Photos Rob Smith
Perhaps only airplane pilots fully understand the lure of flight. After all, it is their thing. For some, the idea of buckling themselves into an airline seat and hurtling across the sky brings on a good deal of anxiety, but not Ryan Underwood.
As founder and owner of Ace Aviation Services of Rome, Georgia, he thrives on the experience and fully appreciates the mesmerizing draw of the wild blue yonder. He has turned a childhood fascination into a thriving career, and now he helps others get their dreams off the ground as well.
Eyes on the sky, head in the clouds
Most teenagers have their sights set on getting their driver’s license. When Underwood was 15 years old, he wanted to learn to fly airplanes, and he was determined to find a way. However, there were two problems with that: one, it was expensive, and two, his parents said, “It’s too dangerous.” Underwood found a workaround for the first issue by mowing yards and saving money for flying lessons. The solution to the second problem was his great-grandmother, who agreed to drive him back and forth to the local airport (without his parents’ knowledge) for private flying lessons.
With a mixture of anxiety and adolescent bravado, Underwood walked into Rome Flying Services at the Richard B. Russell Regional Airport and told the owner, Robert Cordell, he wanted to learn how to fly. Colonel Cordell, who had flown for the U.S. Air Force in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, winning him a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross (among other awards), was a no-nonsense flight instructor, so he was not impressed by teenagers who came in off the street with starry-eyed visions of sitting in a cockpit.
Without paying much attention to the boy, he tossed a small flight instruction book to him and said, “Here. Read this and come back.” Underwood says, “I took this little book home, read it, and in two or three days I showed back up. I think he was seeing if I was for real. After that, he kind of took me under his wing.”
Thanks to a high school apprenticeship program, Underwood was able to leave campus and spend part of the day at Rome Flying Services, doing everything from sweeping the floor to cleaning the underside of the planes. Though there was no written contract between the pilot and the teenager, Cordell let Underwood earn his way through an informal combination of payment and barter.
“I was just happy being around airplanes,” Underwood says, “and after working for a while—maybe three days at a time—he would give me a thirty-minute flying lesson. He made me pull my weight, but that’s how I got my license with him.”
On Underwood’s 16th birthday, he flew solo for the first time. Such an achievement at that age was so unusual that the Rome News-Tribune published an article about it. (That article now hangs framed on the wall of Underwood’s airplane hangar.) Then at the age of 17, he got his private pilot’s license. “After that,” Underwood says, “I was bound and determined to go the military fighter pilot route.”
But as he thought that plan through, it began to lose its appeal. “If you graduate from a military college with your four-year degree,” he says, “you’re an officer. Then you go to flight school. After that, it turns into a 14-to-16-year commitment. What I was afraid of was going through the academy and flight school and then finding out there were no flight positions available.” Ultimately, Underwood decided to go the civilian route.
Spreading his wings
After high school, Underwood attended flight school at Phoenix East, in Daytona Beach, Florida. There, his education combined ground school studies in the classroom with hands-on flight training each day. Although the program was one year long, Underwood was able to complete his studies in eight months, because he already has his pilot’s license. Upon graduation, Phoenix East offered Underwood a flight instructor job, which he accepted. “I was eighteen years old,” he says, “and my first student was a fifty-five-year-old man from England.”
After a year as an instructor at Phoenix East, Underwood found out the prestigious Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was hiring. He applied and was hired. “Riddle was the biggest aeronautical university in the world,” Underwood says, “and they had a massive flight complex.”
When Underwood was there, the school boasted over 200 instructors, 1,200 students, and over 70 airplanes. “And it’s a four-year university, so when you go to Embry-Riddle you graduate as a commercial pilot with a degree in professional aeronautics.” While working there, Underwood earned his degree.
At Embry-Riddle Underwood became an aerobatics instructor, teaching students how to perform harrowing maneuvers that would help them avoid potentially fatal accidents. For instance, he trained students on how to negotiate a spin endorsement. He says, “A spin endorsement is when you put the plane into a full-out spin and recover. You have to learn how to do this just in case one of the students does it by accident.”
Flying with the big boys
Eventually, Underwood decided he wanted to move beyond flight instruction and try his hand in the commercial field. “I submitted online applications to all the airlines, and the next day I had three offers, American Eagle and a couple of other companies. I went with Express Jet and moved out to Houston, Texas.”
Though he enjoyed flying the larger aircraft, for Underwood, the frustrating thing about piloting for major airlines was the long-term commitment it took to achieve a state of financial security. After building up seniority, he would get promoted and find himself climbing the seniority ladder once again. He says, “After you put in fifteen or twenty years, you could make two hundred thousand or so, but it was a very iffy business. There was always a good chance you might show up to work one day and get laid off.” He also found the nature of the industry—the constant travel, an uncertain schedule—was hard on interpersonal relationships. “Finally,” he says, “I decided it wasn’t for me. I walked away from the airlines, and I started doing service work on motorcycles and cars in the garage at my house.”
Taking off again
Underwood could not stay away from flying long. He began doing flight instruction in Rome for a small, privately owned flight school. Before long, the owner left much of the day-to-day operations to Underwood, which helped Underwood learn the business side of the industry. A new owner bought the business and Underwood stayed on to continue in his leadership role. But after a year or so, it became clear that the new owner was in financial difficulties. “I knew something was wrong,” Underwood says, “when I arrived at work one day and there were realtors at the hangar. I found out then that he had lost everything.”
From the company, Underwood was able to buy a Cessna 150 that was at a maintenance shop having a wing repaired. This purchase was beneficial for everyone involved; it helped Underwood’s former boss out of a financial bind, allowed the maintenance shop owner to get paid, and it gave Underwood a good deal on an airplane that would help him start his own business.
“At the time I had a little T hangar on the other side of the field. It just fits one little airplane. So, I took that Cessna 150 and started Ace Aviation Services.” At first, he conducted the ground lessons in the conference room at the airport’s terminal building, the FBO (fixed-base operator). He says, “It was not an ideal situation, you know, especially if you’re going to do it as a living.” He needed space of his own.
A perfect landing
Underwood had his eye on a large hangar on the other side of the airport that was built by the Forestry Commission in the 1940s. Knowing the hangar was going up for sale, Underwood took a calculated risk. “I put in a bid for only ten dollars,” he says, “and I said I would tear the hangar down, relocate it to the other side of the airport, reconstruct it at my own expense, and sign a thirty-five-year land lease with the county. And I won the bid! We took this whole thing down, put it on a flatbed trailer, moved it over here, and put it back together.” That hangar is now the home of Ace Aviation Services.
Underwood’s business has not only become a fixture at Rome’s airport, but it has also become a driving force in the culture of flight in Northwest Georgia. For instance, over twenty of the hangars at the airport are home to airplanes owned by Underwood’s customers and former students. Pointing to a nearby hanger, he says, “When he first came to me, he didn’t know anything about flying. I trained him, helped him find a plane of his own, did a pre-buy inspection on it, and helped him bring it home. Now he’s based here.”
That story is typical of the niche Underwood has made for himself in this business. He says, “Eighty-to-ninety percent of my students are middle-aged men that have finally got to a point in their lives where they can afford a plane.” He explains to them that for $80,000 they can either buy a boat they will rarely use, or they can learn to fly, buy a nice plane, have a hangar that doubles as a man cave, and fly away with buddies to go fishing. That is a vision that appeals to many of his customers, and Underwood helps them achieve it. He teaches them to fly, helps them find an airplane that fits within their budget, travels with the customer to inspect the plane, and together they fly it home. That’s the Services in Ace Aviation Services. He helps other people get what they want. In turn, it continues to build a healthy business for him.
The sky’s the limit
At Ace Aviation Services, students do their ground school online, working through the curriculum at their own pace. There are more than 200 instructional videos. The hands-on instruction takes place at the airport. “On a student’s very first day with us,” Underwood says, “we take you flying. When we get back, we have a little debrief, and I’ll tell you what videos you need to start watching at home.”
When discussing the future of Ace Aviation Services, Underwood explains that he doesn’t want to grow into a large fleet, rather, he wants to grow in smarter ways. Currently, Underwood has plans to film an entire series of ground school videos and sell their use online. This would provide customers worldwide with an alternative to the online classes currently offered, and it would provide a revenue stream of passive income for the business.
“I don’t want to go to ten or fifteen planes because that takes the fun out of it,” Underwood says. “It makes this stressful, like now you’ve got to make fifty-thousand dollars this month or you may go under. I don’t want to be there. I want to be at the point where the work is a very personal experience. Like with some of my clients, we’re together for two or three days traveling across the country and bringing a plane back. You really get to know someone like that. It’s business, but it’s fun, too. Doing that kind of thing—then adding our own video ground school training—financially, it just seems like a no-brainer.”