- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

INDEPENDENCE, Iowa (AP) - Some startup businesses require years to reach the heights their owners desire.

For Jonathan Walter, all it required was a veritable flip of a switch.

It helps that Walter is a pilot, and his four-year-old business, Walter Aviation Inc., runs a charter service for clients who need to make connections quickly to resolve business and family matters.

Walter, 26, also runs a flight school and operates, he told Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (https://bit.ly/1R4nCuE ), “the only certified banner-towing business in Iowa.”

The company also takes care of all maintenance issues at the airport.

Business is good, he says.

“The first two or three years is getting our name out, but we’re established now and we’re starting to draw our customer base,” he said.

That base, he says, is not just local but reaches out to all of Northeast Iowa and into Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Nebraska, he said.

Walter offers an advanced flight training program. One of his former students, Gretchen Fisher, is now the chief instructor and runs the flight school.

There is no shortage of students, she said.

“A lot of people come to me because either they have a family member or knew somebody who once was a pilot,” Fisher said.

Prospective students come to the school for what Fisher calls “an introductory flight.”

They typically get hooked instantly, she said.

“That usually gives them a bug,” she said. “Instead of a scenic flight, they actually get to be at the controls, showing them the ins and outs of how to fly an airplane. Usually, they realize they’ve always wanted to do that, and they pursue their license.”

Some want to learn to fly as a hobby, but, for others, it’s a business decision, Fisher said.

“Some is for business professionals around the area who don’t want to drive to meetings,” she said. “They can get there relatively quickly and save a bunch of time driving.”

Some students see a career opportunity in the air, as well, Fisher said.

“There’s a stigma among a lot of individuals that if you’re not going to be an airline pilot, it doesn’t make sense to learn how to fly, but you can do this as a hobby or for your business or you can make a career out of this, as well,” she said.

While Fisher tends to flight-school matters, both in Independence and Manchester, Walter focuses on other aspects of the business.

The charter operation is growing, he said. In fact, it recently added a second aircraft. It now has a Grumman Cougar, a GA-7, a twin-engine, which can accommodate a pilot and three passengers and cruise at about 180 miles per hour; and a Piper Lance cargo plane that can hit 180-185 mph, Walter said.

“Both are new to us, and we spent the last six to eight months refurbishing them,” he said.

Shipping cargo - often, parts a manufacturer across the region needs on short notice - is a growth area of the business, Walter said.

“We’ll work with brokers around the Midwest,” he said. “A set of parts needed now, so we load it up and get it down them overnight. It’s a better option than going with UPS or Fedex.”

Most charter customers are from “small to medium businesses, mostly because they need to get salespeople to a larger national market,” Walter said.

That’s a growing constituency his company is happy to service, he said.

“The day of doing business in your local area is not enough for most businesses,” Walter said. “They come to us because when you start to consider the value of a person’s time and their ability to make multiple sales in a day, their ability to do business multiplies very quickly.”

Flights go across the Midwest, often to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago and Des Moines, Walter said.

“Yesterday, I was up in Fargo; it’s not unusual to go to Texas,” he said.

There isn’t a lot of competition, which also has been healthy for his business, Walter said.

“There used to be a large number of operators doing charters, but that has declined the last five to 10 years,” he said. “The main reason is a lot of operators had been in business a long time and, when they retired out, there was no one to take over. The economy wasn’t conducive for people getting into the business. The fact is, there’s no competition. We’re one of the few charter operations in Northeast Iowa, so we’re filling a void that has been created the last five to 10 years.”

The company’s itinerary of flights can vary - sometimes due to weather conditions.

“On average, we do a couple of charters per week,” he said, but he added that “business generally picks up in the summer.”

Another branch of Walter’s business is banner towing. If there’s a banner fluttering over a large crowd, be it a football game, a fair or some other large gathering, chances are, Walter or one of his pilots is leading it.

In fact, that may be a growth area for the company, he said.

“We’re looking for more commercial pilots,” he said. “We started out and got busy with it. I had to let that settle for awhile, because I couldn’t keep up with everyone else.”

The recent Iowa Caucuses provided a spike in business, Walter said.

“We’ve done a lot of political banners from all sides this political season,” he said.

There are plenty of commercial customers, too, he said.

“Again, being the only Iowa-based certified banner tower, we get calls from brokers that are on the East and West coasts that they may have a large corporate client that they want to tow a banner over a football game,” Walter said. “We get small businesses that want us to tow a banner for them. And we do the consistent will you marry me or happy birthday ones.”

Currently, Walter has about “five or six” full-time employees, but he’s looking to grow his workforce, he said.

There’s plenty of time and opportunity to bring the business even higher, Walter said.

“I’ve had a lot of people starting out telling me there’s no market for this, you can’t make a business out of this anymore, but I said I think I can and that was my drive, to kind of prove them wrong,” he said. “That’s where I get the energy to do what we do here. You just have to find a new innovative way to make that happen.”

Angie Shephard, who runs the office at Walter Aviation, joined the company when it started. She had just been laid off from Russell Wasendorf’s imploding company in Cedar Falls.

Moving into the aviation field wasn’t a tough transition, Shephard said.

“No, because Jonathan is so knowledgeable; he’s a good teacher, and that’s what it comes down to,” she said. “It’s a matter of taking care of your customers. He’s so knowledgeable and has such a good head for business. I also think that we are very service-oriented. It’s about taking care of people.”


Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, https://www.wcfcourier.com

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