Monday, June 26, 2017

Unity Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania: Pilot wins National Air Transportation Association award; has accrued 25,000 flight hours

Ed Kilkeary Sr. of Unity spends about half of his days in the air.

“I like to fly. I'm probably flying 17, 18 days a month, sometimes more than that,” he told recent visitors to L.J. Aviation, his family's Latrobe-area firm that manages jet planes for private owners and pilots charter flights across the country and to several continents.

“It's very important to like what you do, to have a passion for it,” said Kilkeary, 70, the company's founder and CEO. “My job is my hobby.”

That passion over a more than 40-year career in aviation recently earned Kilkeary the National Air Transportation Association's William A. “Bill” Ong Memorial Award.

Named for the co-founder of the trade organization, the award recognizes “extraordinary achievement and extended meritorious service” in the general aviation industry.

“It's nice to be recognized,” said Kilkeary, Political Action Committee co-chair and past board member for NATA. “It's from a bunch of my peers who voted on it.

“I was humbled by it because I looked down the list of people that had gotten it and I thought they all had accomplished more. If you live long enough, everything is possible.”

In a news release announcing the award, NATA President Martin H. Hiller cited Kilkeary's leadership and “tireless commitment to the operation of a safe and successful, family-run business.”

As a pilot, Kilkeary has racked up more than 25,000 flight hours and continues to add about 400 each year.

“I've been a lot of places,” he said. “I've been through Europe, and I spend a lot of time in Asia.”

From L.J.'s base at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity, flight destinations can include anywhere from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Tanzania or Naples, Italy.

“I go through customs so often, when they pull out the screen and my name is there, they know a lot about me,” Kilkeary said.

A native of Peters Township, Kilkeary discovered the joys of flying at 12, alongside his father in a single-engine Super Cub. He took his flying skills to another level when he served as an Army combat helicopter pilot with the First Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1967 and '68.

After a brief stint as an owner-operator in the trucking business, Kilkeary took to the skies again for good. He and his wife, Mary Ann, who heads L.J.'s administrative services, moved their family to Latrobe in the mid-'70s, when he got a job as a helicopter pilot for William Stefan of Bentley Coal.

For a while, Kilkeary also flew a chopper for a Pittsburgh TV station.

“I got into the charter business that way,” he said.

Kilkeary and his wife started L.J. in 1980, when they partnered with Stefan to purchase their first aircraft — a Learjet that inspired the company's name. The Kilkearys paid for the craft in five years and, eventually, bought out their partner.

“We started out with one airplane, and now we have 31,” Kilkeary said, counting six aircraft his company owns and others it houses for individual owners and businesses in seven hangars covering 130,000 square feet.

“I think that was part of the reason for the award,” Kilkeary said of the NATA honor. “I can't think of anybody really that started and built a company this size from zero with not having a bunch of investors.

“I never had a (business) plan. We just got up and worked harder than everybody else.”

L.J. has several U.S. satellite locations, including in Massachusetts and Wisconsin and at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Its largest jet holds 15 people. But, Kilkeary pointed out, it can make a nonstop trip of 5,000 miles.

Kilkeary still takes charter passengers in his helicopter, sometimes to inspect gas pipeline construction.

In the company's earlier days, he recalled, its chopper flew on many medical missions, rushing donated organs to the growing transplant programs at Pittsburgh hospitals.

“On a lot of them, we went in the middle of the night,” he said. “We served a tremendous purpose.”

Kilkeary counts the involvement of his family and the friendships he's developed with many clients as key ingredients in his company's success.

Arnold Palmer, the late local golfing legend and fellow pilot, was among Kilkeary's famous passengers.

Kilkeary witnessed Palmer's polite demeanor and indulgence of fans seeking autographs.

“You never knew he had money,” Kilkeary said.

He's pleased that several of his children play integral roles in the family business. Edward Jr. is president of operations, Brad is vice president of pilot services and Kellie Kilkeary is vice president of human resources.

They learned the ropes from a young age, “washing the airplanes, cutting the grass, mopping the floors. They would do whatever needed to be done,” he said. “It's the essence of a family business. There's nobody here who can't do four or five jobs.”

With the next generation in place at L.J., “I feel great about the future,” Kilkeary said.

But, he added, “You've got to be out there working. You can't fall back on your laurels. We're as good as our last landing.” 

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