Published in August 2016 issue
By Eric Auxier
On April 15, 1926, a young Pilot named Charles A. Lindbergh flew a bag of mail from Chicago to St. Louis in his DH-4 biplane. Lindbergh’s company, the Robertson Aircraft Corporation, eventually consolidated with several others to form what is known today as American Airlines (AA), the largest airline in the world.
Flash forward some 90 years. In 2014, a still-youngish airline Pilot named Eric Walden, growing dissatisfied with the volatile, post-9/11 treatment of airline Pilots, walked away from his potentially secure and lucrative career to start his own airline, Little Hawk Logistics, LLC, in central Virginia.
Today, Walden happily flies charter clients in his own, single- Pilot, single-engine Daher TBM 850, a gorgeous, ultra-zippy, five-passenger turboprop.
Airways caught up with Captain Walden, who detailed how he became TBM’s first—and, so far, only—FAR Part 135 commercial Air Taxi operator in America.
Passion seems to be the core trait of Walden’s personality. With a perpetual glint in his eye and a leprechaun’s devilish grin on his Irish chin, Walden seems to embrace, tackle and relish any challenge put before him. However, Captain Walden is not an old, bold, brash, and cocky Pilot out of Hollywood Central Casting. Decades in the air and nearly 8,000 flight hours have tempered this former airline driver into a confident yet conservative Pilot behind the yoke.
“I can fly to 31,000 feet, RVSM [Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum], with all-weather capability,” he boasts of his plane. “I’ve also been to instrument landing minimums many, many times. I’ve been into 2,500ft [760m] runways.” However, he adds, with a dash of wisdom, “You can do better than that, as I get more comfortable with the aircraft. You don’t need to push it, though. There’s no reason to be landing on dirt strips on the sides of mountains unless you really need to—and I really don’t need to.”
Airline startups have come and gone, but rarely does a successful airline Pilot simply walk away and start all over. What could possibly possess a Pilot to walk away from a position that often represents the ultimate aviation dream to an unknown and dubious alternate?
The secret to Walden’s taking the flight-less-traveled lies in his family’s colorful past.
“When he was 10 years old, my grandfather, Al Ueltschi, listened on the radio to Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic,” Walden says. The poor farm boy from Frankfort, Kentucky, decided there and then that he was going to be a Pilot.
Walden says his father replied: “But Al, you’re already a Pilot. You take this cow manure and pile-it over here, and pile-it over there!”
Al started flying when he was 17, and financed his first aircraft by starting a hamburger stand.
The name of the stand? The Little Hawk.
The banker next door liked Ueltschi’s hamburgers and enthusiasm so much that he financed the loan to buy the young man’s first airplane, a Waco OX-5 biplane. The burger flipper went on to barnstorm, fly mail, then captain for Pan Am as founder Juan Trippe’s personal Pilot. One of Ueltschi’s many great accomplishments was the founding of FlightSafety International, which, from a single office at the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia, eventually grew into the largest flight training business in the world.
Ueltschi met and flew with many of his heroes in his career, including Lindbergh himself, Walden says, and learned from them how to be a leader of men. One gem of wisdom: Keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open.
“His integrity, charm and force of personality were all spectacular to behold,” Walden says, “and I hope that I can carry forward just a fraction of what he possessed. He did many great things in his long life, including giving me both the inspiration and opportunity to follow my dream of flying.”
Sadly, Walden lost his grandfather before the man could see him attain his dream of starting his own Little Hawk, but not before learning that great accomplishment requires great sacrifice.
“I named my company after my grandfather’s hamburger stand, because that got him his first airplane, and this is my first airplane.”
Ah, yes, the airplane. The TBM 850 can outrun and outdistance nearly any other single engine turboprop on the market, he says, and do it in style, luxury, and efficiency.
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“It’s a 2007 Daher Socata,” Walden says. “I bought it from Colombia Air Services in Connecticut. It’s the fastest single-engine turboprop in the world. It has a very high level of efficiency, so I can go long distance with a minimum amount of fuel, and carry a significant payload. Usually, an aircraft will go fast but not very far, or far but not very fast.”
It’s a delight to Pilots and passengers, but by no means a big boy’s toy.
“Some people don’t know how to fly turbines well,” says Walden, “but the professionals that flew it took really good care of it, so I was confident I was getting a good piece of hardware, and something that would take care of me and my passengers.”
While he says that he doesn’t have a ‘typical’ charter trip—he has flown as far as Florida and Chicago to pick up passengers—the majority of his clients are from the Charlottesville, Virginia, area.
“The aircraft is in a niche all its own and, judging by the response I’ve had so far, it’s one that is clearly underserved,” he says. “The sweet spot for the plane is a flight under 600 nautical miles that would otherwise require a connection. In that case, I will crush the airlines on time, and often times on cost, with three to five passengers on board.”
From Charlottesville (CHO), that would include nonstop to such cities as Nashville (BNA), Charleston, SC, (CHS), New York (JFK), and even Boston (BOS)—all flights of around an hour and a half at TBM speed, which would take the better half of a day using commercial flights.
“I’m very fortunate to live in a town like Charlottesville,” Walden says. “It has a very unique combination of old money and new, with a dynamic and growing population of young, ambitious startup executives that have a need to travel, and can appreciate the speed and economy of my plane, and the experience that I bring to the cockpit.”
Aside from the biz type, what sort of client is attracted to Little Hawk? People who prefer a little privacy, convenience, luxury, and fun. “Yep, golf, ski, Oshkosh. You name it,” he says. “I have several regular customers who use me for purely personal transportation to move between homes here and at the beach or in the city.”
While it’s smooth flying for now, Captain Walden says Little Hawk’s takeoff roll was a tad shaky.
“The FAA was an obstacle to get this up and running,” he admits. “It took 11 months to add the aircraft to an existing charter company certificate, which was frustrating.” Not to mention very expensive.
In classic government bureaucratic style, however, Walden’s 135 Air Taxi certificate was finally approved last April after months of hard work by several dedicated colleagues. From concept to launch, it took him over a year and a half. “I’ve been up and running ever since,” he beams.
Walden now flies under the charter certificate of the Meridian Air Group, based in Charlottesville.
“They operate three Pilatus PC- 12s,” he says. “My TBM is an excellent complement to those airframes, for passengers that can appreciate the economy of speed that mine has.”
The benefit of working with an established charter operator, he says, is that it brings to the table established clients, management infrastructure, and support. “I have very little desire to have to deal with the day to day minutia of running the business,” Walden says. “I just want to fly! And I do. Thirty to 35 hours a month, pure charter.”
For all the hard work he’s put into his dream, the TBM allows for fun as well. “I don’t really fly it for fun,” he says, “but I’m flying an amazing aircraft that’s incredibly entertaining to fly, and getting paid for it.”
Especially when he’s chartered by his favorite client; his dear mother Anne, whom he occasionally flies to BOS or JFK, to connect with her flights back to her Irish homeland. “My mom is a periodic user of my plane,” he says, “and we’ve taken trips to Flagstaff (FLG) and twice to Telluride (TEX) for the bluegrass festival.”
And, just as Lindbergh had once flown a single engine plane across the Atlantic, Walden hopes next year to fly his mother “across the pond” to Ireland himself. The best part of flying his mom, he says, is that he also gets to bring along his favorite co- Pilot: his five-year-old son, Finn.
“Finn is a great co-Pilot,” he states proudly. “He sits up front with me in his booster seat. He knows how to read the TCAS display and will spot traffic for me as we fly along.”
Walden is teaching his son how the instruments work, how the plane flies, and the relationship between time and distance that, as he says, “gets mighty compressed at 320 knots.” “Finn knows what the sound of freedom is,” Walden says with a wink. “As far back as I can remember, I was just as enthralled with planes when I was his age.”
Like father, like son… and great grandson.
Grandfather Ueltschi would be proud of the legacy he’s left behind. Eighty years later, that tiny hamburger stand that took wing continues to thrive in the sky. Little Hawk’s success, Walden says, has surprised even him, and he now plans to add another TBM to the fleet, perhaps as early as next year.
Lindbergh’s transatlantic fight galvanized aviation and the world, influencing future generations of aviators such as Captain Al Ueltschi, his grandson Captain Eric Walden and great grandson, Finn. And, in light of Lindbergh’s humble beginnings, who knows where Little Hawk’s blue skies could lead. In 80 more years’ time, could this humble little hamburger stand in the sky morph into one of the world’s major players?
Maybe a future Captain Finn—the great grandson of a Pan Am Pilot who’d been inspired by Lindbergh himself—will find himself at the controls of, say, the lucrative JFK to Beijing suborbital circuit.