Two Days in the Life of Bill Settle

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Since 2002 the bestselling certified single-engine airplane in the world has been the Cirrus SR22. More than 700 new Cirruses have been sold per year for the past two years, and the company hopes to sell 800 in 2008. The question is, how do they do that?

How do you take on Cessna and Columbia and prevail in this market? To find out, I spent a few days with Bill Settle, a Cirrus Regional Training Manager. From him I learned about the selling and marketing philosophy at Cirrus and I heard a little about the structure of these initiatives. These airplanes, it turns out, don't just fly off the shelves by themselves.

Bill is a trim, handsome, outgoing 55-year-old man who got to aviation after the kids were grown. A Cincinnati native, he started hanging around Lunken Field and rocketed through his private, instrument and instructor ratings. He was hooked. Bill had spent 30-plus years in the family business, but as he did more and more instructing he correctly self-diagnosed a severe airplane problem: He couldn't get enough time in the air. When one of his students bought a Cirrus, Bill went with him to the company's Duluth headquarters. There he was swept away by the overwhelming niceness of the people of the upper Midwest, the quality of customer service and commitment to good products and good support. He came home, consulted with his wife of 32 years and his brothers, who were also in the family business, and filled out an application for a job with Cirrus. Don't you wish you had such an accomplishment on your resume?

In fact, Bill's employment with Cirrus is exactly in concert with the company's philosophy. Cirrus has long felt that they build and sell airplanes to nonpilots; that is, people who might want to fly or enjoy the usefulness of a private airplane but for one reason or another have never gotten in the game. They believe that the way to get people into their airplanes is to have a grassroots movement, propelled by flight schools and their instructors. As Bill said, "When you are learning to fly, your instructor is God."

Thus, Bill's first exposure to Cirrus was just as they had planned. He was an instructor whom they won over. Cirrus is now looking to build relationships with flight schools and create a network of some 150 "certified training centers." That's why Bill is called a training manager. He spends 75 percent of his time working with flight schools, evaluating their way of doing business and, if he likes what he sees, bringing them into the fold. The rest of the time he works with instructors, teaching them the Cirrus systems in what approximates a line-oriented flight training (LOFT) enterprise. He smiles easily and often.

There are 24 sales representatives, three training managers like Bill, and various others out there, 36 in all, carrying the Cirrus philosophy to all corners of the country and now the world. Each flies a Cirrus to work. They keep an airplane for an average of three to six months. Bill calculates that he has had about 20 personal Cirruses in his three years with the company.

Settle is responsible for 20 states and a bit of Canada, from Nova Scotia to Key West. Last year he flew 900 hours (down from 1,100 his first year!). He admits to a huge presence in Florida and keeps a base in Venice. "There are more private pilot certificates issued in Florida each year than any other state," he says. This is prime hunting ground for Cirrus.

When sales people find a good flight school, Bill visits and starts the relationship-building process. Flight schools get various incentives to join up and qualify as certified training centers, and some become service centers and certified sales centers for pre-owned (used) Cirruses, too. There is a referral program rewarding those who send a buyer to the factory direct sales program. There is also the "10-hour test drive" program, where for $3,500 a prospective buyer can get 10 hours of flight time that includes a long cross-country trip, a short cross-country and a "mechanics of flight" demonstration. If you buy within 90 days, you get the $3,500 knocked off the purchase price. The flight school keeps the $3,500.

In accordance with the "new to aviation" concept at Cirrus, there are "Access" programs for individuals who can't fly but buy an airplane anyway. For $69,950 you can hire your own pilot, instructor and airplane manager for a year. These pilot instructors move to town and are available six days a week and 14 hours a day. It is like having your own corporate flight department and instructor rolled into one. The pilots come from the University of North Dakota aviation program, with which Cirrus has a very close relationship. The pilots are making more than many entry-level jobs in aviation these days.

Seventy grand too much? There's the Access Silver program offered by certified training centers near you. For $30,000 you get about the same service with two or three different instructors. This is another potential benefit to flight schools that become Cirrus certified.

On an improbably perfect morning I joined Bill at Leading Edge Aviation located at Vandenberg Airport (KVDF) near my home in Tampa. I was to follow him around for the next two days, learning about life on the road as a Cirrus man. Bill introduced Mark Moberg, president of Leading Edge, a certified training, service and sales center. "We decided to go full bore with Cirrus," Moberg said. "We cleared out all our other maintenance and just do Cirrus now."

This morning we were to fly to Lakeland, where Leading Edge has started a flight school. Bill's job was to examine the physical environment, run a check list that included things like the appearance of the receptionist and instructors, the library and the exterior of the building. I was offered the left seat of Bill's SR22 GTS turbo. I took it.

Though vaguely familiar with the airplane, its no vacuum pump, dual electrical system glass panel and its performance, my total time in type was about 15 minutes. The three of us flew to Lakeland where I flared about 10 feet too high and everybody hung on while the airplane fell straight down with a thump. There was no sign of parachute deployment despite the trajectory of our arrival, so we taxied over to visit with Dave Barr, the Leading Edge man responsible for the visit.

Bill took pictures of everything and went through his checklist with Dave. Though he's a very likeable guy, he didn't mince words when it came to Cirrus standards. "It isn't good for anybody if we don't do this right," he said. Once he was done and the four of us enjoyed a really nice lunch, we headed back to Vandenberg. I asked Bill to fly so I could watch. The airplane is much more maneuverable than the Cheyenne I fly, and his handling bespoke the fact that he flies almost every day. "This is my office," he said with a grin.

After Mark and Dave departed, Bill took me up to work on those landings, which did get better. We talked about the performance of the airplane, especially compared to the 28-year-old turboprop that I am used to. He was scheduled to do a demo flight the next morning and was concerned about the approaching cold front and associated wall of thunderstorms. He was headed for Greenville (KGMU) after the demonstration and had to be there in time to catch the 2:30 commuter back home to Cincinnati. Whatever his weather concerns were, he was cool. "See you tomorrow at nine," he said as he taxied out to return to Venice for the night.

Bill lives in Cincinnati and gets home almost every weekend. When I asked if his wife missed him, he said, "I was home every night for 30 years. She said, 'Go for it.' " He usually spends Monday lining up trips for two weeks hence, then departs Tuesday for his targets. In the summer, they are in the Northeast; in the winter, they're in the Southeast. Turns out that Cincinnati is a pretty good spot from which to launch.

The next morning we met up with Ron Hytoff, an airplane nut acquaintance of mine in Tampa. Ron had recently sold his Piper Archer and was very lonesome for an airplane. Bill was to give a demonstration ride. Watching Bill was instructive. Gracefully balanced on the left wing, he got Ron settled in the pilot's seat, briefed him on the airplane and its systems, then closed the door on the pilot's side.

We fired up and taxied out, with a quick demonstration of the brakes only, no nosewheel steering system. We pirouetted in a tight circle, then headed for the run-up area. I've been on demo flights before as pilot, where the constant chatter of the demo pilot left me breathless, but Bill is a calm presence and a reassuring seat mate.

We took off smoothly and headed northeast. From the back seat all of Florida was visible in the still air. Ron quickly got the hang of the "side yoke," and we were soon headed for some touch-and-goes. We weren't the only souls in the sky, and the Skywatch system was a huge reassurance as we darted around traffic.

With Bill's steady encouragement we landed softly, then hit the gas for the go-around. There was no hint in Bill's manner that there was an approaching line of thunderstorms obstructing his path to Greenville. Back at Vandenberg, Ron filled out a demonstration flight form. After goodbyes all around, Bill filled up and departed. His track on flightaware.com showed a significant deviation as he approached the line, but a safe landing at Greenville two hours and 22 minutes later. A Cheyenne could have made the same trip in one plus 45, but it would have burned 70 more gallons of fuel.

It is pretty clear that selling Cirruses calls for more that just buying an ad in Flying and waiting in Duluth for the buyers to arrive. The trajectory of Cirrus and its popular SR20s and -22s, its light sport airplane and now its jet is easy to trace. What is just a little less visible is the work done by people like Bill Settle. He's out there right now, working.