Traveling the World, One Ferry Flight at a Time

I can’t really say I know Sarah Rovner, because we’ve never actually met. We’re both airline pilots, we have a bunch of mutual friends in common, we presented at the same aviation conference (one day apart) and we’ve chatted online and on the telephone. But mostly I “know” Sarah because we’re Facebook friends and she shows up in my News Feed on a regular basis, usually with a photo of an interesting airplane in some cool out-of-the-way place.

I’ve followed along as Sarah built her aircraft-ferrying business from a one-woman show into a multi­pilot international operation, and it’s been a fascinating window into a world I knew very little about. I tend to write about segments of the aviation industry in which I have personal experience, but there’s a whole wide world of flight outside of instructing and freight dogging and airline flying. There are many interesting and rewarding ways to make a living in and around airplanes, and Sarah seems to have hit upon one of the more adventuresome ones.

Nothing about Sarah’s career path has been typical. Born and raised in the Houston area, she joined the military straight out of high school and later became an IT network engineer after college. She stumbled onto flying almost accidentally, when she tried to charter an airplane to Austin and found it was much easier just to do a one-way discovery flight. The flying bug bit Sarah hard; since starting lessons, she says, the longest she’s gone without flying was the week she spent camping at AirVenture — the biggest annual fly-in in the world, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After earning her private pilot certificate, she quickly proceeded through the advanced ratings, mainly so that she could fly more for her IT work. Sarah originally had no intention of switching careers, even after she began flight instructing part-time and moonlighting as a glider tow pilot in Piper Pawnees at the Soaring Club of Houston.

Five years ago, a friend contacted Sarah with a special request. He was moving to Las Vegas, needed a capable pilot to ferry his Citabria there, and knew that she was tailwheel-current in the Pawnee. Shortly after that job, one of her students purchased an aircraft in Show Low, Arizona, and enlisted Sarah’s help to go fetch it. From there, her reputation as a ferry pilot spread. In the beginning “almost all of it was word-of-mouth,” she says. She ferried a friend’s Super Cub from Miami to Dallas, and another from Houston to Wisconsin; from those jobs, she snagged a referral to accompany a Cessna 182 owner from Houston to Colorado.

“My first really big job, my first international ferry, was moving a Cessna 188 crop-duster from Canada to Belize,” Sarah recalls. When she arrived, she made friends in the local farming community, an enclave of German-speaking Mennonites, which led to several more jobs bringing crop-dusters to Belize. Around that time — 2015 — Sarah realized she was getting more business than she could handle, especially after she took a job flying CRJs for a U.S.-based regional airline. So she started a company, FullThrottle Aviation, and brought on other ferry pilots as independent contractors. Today, she has 15 pilots and is looking to hire more as FullThrottle expands in North, Central and South America — and recently, even Europe.

Considering Sarah’s frequent use of social media, I asked her how much of FullThrottle’s business growth was thanks to her online presence. The social media exposure generates attention, she admits, but she says the vast majority of her actual business still comes the old-fashioned way: through personal referrals and recommendations from industry organizations and periodicals. One of her biggest selling points, she says, is the fact that FullThrottle has its own insurance policy that usually covers her pilots no matter what they fly. This has allowed her to ferry rare warbirds, such as the PT-22, and unusual experimental aircraft, such as a Christavia Mark I.

“Other than insurance, it’s mostly just a lot of logistics,” Sarah says. “Getting to the aircraft is half the journey. I’ve done ferries from remote areas where the nearest drop-off point is 90 minutes away. Sometimes, you have to get creative, like when I did a job in the Puget Sound area and the quickest route from Seattle was taking the Washington State Ferry.” Of course, once Sarah reaches the aircraft, she doesn’t always know what she’ll find. “A lot of the planes we ferry are recently purchased — they might have been a great deal, but they haven’t necessarily flown much lately. If it’s been more than six months, we require a test flight before we show up. That at least rules out dead batteries and flat tires, which are half the problems we see.” A good ferry pilot, she says, is one who is willing to walk away from a job if the plane isn’t safe. “Some of my pilots are aircraft owners, others are A&Ps. You at least have to be mechanically savvy.”

Logistical challenges are all the more daunting when there’s an ocean to be crossed. “The transatlantic ferry business is really hard to get into,” Sarah says. “I tried for years. Nobody would let me near the plane. I had to build a strong reputation first.” Her first Atlantic crossing was in a King Air C90, and she enlisted the help of another pilot who had done it before. “On the first one, I mostly watched, handled the paperwork and made local contacts for future crossings.

I felt much more comfortable after my second one.”

Sarah had built her reputation largely on her stick-and-rudder skills in tailwheel airplanes, but found that ocean crossings require a much different skill set. “It’s not the flying — it’s the planning,” she says. “Picking weather windows, picking the airports, interpreting prog charts and winds aloft and planning fuel loads, learning oceanic clearance and position-reporting procedures.” Sarah has now done three transatlantic ferries (the second and third were in a Cirrus SR22 and a Piper Turbo Seneca), and as I write this, she is making her first wintertime crossing in a Cessna Turbo 210.

So what’s next for Sarah Rovner and FullThrottle Aviation? She nearly tripled her business in 2017 and has seen strong bookings in the first months of 2018. She recently hired one additional pilot and is looking to hire two more.

“I don’t have much turnover — only one of my pilots has left. I definitely encourage our pilots to stay. A big part of that is never questioning their judgment when they make tough safety calls. I stand behind them no matter what.”

Only one of her pilots is full time; the others are supplementing non­flying jobs while actively building hours. “Two of my pilots are college students, one is a stay-at-home mom. We have a diverse group.” I asked Sarah what she looks for most in hiring a ferry pilot. “Most of all, I look for really good people … reliable, trustworthy people.” There’s no minimum hour requirement; pilots must simply have a commercial license and instrument rating, though Sarah says a tailwheel endorsement or seaplane rating is helpful. Sarah says her pilots average about 1,000 hours of flight time, but vary from a bit more than 250 to more than 15,000 hours.

“I’m willing to train people,” Sarah says. “But first, they need to have really good decision-making skills. I’ll take a 250-hour pilot who makes good decisions over a 1,700-hour pilot who thinks they have seen everything.”

FullThrottle formerly offered an internship program that allowed low-time pilots to come along and observe on ferries, but logistically it proved too difficult. Instead, now it offers a scholarship program to help newer pilots get additional training to boost their careers. “We’ve awarded three scholarships in the past year,” Sarah notes with pride.

She recently upgraded to captain at her regional airline with a bit more than 4,000 hours of flight time; she clearly has a bright career ahead of her. Much more impressive, to my mind: She’s now flown more than 115 aircraft types in 15 countries. In the process of blazing her own career path, she’s made a lot of great memories in a lot of cool airplanes. Sarah, like all my favorite pilot friends, considers the journey to be just as important as the destination. That’s worth celebrating — and Facebook-following too!


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