Denise Wilson

Desert Jet Holdings Chairman Denise Wilson

In July, Denise Wilson was named chairman of the board of Desert Jet Holdings, parent of Desert Jet, the aircraft management, charter, and FBO business she founded in 2007. The company, which Wilson had been serving as CEO, is based at Thermal, California’s Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport, about 25 miles southeast of Palm Springs.

“For the past few years, I’ve been eager to extract myself from day-to-day operations so that I could focus on more strategic initiatives,” the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina native and Marine Corps brat told us. “I wanted to pursue opportunities to acquire another business and grow much more quickly, rather than organically like over the last 12 years.”

Raised in Los Angeles, where her mother soldered components for the B2 bomber, Wilson has a resume that belies F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim about there being no second acts in American lives. The group chairman’s role marks the latest act in her career, which she says has tended to run in decade-long cycles. Before taking on her current title, she spent years building Desert Jet; earlier, she was a pilot, for the airlines and subsequently for Part 91 flight departments; and before that, she was an oboist and music teacher.

Wilson shared her thoughts on business aviation, what brought her to this point in her career, and what comes next.

How did you get involved in aviation?
I used to drive past Cable Airport [in Upland, California] and saw their signs for $25 demo flights, and on my 18th birthday I went for one. It was a disappointment; the instructor didn’t want to teach a young schoolgirl, and we had no connection. Ten years later, a musician in an orchestra I played in was Dan Ledbetter, an airline pilot, and after I told him my experience he said, “I’m a flight instructor. Come to the airport this weekend.” He put me in the left seat, started the engine, and I flew the entire time—even coming back to land. When I applied for a job at [American Airlines’] American Eagle, he was working there and helped me with the interview and simulator.

What made you transition from professional musician to professional pilot?
I really enjoyed the flight training, and I did the commercial MEI [multi-engine instrument], the CFI [certified flight instructor], and so forth for fun. At 30 I had a little bit of a career crisis: I had several flight students and several music students and a music career, and my worlds were colliding. I decided to become a professional pilot, and I didn’t sign the [employment] contract for the next school year. It was a tough decision. That summer I was offered a position with American Eagle.

What led you to found Desert Jet?
I was furloughed from [regional airline] Colgan Air right after 9/11, and I got into business aviation. I knew nothing about it. In 2006 I was flying for a group of private individuals in the Palm Springs area, and various people asked me to help put airplanes into operation, find pilots, or set up dry leases, so I started Desert Jet LLC [offering management services] in 2007. I got a [Part 135] certificate in 2009 to book charter on a client’s airplane. That was in the depths of the economic downturn, but nobody stopped using private aviation—they just needed different ways [to fly privately]. We had a lot of opportunities to outsource services for managed aircraft but noticed the service levels were not up to what clients wanted. We started a Part 145 [maintenance] operation in 2013 to bring that service in-house.

Why did Desert Jet, a management company, build its own FBO?
To have a consistent customer-service experience for our charter passengers. We were tenants at other facilities and running out of room with MRO [maintenance, repair, and overhaul] work. As we looked at the economics of becoming a full-fledged FBO, the only way was to build our own facility, which we opened in 2016.

What’s in Desert Jet’s fleet, and do you plan any changes?
We have a Challenger 300, a Citation Sovereign, three [Citation] CJ3s, two Citation Bravos, and two [Citation] Mustangs. All are on our Part 135 certificate. We’re transitioning away from the Mustangs and will add two or three aircraft, mid- and super-mid category, before the end of the year.

What should a charter customer ask a potential provider?
You want to know about their safety standards and the flight time of pilots, but you should also ask operators and brokers, “Do you have a guaranteed backup flight if there’s a mechanical issue and something goes wrong with my flight?” [At Desert Jet], if we have our own jet available, we’ll send it. If we don’t, we’ll stay with the client until an option is located. Unfortunately, a lot of operators and brokers don’t do that.

What should an aircraft owner ask a potential management company?
Who is going to be the day-to-day contact? The customer-service representative is really important—who’s going to be working with you on managing the airplane? It shouldn’t be someone who just takes information. Ask what the method of communication is going to be when there’s a maintenance event or the regular pilots are at training. Also ask, “Do you have transparency in invoicing?” A management company should never make any money except fees for services—no markup on anything.

How goes the state of charter rates?
Charter rates are most definitely too low. It’s a conundrum we’ve done to ourselves by telling [aircraft] owners that charter revenue is just to offset expenses. But as long as the DOT [Department of Transportation] continues to ignore addressing brokerage regulatory and licensing issues, pricing is not going to change. The [charter brokerage] rules enacted in the last two years are weak in my opinion.

Some providers believe per-seat charter can expand the charter market.
I’m more excited about electric vehicles and vertical takeoff in the charter industry than ride sharing. There is a place for innovative charter companies to get involved in eVTOL [electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing vehicles]. Not now, but it’s not far away.

How is the pilot shortage affecting Desert Jet?
Back in 2008 and 2009, you had to go through hundreds of resumes [to hire a pilot], and you could tell most people were just sending them out to anyone. Today we get fewer resumes, but the applicants know what Desert Jet is, and I feel those people actually want the job.

[The current hiring environment] has forced us to look at the way we do things. Until recently, all our pilots lived in the Palm Springs area. It was a cultural thing—we wanted them to be able to attend company events. [But] we’ve had to follow what everyone else is doing, and we instituted a home-basing type of schedule [so pilots can live elsewhere]. That improved the quality of the candidates and helped bring new talent onboard.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the charter industry?
Over the next two to five years, employee retention. As I look at UAA [University Aviation Association, comprising academic institutions with accredited aviation degree programs], the airlines are in there recruiting at major colleges. Business aviation is trying, but it’s nowhere near the effort needed to prevent the drain of talent.

Did you face challenges as a woman starting Desert Jet?
No. Early on, I went to my husband and good friends and said, “Would you like to invest?” They didn’t think it would be successful, but none of it had to do with my being a woman—I had no business experience. So I read every resource, went to conferences, and talked to people who were trying to do the same thing. There’s a steep learning curve for anybody who starts a business who’s never done it before and doesn’t have the educational background.

We do have a [gender] problem in aviation: only 5 or 6 percent of pilots and 2 to 3 percent of mechanics are women. A lot of women can’t see themselves doing something unless they see someone like them doing it. There’s a responsibility on all of us. When we publish photographs of a panel at an annual conference or an aviation event, or the boards of our associations, and if every person is a man, if everyone is over age 60, what message are we sending to all the women, all the yo-pros? We could do better.

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Besides becoming chairman of Desert Jet Holdings, you’ve added the title of sales director at JetAviva, a Texas-based aircraft brokerage specializing in owner-flown jets.
Over the past 12 years, the thing I’ve enjoyed most is helping my clients, through Desert Jet, use business aviation to improve their businesses and their lives. I’m hitting 50, and I want to be doing what I enjoy doing every single day. As I venture out with JetAviva, I’m doing that: helping people find the right aircraft for their mission.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Denise Wilson


Resume:

Name: Denise Wilson

Born: Dec. 1, 1969, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

Positions: CEO, Desert Jet, 2007–2019; chairman of the board, Desert Jet Holdings and sales director, JetAviva, 2019–

Education: Bachelor of Music, USC, Los Angeles, 1992; Bachelor of Science, professional aeronautics; Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, 2001

Charitable work: Angel Flight West board of directors, Pilots N Paws volunteer

Personal: Lives in Alpine Airpark, Wyoming, a fly-in community near Jackson Hole. Met husband, a Desert Jet pilot, at American Eagle. Multiple type ratings including Challenger 300, Cessna 500 series, Boeing 737, Hawker 1000, Gulfstream III. Commutes to Palm Springs in her Cirrus SR22; flies her SeaRey amphibian for fun. Plays oboe in neighborhood chamber groups.

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