In 2003, Corey Head received a job offer from the late Robert Gunton, a local man who had made his fortune as an independent distributor of Pella-brand windows in the United States. Gunton wanted to start an aircraft charter service with his twin-engine prop plane and three pilots, two of whom already were on his payroll.
At first, Head declined. The then-27-year-old pilot had just left the employ of a family acquaintance who had started the same sort of business, only to sell his plane and move to Florida two years later. But then Gunton offered Head an ownership stake, along with the key director of operations title. And Head saw an opportunity to do more than just fly a plane.
“I’m passionate about customer service, just taking care of the client and seeing the whole thing through on pretty much anything that I do,” Head explains. “So this was a really neat aspect.”
It also was a business model that grew Sky Quest from that one-plane operation to a company with 60 employees and annual sales of $22 million last year, one that secured Federal Aviation Administration authorization to fly to Mexico earlier this year and anticipates receiving approval to fly to Europe by its end. To the average customer, it is still an aircraft charter company based out of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport — an alternative to navigating the inconveniences of commercial-airline travel. But to the corporate or private jet owner, it is an aircraft management company that maintains the plane, hires the pilots who fly it and, if the client desires, makes it available for charter when it’s not in use to help offset ownership costs. Head, now Sky Quest’s president, makes it clear that the company does not own any of the seven light, six midsize and two super midsize jets it offers for charter.
“The good thing is that we don’t have to make the payments on them, you know what I mean?” he says. “We’re not signed on the dotted line for a $10 million jet.”
The Jamestown native earned a bachelor’s degree in aviation flight from Kent State University with the intention of becoming a commercial-airline pilot like his uncle. His first job out of school was flying freight — mainly cancelled bank checks in the days before digital copies sufficed — for Columbus-based AirNet. A lost engine that forced him to make an emergency landing in the middle of the night reinforced the importance of maintaining planes in top condition and rigorous mechanic and pilot training, regardless of the expense.
“It taught me that there’s not many second chances in aviation, so you need to do things right the first time,” he says. That lesson recently yielded a National Business Aviation Administration award for 20,000 consecutive hours of accident- and incident-free flying.
In 2001, after he had logged enough hours to begin flying people, Head began his first foray into charter service, then his tenure with Sky Quest. He read local business publications to help find potential clients to approach: the company acquiring a firm in a city only accessible by long drives or connecting flights, the executive who was doing a lot of business in New York City or Chicago or Louisville, Kentucky. A modest $54,000 in first-year sales grew to $180,000 the second, then $400,000 the third, all on the wings of a single plane.
According to Head, Sky Quest didn’t begin offering aircraft management services — and a second aircraft to charter — until 2008, when a customer decided to buy a plane and asked Head to maintain it for him.
“That’s how they all started,” he says of the deals. “That how they all start now.”
The perks that engender such trust extend far beyond the discount on a given number of prepaid flights or Jet Club membership that provides reduced rates and guaranteed availability. Sky Quest helps clients source planes to purchase based on destinations, passenger and baggage requirements, and desired amenities such as Wi-Fi. Staffers function as old-school travel agents for both jet owners and charter customers alike, arranging onboard catering, ground transportation and hotel accommodations. Their cars are washed, detailed and waiting on the tarmac for them upon their return. Head, who still logs about 200 hours in the air annually, talks of greeting clients, carrying bags, loading car seats and offering beverages.
“That’s when I try to make sure I take off that president’s hat,” he says. “I’m just the pilot.”