Ed Nelle, credited as the pioneer who built Butler Aviation into the first chain of FBOs, died on November 20 in Asheville, N.C., at the age of 91. Butler Aviation eventually merged with Page Avjet to form Signature Flight Support, the goliath among FBO chains today.
FBO business veteran Bob Showalter remembers: “Ed was chairman of the board of NATA from late 1976 to 1979 and helped shepherd that organization through some of its most treacherous financial times. I was on that board from 1978 and it was how the two of us first got to know each other. I had been working for Butler for only a few days as the new v-p of operations at the home office in the early 1980s. I went into his office to discuss a problem. He said: ‘When you come into my office with a problem, bring me at the same time at least two possible solutions for your issue.’ I later found out he used that line with almost every new hire. I have used the same line ever since with folks who reported to me. Ed Nelle was an incredibly wise man. I stayed in touch, and I will miss him greatly.”
Nelle’s aviation career began in the military. Budd Davisson, who was the director of marketing at Butler and called Ed both boss and friend, recalls that “Ed was in one of the last Army flight cadet classes in 1945 to actually finish training and transition into fighters. Specifically, bubble-top P-47 Thunderbolts. I remember him as almost giddy when he climbed into the Jug I leased and had on the ramp for the opening of the Charlotte facility. Immediately after the war he was flight instructing and flying charter for an operation at Teterboro. Shortly after that he began his climb up the FBO ladder.”
Nelle joined The Port Authority of NY&NJ and later Butler Aviation, where he led the La Guardia FBO, and then as general manager running the Butler FBO in San Francisco. In 1966 Ed was appointed vice president of system services at Butler headquarters in New York City. He eventually rose to the position of president and CEO of Butler Aviation International and held that position for the longest tenure in the history of Butler Aviation, the first FBO chain in the nation. Nelle presided over the company’s most successful years, leaving his mark on not only that company but also on the entire FBO industry. Davisson recalls, “During that time Butler grew from about 15 operations to 34 or so, and gross revenue tripled at least. At one point we were pumping a billion gallons of fuel, including airlines, and operating 43 fuel farms and the port-to-airport pipeline in Anchorage. The company also operated a thousand 8,000- to 10,000-gallon fuel trucks, reputed to be the largest fleet of such vehicles in the country.”