Schuyler Risk (left), business development director, and Mike Gerdes, president, at Silverhawk Aviation headquarters.
Lincoln-based Silverhawk Aviation has weathered the storms of ownership changes over the years and even the Great Recession, but somehow the business has managed to fly for 25 years.
The key to survival, said current President Mike Gerdes, is maintaining sustainable growth.
“It’s hard for an aviation company to stay in business this long, especially with all the ups and downs in the economy,” Gerdes said. “It’s obviously a high-capital industry. We position our company to grow sustainably so it can still be healthy during the next economic downturn.”
Silverhawk’s growth has “taken off,” doubling profits in the last three years. Profits are 10 times what they were during the 2008-09 recession, Gerdes said.
“Our plan is to double profits again in the next five years,” he added.
As part of that growth plan, Silverhawk is adding to its fleet of charter planes at its headquarters, 1751 Kearney Ave., at the Lincoln Municipal Airport.
“We have 10 charter planes now, and soon we will add a Citation Excel, which is a mid-size business jet,” Gerdes said. “That will be our first entry into the mid-size business market. We’ll add one more Excel in 2017 and two more light jets similar to those in our current fleet. We’ll be up to 14 planes by the end of 2017.”
Mike Gerdes (left), president, Schuyler Risk, business development director, inside a charter jet at Silverhawk Aviation.
Constructing a new hangar
To facilitate that expanded fleet, Silverhawk plans to build a dual-purpose storage and maintenance hangar in the spring, Gerdes said. The company’s current hangar will be used for storage and maintenance.
“That will more than double our current hangar space,” he said. “The new hangar will hold 10 jets. Four or more will be out flying at any given time.”
In addition to adding planes, Silverhawk has been enhancing its charter fleet, such as installing onboard Wi-Fi for customers and upgrading the avionics instruments that pilots use, said Schuyler Risk, Silverhawk’s business development director.
“There’s a big reason that you don’t see as much in the news about airplane crashes anymore,” Risk said. “Improved avionics technology has lowered that risk. We do upgrading work for other charter flight services, private owners and government aircraft as well.”
In addition to having extensive experience in avionics repair and upgrades, Silverhawk Aviation is an FAA-certified repair station in general aviation maintenance, repair and upgrades, as well as phase inspections and routine maintenance.
“We have one of the most respected aviation maintenance shops in the industry,” Risk said. “We’re an authorized service center for Cessna, Beechcraft, Cirrus, and Pratt & Whitney engines. We’ve done more engine upgrades in the Beechcraft King Air 90 than any aviation service in the world.”
Upgrading airplanes is a common practice, Risk added. “The owner gets essentially a brand new plane for a fraction of the cost. Often, upgrading makes a plane better than a new one, because new models tend to have extra things that add weight and hinder performance.”
Being located in the middle of the United States also makes Silverhawk a popular refueling station.
“Our line crews have a reputation for getting people in and out quickly, saving them time,” Risk said. “We just try to deliver the best service we can in all segments, and they all work well together. They’re all complimentary services.”
Silverhawk employs just under 80 staff members.
Chief pilot John Geary (left) visits with Gary Bursek in Cessna Citation V during Silverhawk Aviation's 25th anniversary celebration.
In 1991, Mike Weatherl founded Silverhawk Aviation in Seward as a branch of his Silverhawk Security Specialists business. “It was a case where he was flying anyway as part of his security business, so he started doing charter flight work,” Gerdes said. The operation expanded to Crete, then opened the Lincoln facility on the general aviation side of the Lincoln Municipal Airport in the mid-1990s.
Bryan Heart (formerly called Bryan Heart Institute) was Silverhawk Aviation’s first customer and remains a customer today.
“We couldn’t do what we do without Silverhawk,” said Dr. Dale Hansen, executive medical director of Bryan Heart. “We bring echocardiography, nuclear testing and other equipment and see cardiology patients at over 30 hospitals in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri so they don’t have to drive to Lincoln.”
In 2001, Weatherl sold Silverhawk Aviation to Don and Nancy Allen, and the Allens acquired and consolidated Capitol Aviation into Silverhawk. In 2006, the Allens sold Silverhawk to Arkansas-based Gillum Group. Dan Hinnah oversaw the daily operations, and Weatherl returned as a silent minority owner. Hinnah bought Gillum Group’s majority share in Silverhawk in 2010.
“Dan (Hinnah) said he would do it for three to five more years until he got the company back into good financial shape, and in 2015 he turned it over to us,” said Gerdes, current co-owner with Gene Luce, who has been Silverhawk’s maintenance director for 23 years.
(From left) Jordan Springer, Jen Risk, Daryl Clark, Paula Luce, Brent Newman and Jackie Newman enjoy food, drinks and festivities at Silverhawk Aviation's 25 anniversary celebration.
Climbing the company ladder
Both Gerdes and Risk started working at Silverhawk in entry-level positions.
Gerdes started taking flying lessons in 2004 while studying math and finance at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“As I started doing that, the flying bug bit, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” he said. “After college I became a flight instructor, and I helped Performance Aircraft launch its flight school in 2006. So it was a natural transition to slide over to charter flying in 2007 for Silverhawk.”
Promotions soon followed, including chief pilot in 2010 and director of operations/CFO in 2011. Gerdes became president and co-owner in 2015.
Risk is a third-generation pilot, following his father, Ken Risk, and grandfather, George Risk.
“I was kind of a ‘hangar rat’ as a kid,” he said. “I spent a lot of time at the airport with my dad, working on planes and vacuuming them.”
Later, while studying political science and economics at UNL, Risk worked on the flight line and pumped gas at Silverhawk. After graduation and working in sales jobs across the United States, “the flying bug hit me again in 2006, and I earned all the certifications I needed to fly professionally,” Risk said.
He worked for a regional airline in Denver before moving back to Lincoln in 2008, when the recession hit and “there were no flying jobs anywhere,” he said. He worked in commercial banking for two years before returning to Silverhawk in January 2010 as a line service technician while waiting for a pilot position to open. He began flying for Silverhawk in October of that year and earned various promotions before being named director of business development in 2015.
“The way we started, I don’t think either Mike or I thought we would be doing what we’re doing now,” Risk said. “It was a great place to work, and we wanted to see it grow and flourish, and it has.”
(From left) Kirk Brom, Kim Russel, Dr. Larry Wood and Sue Wood visit at Silverhawk Aviation's 25th anniversary celebration.
Charter service is all about saving time
Silverhawk started as a charter flight service in 1991.
“In 25 years, Silverhawk’s charter planes have flown over 3 million miles, which equals 120 times around the world,” said Risk.
“As the company added planes, it made sense to add mechanics, and eventually it added the fuel service as well,” said Gerdes. “It’s taken off from there.”
Silverhawk’s charter planes fly a 50-50 mix of business and private clients, according to Gerdes. With a charter fleet ranging from King Air turboprops to a full lineup of Cessna Citation jets, Silverhawk gives clients the freedom to fly where they want, when they want, he said.
Since Silverhawk has its own planes and pilots and serves clients who live and work within 175 miles of Lincoln, the company does not need to bring in planes from other charter services.
“A lot of national charter services serve clients from all around the country, and repositioning planes is built into their charges to customers,” Gerdes said. “Many other charter services are marketing companies, and they find clients but don’t have their own jet fleet, or they only have some and supplement them with other companies’ planes. We have our own planes and pilots.”
With light charter jets, Silverhawk has access to over 5,000 airports across North America, whereas major airlines can only access about 180 airports, Gerdes added. That greater airport access helps clients avoid the hassles of long lines, layovers, delays and cancellations typical of flying on an airline. And there’s no need to drive long distances to and from an airport.
“By the time people drive to an airport and go through security, assuming they can get on a flight and aren’t cut, we could have them to their destination often times before they would have even taken off on an airline,” Gerdes said.
As an example, Risk said that he and Gerdes recently flew a client from Lincoln to Philadelphia on a Thursday, then to Knoxville, Tennessee, then to Las Vegas the next day and to Palm Springs, California, the day after that before returning to Lincoln – all in three to four days. The same round-trip would have taken at least a week using airlines, he said.
“Other folks use us to go to Palm Springs, for example, for three to four days, or for a business trip up and back the same day,” Risk added. “What we can do is really only limited by our customers’ imaginations.”
New jet card
At Silverhawk’s 25th anniversary celebration Nov. 11, Gerdes announced the company’s new jet card, which is designed for clients planning to fly 20 or more hours per year. Because Silverhawk serves clients who live and work within a 175-mile radius, the jet card saves clients up to 50 percent of charter flight costs compared to other leading jet card providers.
In addition, Silverhawk’s jet card promises:
• No membership fees or dues;
• No fuel surcharges;
• No interchange fees;
• No charge for taxi time;
• No peak day/holiday charges; and
• No repositioning charges to pick up or drop off planes.
“We are the only jet card program that can make these promises,” Risk said. “We save our clients time, so they can spend more time on their family, business and life.”
For more details about the jet card, silverhawkjetcard.com. For details about Silverhawk Aviation, see silverhawkaviation.com.
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