When discussion turns to the most prominent legacy independent FBOs, one of the first names mentioned is Epps Aviation at Atlanta’s DeKalb-Peachtree (PDK) Airport. Pat Epps’s bustling yet remarkably down-home facility represents a blueprint for a successful general aviation service business.
Since he bought the operation in 1965, Epps has progressively crafted his business with shrewd investments, bold foresight and plain old hard work. The result is one of the most efficient and respected airport operations in the world, and one that somehow succeeds in catering to high-end business aviation clients and weekend fliers on an equal footing.
In today’s economy, the FBO industry is seen as an attractive investment for large chunks of private-equity funding. The new smart money sees an industry that is fragmented and ripe for consolidation and its attendant economy of scale. There are those, however, who insist that it takes having one’s family name on the sign over the door to engender the level of commitment necessary for success in today’s highly competitive market.
The Epps name is certainly embedded in the history of aviation, especially in the state of Georgia. Ben Epps, Pat’s father, built and flew the first airplane in the state in 1907–a time when legal wrangling between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss was impeding aviation development in the U.S. That didn’t stop enterprising young self-taught backyard engineers such as Epps from building and flying their own. The elder Epps designed and built a total of six airplanes over the next three decades, only to die in a takeoff crash in 1937. The airport in Athens, Ga., is named in his honor.
Pat Epps is one of six Epps sons and two daughters who learned to fly (one of the three sisters–and only one–resisted the siren call). After receiving his pilot’s license in 1952, he completed his studies to become an aeronautical engineer and worked at Boeing on the development of the 707.
In 1957 he joined the U.S. Air Force and completed pilot training the following year. To date, Epps has logged more than 9,000 flight hours and holds type ratings or letters of authority for a wide range of aircraft, including the North American B-25 Mitchell, the Douglas DC-3 and more modern business jets from the Learjet and Cessna Citation lines.
Expanding the Business
In 1965 Epps acquired the FBO at PDK. At the time, it consisted of a single 40,000-sq-ft hangar, a shop building and 19 employees. The purchase was a bold step for the 31-year-old. Now, 41 years later, Epps Aviation blankets 20 acres at PDK and employs more than 200. By the close of the turbulent 1960s, after only five years in business, Epps Aviation had acquired its chief competitor on the airport and launched the construction of 22 T hangars.
In 1970 Epps Aviation started its flight school, followed the next year by charter service. The end of that decade saw the completion of a new hangar (Hangar 4) and the completion of the current terminal building. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rate of new construction continue. Epps’s sense of history was piqued during this time, and he began to dedicate his efforts to preservation of World War II aviation history.
Epps was at the controls when a feisty group of D-Day-veteran paratroopers jumped into Normandy–again–from a DC-3 (its GI version was the olive-drab C-47 transport) in 1994 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Allies’ European invasion.
As further evidence of Epps’s dedication to preserving World War II aviation heritage, in 1992 he initiated the expedition to raise a Lockheed P-38 from some 250 feet below the Greenland ice cap. The airplane, dubbed Glacier Girl, flew again in 2002. The 13-year saga culminated with the flying display of the twin-boom fighter at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis., last summer before hundreds of thousands of aviation enthusiasts from all over the world. (Epps is no longer directly involved in the ownership of Glacier Girl.)
And just for fun, Epps, now 72, performed during one of the daily airshows at Oshkosh, flying his personal aerobatic Beechcraft Bonanza F33. He flies the airplane regularly.
In 2004 Epps Aviation completed renovation of its 25-year-old terminal building in time for the FBO’s 40th-anniversary celebration last year. One element of the terminal that was not changed is the Tailwind restaurant, an outside venue overlooking the runways. The restaurant attracts enthusiasts of all ages and all levels of involvement–promoting positive interest in general aviation to a measure that is impossible to quantify.
Even when its terminal building wasn’t the newest and most palatial looking in the FBO universe, Epps Aviation succeeded by delivering quality personal service and attention to detail that stood out from the crowd. The aura of hard-working efficiency mixed with southern warmth and hospitality makes for a recipe that is difficult to describe, let alone duplicate. It would be hard to imagine the operation maintaining its edge without a continuation of the family heritage. And that’s likely to be the case for the foreseeable future.
Pat and Ann Epps’s three children, Patrick, Marian and Elaine, have all earned their pilots’ licenses, and all three work for the family business, with Marian serving as CFO. It would appear that the management at Epps Aviation will continue to see the family name above the hangar door for another generation.