Retired Midcoast v-p reflects on his career and looks ahead

 - February 22, 2010, 11:08 AM

Gary Driggers, vice president of Midcoast Aviation, retired at the end of last year after more than 20 years with the company. Driggers began flying when he joined the Army in 1965 and went into the warrant officer candidate program to fly helicopters.

“I was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, to form the 9th Infantry Division, became armament officer and was deployed to Vietnam in January 1967 flying Hueys,” Driggers told AIN.

At the end of his tour of duty he was assigned to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah to work as a helicopter instructor pilot for the last two years of active duty. When he separated from the Army he was in the active reserve so he enrolled in the aeronautical engineering program at Parks College. While there he worked part time flying the KMOX Radio traffic helicopter.

“After a year at Parks I was offered the general manager’s job at the helicopter charter operator that provided the helicopter for KMOX,” he said. “I never did finish at Parks because my reserve unit offered me an opportunity to go to the University of Southern California to get my degree in military science and attend the USC Safety Institute, and I jumped at the chance.”

In 1974, after graduating from USC, Driggers returned to St. Louis and started Altair, a fixed-wing charter company. He operated a small fleet consisting of twin-engine Cessnas and some single-engine aircraft. In 1977 a bank bought a King Air that it wanted to operate under FAR Part 135, so it bought out Driggers and kept him on as manager.

“I did that until 1980, when one of our customers asked me to join his oil company as executive vice president. We bought the FBO at Mount Vernon Airport and operated out of there until 1985, when I moved to Florida to run a car rental and auto sales business.

“Its funny how life takes strange turns. One day I was asked to deliver a rental car to John Tucker, who was waiting for it at a bar called Trader Joe’s. It’s famous for being the haunt of Navy pilots and specifically the Blue Angels. Tucker, who was the founder of Midcoast Aviation, was there for a reunion. He turned out to be a pretty interesting guy and over the course of the evening he asked me to get back into aviation and go to work for him.”

In 1988, two weeks after talking with Tucker, Driggers was v-p of Midcoast Aviation’s new Little Rock facility. For five years he shepherded the company’s growth and in 1993 he was named COO of Midcoast Aviation. He was responsible for the St. Louis Downtown Airport operation, St. Louis Lambert Airport Facility and Little Rock. He has also served as a past chairman of the board for NATA.

“The biggest change I’ve seen over the years is consolidation. It became increasingly impractical for small businesses to grow due to the lack of capital. As managers in this business we’ve changed in the past 15 or 20 years from being aviation people to being businessmen. It’s no longer just a matter of revenue but a matter of margin,” Driggers said.

“I’ve gone through five owners at Midcoast. John Tucker was bought out by TWA; in 1994 they sold it to Sabreliner; in 2006 it was sold to Jet Aviation; and in 2008 it was sold to General Dynamics. I stayed on to help General Dynamics with the transition, but they really didn’t need me in the capacity I was serving, so we had a great transition and I retired.”

Driggers predicts there is more consolidation to come. “A lot of companies are still suffering. The economy today is probably good for the industry overall,” he said. “From time to time you need to clean out the pipes, the low-hanging fruit. You get rid of the operators that undercut everyone’s price, don’t do the job and create ill will.”

Driggers said the other area of major change is technology. “It used to be corrosion was our biggest problem, but metallurgy has changed so much you rarely find corrosion any more.

“The other major breakthrough is electronics. We’ve had to transition from 100 percent hands-on mechanics to sophisticated electronic technicians. The whole face of the business has changed that way,” Driggers said. “Airplanes are more reliable, more sophisticated, far more unplug and replace, but look at the phenomenal safety record we have as a result. The goal these days is zero mishaps, and technology plays a huge part of it.”

Driggers is encouraged about what he sees happening in the industry. “There’s so much room for growth. Every year we pump out a thousand new airplanes and they’re not retiring that number, so we’re growing. Aviation has a great future, and while my wife and I are off to Hawaii for a vacation, I’m not going away. I love this industry and I’ll keep my hand in the mix. I may do some consulting, perhaps take on some projects, but there’s sunshine at the end of the tunnel and I’m going to be there to see it.”