“Take this job and love it…”
Our variation on the title of an old country song is how we at T.J. Snow Company introduce the unique flying job we’ve developed over the years at our Chattanooga, Tennessee-based business, which was founded by my father in 1963 and is now owned by my son and me.
For the right person — an experienced pilot with electro-mechanical troubleshooting skills — being a flying service tech can be a rewarding career.
With a total of six pilots among our 85 employees, T. J. Snow Company is an aviation-minded company that has operated its own aircraft since 1984.
However, although most corporate aircraft are reserved for executive travel, our two A36 Bonanzas “work for a living.” Our two flying service techs use them just like company cars as they travel to troubleshoot standard and special-design resistance machinery used in factories that manufacture products made from light gauge sheet metal.
Flying our own plane allows us to carry all the test instruments and spare parts we might need. And leaving on a trip is convenient because the company is located on 12 acres adjacent to KCHA, the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.
Resistance welders, commonly called spot welders, are used extensively by the automotive industry’s Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers — companies that manufacture fabricated metal products like mufflers and shock absorbers — which must be delivered “just in time” to be installed on cars and trucks as they travel down a production line.
Resistance welders are also used to manufacture a surprisingly wide range of other products, such as appliances and fabricated wire products.
As my wife and I push a resistance welded wire shopping cart through the aisles of our local Wal-Mart, she just rolls her eyes as I point out the numerous resistance welded products displayed on the resistance welded sheet metal shelves.
With the auto industry as our main focus over the past few years, our airplanes have enabled us to easily expand from just a few southeastern states to the entire eastern half of the country. Now, when we get a call from Detroit, it’s just a two-and-a-half hour flight rather than a 10-hour drive.
Since suppliers to auto plants are subject to being back-charged thousands of dollars per minute if a production line stops due to lack of parts, pressure quickly builds when a critical resistance welder breaks down. That led to one of our recent advertising slogans: “Time flies when you have a resistance welding problem … and so do we.”
The Right Pilots
The main lesson we’ve learned after 35 years of employing flying service techs is that hiring the right people is critical to long-term success.
Among our hiring mistakes were pilots who just wanted to fly and not get their hands dirty and others who just wanted to build enough hours to get hired by the airlines.
We’re also wary of applicants who ask how soon we plan to buy a turbine-powered plane, which is probably never, because we must keep our travel costs reasonable.
One of our success stories is Randy Darby, 50, a 23-year employee who was trained in the Marine Corps as an avionics tech for Harriers. After leaving the service, Randy responded to our ad in the local paper for an electronics tech to repair welder control circuit boards, which he quickly mastered.
He also exhibited the aptitude to troubleshoot the entire welding machine and he soon started driving on service calls.
We were pleased when Randy said he wanted to learn to fly and we arranged for lessons at a local flight school. Randy’s natural flying ability was confirmed by the local FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, who called to report that Randy had performed at a very high level, although he only had the minimum flight time to qualify as a Private Pilot. He quickly went on to earn his instrument rating and today, after starting with zero time, he has accumulated over 2,500 flight hours.
Another of our successful flying service techs is Ray Michelena, 60, who came to us with plenty of flight time and ratings, including an A&P. A native of Wyoming, Ray flew as a commuter airline pilot before starting his own charter service with a Piper Aztec.
Ray heard about our company in 1998 when his plane broke down in Wichita on a charter trip and he had to put his passengers up overnight at his expense while waiting on parts to arrive from the Piper factory in Florida.
While cooling his heels at the FBO, Ray picked up a copy of General Aviation News that contained a previous article on T. J. Snow Company’s use of small airplanes, which inspired him to contact me about a job that might have more security and income potential than flying charters.
After corresponding for about a year, Ray showed up at our door one day while on vacation with his family. Meeting him in person convinced me that he would make a great addition to our team.
Today, in addition to flying on service calls, Ray serves as our Chief Pilot and Safety Director.
Ray and Mark Pepping, our VP of Sales and Marketing, make good use of the airplanes to make sales calls on customers all over the eastern half of the United States. Their multi-stop, round-robin trips could not be accomplished any other way.
Ray and Randy also use our planes to travel the country doing consulting and training seminars on the resistance welding process. Seminars have become a significant part of our business and Randy and Ray have both developed into skilled presenters.
The Right Airplanes
After learning to fly in 1980 and renting various airplanes for several years, some of which had questionable maintenance, I finally got up the nerve in 1984 to borrow $20,000 and buy a 1975 Cessna Cardinal.
Of the 14 planes I’ve owned since then, the Cardinal was the newest and I should have kept it longer than five years, especially once I got the note paid off.
However, I was seduced by the looks and speed of a Mooney 201.
We’ve owned four Mooneys through the years, with the most recent being a 2000 Ovation with TKS and factory air, but a limited full fuel payload (only 242 pounds) proved to be its Achilles heel.
At one point I got hooked on twin engine airplanes and a Twin Comanche was the closest thing I could find to a Mooney with two engines. A Seneca and a couple of speedy, load-hauling Barons came later, but they burned a lot of fuel and about broke the bank when engine overhauls came due.
All airplanes are a compromise, but we’ve now settled on two similarly-equipped Beechcraft A36 Bonanzas as the best planes for our typical mission. Their speed is respectable and the big “barn doors” make it easy to load passengers and cargo.
Our 1987 Bonanza has a TKS “Weeping Wing” system that is certified for flight into known ice conditions (FIKI), although we don’t put that system to the test on purpose.
Our latest purchase is a turbo-normalized 2000 A36, which also has TKS, but that system is not FIKI certified because of the optional tip tanks. We love the speed, high altitude capability, increased gross weight and extended range of that plane and now that summer is here, we’re also getting spoiled by the air conditioning system.
It remains to be seen whether we will ever go back to a twin, but a fist-full of throttles is seductive. A recent opportunity to fly the new Diamond DA62 turbo-diesel twin for an upcoming General Aviation News pilot report got me thinking that one of those could be in our future.
Meanwhile, due to the continued growth of our business, we’re actively looking to hire an additional flying service tech and we will train the right person to troubleshoot resistance welders.
Randy and Ray are eager to be mentors and we would love to hear from anyone who has electro-mechanical troubleshooting skills and at least 500 hours of high performance, retractable gear experience.
In addition to being within non-stop range of most of the eastern third of the country, Chattanooga, which has been known for the years as “The Scenic Center of the South,” is a great place to live and raise a family.
Contact TomSnow@tjsnow.com or give me a call at 423-308-3165.