Pilots of the Caribbean

The Navy says Paramount's 1986 classic fighter-pilot flick Top Gun persuaded men and women to join up in numbers not seen before or since. Over a cup of coffee near St. Maarten's famous Maho Beach (pre-Hurricane Irma), Rob Ceravolo told me the film worked some of its magic on him and was at least partially responsible for him joining in 2001. "My entire life I wanted to be a fighter pilot. It's so cool, I thought. They get to ride motorcycles, go to Top Gun, wear flight suits and cool sunglasses and date their instructors." He went on to fly F-14s before moving on to the F-18 and finally the F-5 after completing Top Gun's Red Air training.

All that fighter-pilot bravado took a back seat on the day Ceravolo prepared for his first carrier landing on USS Ronald Reagan. “The boat looked so tiny. I thought, What the hell did I get myself into?” There’s risk inherent in flying naval jets, he thought, remembering his anxiety about landing on the postage-stamp-size carrier deck. Then his brain switched gears, and he recalled the great pilot training the Navy gave him. “I took a couple of breaths and calmed myself down. I was still scared, but my training helped me focus on the three important things I’d been taught: airspeed, altitude and distance from the boat. Back to my training.”

Ceravolo left the Navy Reserve in 2014 as a lieutenant commander but never forgot the valuable lessons his military training taught him. The Navy showed him the importance of focusing on pilot development and standardization as a way to fly and a way to think. The Navy doesn’t just hire pilots capable of carrier landings, it chooses pilots for their attitude. He came to realize that attitude can be far more valuable than simply experience on a resume. But wait, there’s more. “Navy pilots study all aspects of flight operations, not just the flying. They taught us how to accept and actually expect criticism, as well as realizing we don’t know everything. Then they train us and train us and train us some more.”

With 13 years of naval flying under his belt, Ceravolo would have been a shoe-in for Delta, American or Southwest. The airlines are hungry for pilots who’ve passed a host of personality screenings and garnered years of the kind of training that taught them to land an F-18 on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier in darkness and bad weather.

Ceravolo knew he was interested in the airlines, sort of — but not watching the days pass from the right seat of an Airbus or a Boeing. “Most of the airline pilots I knew said they weren’t challenged in the cockpit. That’s why most of them find other things to do when they’re out of the cockpit. I was a Navy pilot flying off carriers, and that sure seemed like an adventure to me.” So now what?

One Pilot’s Reading List

In 2009, while still attached to the Navy, Ceravolo thought starting a business would be more adventurous than a traditional airline job. Then it hit him. "Why not start an airline of my own using some kind of GA aircraft?" What could possibly get in the way, except his having no business or airline experience and very little cash? But if you're going to dream, why not go big, so he decided on a seaplane airline to boot. At least he'd already earned a seaplane rating — that was something. "I really wanted to be a seaplane pilot," he said. "I've always been a big Jimmy Buffett fan and remembered reading his book Where Is Joe Merchant?, the novel about a guy who runs a one-man seaplane operation from Key West. "I thought being a seaplane pilot would be cool someday." I noticed that something "being cool" seemed to motivate him quite a bit.

What he lacked in actual business experience, though, Ceravolo made up for by reading business books, dozens of them, including Richard Branson's lessons-in-life treatise, Screw It, Let's Do It. Branson's advice, keep trying until you get what you want, persuaded Ceravolo to walk into dozens of banks around South Florida with what he called "a crummy little business plan," trying to find money to buy a Cessna 206 on floats. The answer at each was the same: "No." Timing was on his side, at least a bit. With Chalks Flying Service having shut down four years earlier, after an accident in one of its Grumman Albatrosses, no local seaplane service existed.

Then there was that serendipitous meet-up when banker Louis Beck, who not only took to Ceravolo’s idea of seaplanes from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL), but liked his vision of one day trying to establish a different kind of airline, one with commercial service to Cuba, long before the Obama administration eased travel restrictions in fall 2016. “It took us a year and a half to get our FAA operating certificate, but Tropic Ocean Airways was born in November 2009,” he said. The new company first offered charter and later scheduled air service around South Florida and the Caribbean. Ceravolo wasted no time finding good people and fell back on an established relationship to hire his first employee, Marine helicopter crew chief Nick Veltre, who became Tropic’s first pilot. He also just happened to be the CFI who’d trained Ceravolo for his seaplane rating. Veltre’s still with the company today, serving as Tropic’s vice president.

While Beck’s advice helped buy the first airplane, it didn’t fund daily operations for Ceravolo’s visionary airline. That left him with one option: sell off some of the trappings of his fighter-pilot life. First went the Jeep Wrangler, then the Porsche 911, a motorcycle, a boat, a house, a kayak and all his mutual funds. He also maxed out his three credit cards.

A just culture and hiring for attitude might not sound terribly unique, except few companies actually do it. Jon Whittle

Hardly a concern at that point was covering Veltre’s payroll, something Ceravolo accomplished out of his still-existing Navy pay. But it worked to get the company flying, with Ceravolo handling the sales and marketing and Veltre flying the Cessna 206.

Without much cash for marketing, the pair believed more people would choose Tropic if they knew the airline existed, so they flew the airplane everywhere around South Florida and the Bahamas to show it off. Ceravolo knew the PR was beginning to work when people said they’d been seeing his airplanes everywhere. Only he and Veltre knew it was the same 206 on floats everywhere. In June 2011, Tropic Ocean Airways became the first operator to fly to Bimini in the Bahamas from Florida since Chalks’ shutdown. It was also the year Tropic Ocean Airways lost a hundred grand.

Despite the losses, Ceravolo and Veltre knew they needed a bigger airplane and began planning for a Cessna 208 Caravan. That’s when Ceravolo struck it rich, sort of, by hitting up his family and friends for the down payment on Tropic’s first Caravan on floats. He had no way of knowing at the time that it would take another eight months to get the airplane added to the FAA operating certificate. As the Caravan took to the air in 2013, Tropic Ocean Airways teetered on bankruptcy.

Another serendipitous relationship appeared not long after, when Ceravolo met a fellow with his own Caravan who needed managing and a resort owner who longed for seaplane service to Bimini. By spring 2014, Tropic was running private charters to Baker’s Bay in the northeast Bahamas. During one of the early events to show off the Caravan, Ceravolo met George Mattson, another man who would become instrumental in Tropic’s success. Mattson was considering a house in Baker’s Bay, but was discouraged by the difficulty getting back and forth to the place. A friend of Mattson’s introduced him to Ceravolo, who convinced him a seaplane would make life much easier. Ceravolo also persuaded Mattson, a retired partner from Goldman Sachs, to invest in Tropic. Mattson soon helped create Tropic’s first real round of financing in November 2014.

Since 2014, Tropic Ocean Airways has grown from 16 employees to 75, and the fleet from two airplanes to 11, now mostly Caravans. Revenues in 2014 hovered around $1.8 million but climbed to just shy of $9 million last year as the airline carried more than 15,000 passengers. Here, you might expect, “And the rest is history.” But that would be a huge oversimplification of the work needed to create a new kind of seaplane travel experience in South Florida and the Caribbean.

As anyone who’s flown the U.S. airlines over the past few decades knows, success breeds success, if you can convince customers to return for the next flight. In the United States, the majors have set the customer-service bar pretty low, treating passengers like a captive audience with limited options, which happens to be closer to the truth than most of us would like to admit.

The Secret Sauce

Tropic's secret sauce turned out to be its people, not just the employees, but the host of others who believe in them. Jon Whittle

“Tropic Ocean Airways isn’t successful today because I’m such a genius, even with great partners like George Mattson and Robbie Peres, our insurance broker,” Ceravolo said. “I think we’re successful because we believe in a different model of air transportation and how the aviation industry ought to look and operate.” Early advice told Ceravolo to approach local Caribbean governments with his hand out in search of subsidies. Ceravolo refused. What local governments did do, though, was offer Tropic a chance to prove itself and the customer-service-focused airline Ceravolo and his supporters dreamed of. “That’s what I love about entrepreneurship in the aviation industry,” he said. “It’s about good, successful people giving other people the chance to succeed. That’s something I hope to offer other people one day.”

He learned offering people a chance could pay handsome dividends, as in the hiring of good employees. Like the Navy, Ceravolo hires for attitude first. “If someone comes to me with a good attitude but no resume, I’ll hire them. Our company sales director started as a customer-service representative and now oversees the generation of $9 million in annual revenue.”

In the Navy, pilots debriefed every flight, with no finger-pointing allowed. They talk honestly about their mistakes and they create lessons for the next time. “My most junior employee could walk into my office today and tell me about something needing improvement and I’ll gladly listen,” Ceravolo said.

Hiring for attitude and a just culture might not sound terribly unique, except few companies actually do it. “People told me the road to success was to use old airplanes and 10,000-hour pilots. It didn’t work.” Remembering the Navy’s “train and train and train some more” concept, “I wondered if we could do the same thing, so we started hiring based on attitude, willingness to work and willingness to admit to a mistake. If I interview a pilot who never made a mistake, the interview ends right there,” he said.

Ceravolo organized a program with South Florida’s Broward College to hire new pilots and mechanics. So far, Tropic’s grabbed a dozen former Broward students over the past year. The company employs 24 pilots across a wide range of ages and experience levels. “All have the same attitude and work ethic,” Ceravolo says. Every company new hire begins by completing a weeklong training class unrelated to their job. They learn the company’s culture, and about our compassion for the customer. “I remind them that Tropic doesn’t pay employee salaries, the customer does. All I do is transfer the money.”

Have the warm fuzzies at Tropic worked? “One of our Tropic pilots called an all-pilots meeting recently to admit an operational mistake. He told everyone what happened and what he thought the entire company could learn from his experience. I almost cried,” Ceravolo said. He also tried to imagine that kind of thinking throughout the industry. Standardized versus inflexible rules, so people don’t waste brainpower. Pilots flying using the same procedures. “We don’t do that in little airplanes,” he said.

The lobby overlooking Maho Beach, where we conducted our interview, was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma. Jon Whittle

Tropic flies its single-engine aircraft with a two-pilot crew even though it’s not required. Ceravolo saw this as a good investment in the future, although many people said the increased payroll was plain nuts. “We’re building a pilot cadre at Tropic that doesn’t exist anywhere else, not to mention that second pilot offers a better safety margin. Every pilot, no matter how much flying time they’ve logged when we hire them, spends time in the right seat of the Caravan before moving to a captain’s slot.”

Tropic pilots fly varied missions too, like when a hurricane struck the Caribbean last year. Tropic was asked to help deliver goods to people desperate for food and water. Rob tried to enlist other companies to help, but when they began asking if they were getting paid, he decided that shortsightedness meant it was a job for his airline. "We carried 100,000 pounds of cargo and rescued 33 people," Ceravolo said, flashing that Top Gun fighter- pilot smile. "The entire company got on board, with no complaints over the long hours."

The CEO sometimes tells the board near-term profit margins will sometimes suffer to focus on a long-term goal. He believes running a successful airline means engaging with lots of people, employees, passengers, resort partners, vendors and government officials. “And there are young people entering the industry with some great ideas we should be listening to.”

“We don’t want Tropic Ocean Airways to be the perfect-customer-service airline. We just want to be the airline that 100 percent of our passengers want to fly on again. Our employees play a huge role in that success. I also believe the way we train pilots is right for the airline industry. Improving airline training programs is the real key to dealing with the global pilot shortage.”

He summed it all up. “It’s so cool building an airline and getting people excited and headed in the right direction. Running this airline is the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter