

“Flying to me is a total freedom,” says Jim Ruffolo, president and COO of Burger Boat Company.

We crawl up the wing of the small aircraft and settle into our seats. I find my seatbelt and settle my camera on my lap, careful not to touch any controls. My pilot, Jim Ruffolo, hands me my own headset and gets started prepping for our flight.

Jim, president and chief operating officer of Burger Boat Company, wants to share his passion for flying with a scenic tour in his Beechcraft Bonanza A36 airplane. I listen through my headset as he lines up his takeoff with the control tower, and converses with the pilot of the other small airplane on the runway about who would go first. The other pilot isn’t quite ready so we taxi out and before I know it, we are in the air.

We’re taking off from the Manitowoc County Airport, a convenience for Jim as it is just minutes away from both his home and his office at Burger Boat Company. But he isn’t the only one benefitting from the close proximity of the airport.

“This airport is very important to Burger, as it is to many other businesses in town, even though many people might not know that,” Jim says. “It’s a very important asset to the community, because our clients fly in to see their yachts – or, almost more importantly – they’re coming in to learn about Burger, about the city and the craftspeople who might build their yacht, and it really does help us secure the new contracts.”

Of the 3,000 to 4,000 airports in the United States, only about 300 of them are served by airlines, according to Curt Drumm, president of Lakeshore Aviation and chair of the Thunder on the Lakeshore Airshow.

“That’s a whole lot of cities like Manitowoc that don’t have airline service,” Curt says. “It is a big advantage to clients of companies like Burger to fly in, drive the five minutes into town, check on the progress of their yacht and get back on the plane, versus flying into Green Bay or Milwaukee and having to spend hours in a rental car. It’s not only a matter of what you are paying this person to be sitting and wasting otherwise productive time,” Curt continues, “but also what is the quality-of-life standpoint for this business person who is now home with his kids in the evening versus sitting in a hotel room someplace. That’s where corporate aviation makes so much sense.”

But for pilots like Jim, access to the local airport serves many other personal benefits as well. It’s all about saving time. A 2 1/2-hour drive to the family cabin has become a 38-minute flight. Hours of driving to visit children in college are diminished to short flights to the local airports. Even a trip to the Bahamas was extended without notice because there was no need to catch a commercial flight.

“It’s a nice setup,” he says with a smile. “I’m very lucky with that. Flying to me is a total freedom. It’s kind of amazing how your mind gets transformed. You might have a busy day with a lot going on, but when the wheels leave the ground it’s just a sensation of total freedom and you think what a nice freedom we have – that we can take off and really go from any point to any other point pretty much unobstructed,” he adds.

And it’s not difficult to understand that appeal. As we buzz along, Jim points out the landmarks that suddenly look so different from the air. We’ve left Manitowoc and he’s already pointing out Green Bay’s Austin Straubel Airport, and a short time later, Highway 41 and the Outagamie County Regional Airport.

He chats with the Appleton control tower to let them know we’ve arrived and that we plan on making a circle or two in the area. I try to figure out where my major landmarks are – the dams on the Fox River, Insight’s office building on College Avenue in downtown Appleton, even my own home. All of these things seem just inches from Lake Winnebago, which looms out of the window as we circle the Fox Valley.

As we head back to Manitowoc I comment on how different everything looks from above. There really is a beauty of seeing it from above, and I think back to something Curt had said to me before leaving the airport:

“On a day like today, if you get up to 5,000 feet you’ll be able to see clear over to Michigan, up Door County, over to the bay of Green Bay, to Lake Winnebago and Oshkosh, and past the Fox Valley. You’ll really be able to see, wow, this is what northeast Wisconsin is really all about.”