Flying Back To Life

A reservist's tour of duty left his chopper business on the brink

Jeffrey Linscott, 44, a helicopter pilot with 22 years of military service, is renowned for his ability to fly over tricky terrain. Michael Jackson, director of the Plate Boundary Observatory, relies on Linscott's Portland (Ore.) company, JL Aviation, to lower and retrieve sensitive instruments near Mt. St. Helens. Linscott "has one of the best feels for air flow over mountains I have ever seen," says Jackson. "He is a bit of a Zen master."

But for Linscott, salvaging his business after his most recent tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force Reserves has been anything but easy. When he was called up in 2002 his helicopter service had eight employees and $770,000 in revenues. Then Linscott spent eight months stationed in Gulfport, Miss., where he lost even once-a-day contact with his employees, never mind his clients and vendors. He returned to a business close to ruin. His employees had quit, he was down to one helicopter from three, and eight months' revenues amounted to only $35,000. Yet he still owed $40,000 a month to creditors. Meanwhile, his wife had left him. Says Linscott: "I was destroyed."

About 55,000 reservists and National Guard are self-employed, and about twice as many work for small companies, according to a May, 2005, Congressional Budget Office Report. And, like Linscott's, their deployments give rise to a host of troubles, from the loss of revenues to permanent shutdowns. "no one is there to help [soldier-entrepreneurs] figure out how to maintain their business when they are gone," says Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York lobbying group. Scott Denniston, director of the Office Of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization and the Center for Veterans Enterprise for the Veterans Affairs Dept., says that while some services are available, most National Guard members and reservists don't know about them. he says the Small Business Administration is working with the Defense Dept. to get information to soldiers before they are deployed, not after.

Linscott could have used it. A Black Hawk pilot, he completed about 60 tours of duty, including combat in the Gulf War. After working for another aviation service, he started his own. His first clients were local sheriffs' offices that wanted to fly reconnaissance to stamp out marijuana growers.

Unlike employees of larger companies, Linscott had few choices, and no safety net, when it came to his absence. "You can't be the president of a helicopter service and be on active duty simultaneously," says Linscott. "I can't run jl Aviation from afar." He asked another pilot and his director of aircraft maintenance to run the business. But the company became embroiled in a costly legal fight over a turbine, grounding one helicopter. (A judge later ruled in Linscott's favor.) A second leased craft had to be returned because Linscott wasn't there to fly it. "We did not have the capacity for new customers," Linscott says.

While still on base, Linscott saw a spot on cnn about the SBA's Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loans. Linscott was told to apply through a disaster recovery center in San Diego, which required bank statements, tax returns, and written statements from accountants and creditors--things Linscott could not gather from Mississippi. Back in Portland, in the summer of 2003, a counselor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives helped Linscott assemble a new business plan and loan documentation. It took sixteen months for Linscott to receive $472,000.

Rebuilding began with the purchase of a new turbine. Linscott's stable of regular customers was down to 450 from 2,000, so he worked the phones to bring in jobs. He also chased more commercial work, flying photographers who need aerial views of natural wonders such as the Columbia River Gorge, and catering to guys who want to propose to their girlfriends thousands of feet up. Revenues are climbing, and Linscott, now retired from the Reserves, hopes soon to have a third helicopter and to increase staff from four to eight. Says Linscott: "Three years later, we have almost recovered."

By Jeremy D. Quittner

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