Craig wings it well

Craig wings it well

Recession could have grounded Craig McLeod’s aviation services for good. But his resourcefulness has him flying higher than ever, and now with another asset purchase. Brian Nicholls reports.

No point in putting the kettle on for Craig McLeod yet. In his jetstreamed business he might say he’ll be back in a couple of days but end up many more away instead. Such is the unpredictable line of winged duty in his mini Northern Powerhouse of a business.

His company Naljets specialises internationally in aircraft and aviation asset management. This includes worldwide charter availability, consultancy on engineering, company structuring, procuring aircraft and upgrading or working on entry of service for clients and pilots. And under a separate company comes training and testing of flight crews and operational personnel.

You might have expected Naljets to be rooted nearer Luton, Stansted, Heathrow or Gatwick. Instead, it’s firmly in the North of England. Headquartered at Apex Business Village, Annitsford, off the A19 near Gosforth, its livery is familiar to ground staff at Durham Tees Valley, Newcastle and Leeds Bradford airports, as elsewhere.

It manages and operates anything from a small piston single engine and twin engine, light jet to a wide body long-range aircraft. Services range from turnkey aircraft management to individual help on acquisition and entry to service of an aircraft, or any task required, plus provision of crewing, trip planning, regulatory requirements and project consultancy. It also offers placement of aircraft on its worldwide air operator’s certificate, through which aircraft owners can enjoy income generation, efficient offset of ownership costs and tax advantages.  

For over a decade Craig and his team have travelled most of the world’s busiest airspace, also remote and challenging destinations. “We’ve extensive experience in managing and operating aircraft globally for clients in many parts of the world, and have strong relations with multiple regulators in various jurisdictions,” he explains.

Naljets

Uncertainties of an assignment’s duration arise when clients stay over longer than expected on their visit. Returning early is less likely – in contrast to Craig’s earlier steady routine as a goldsmith with his own jewellery manufacturing business.

His gem of a career change began in 1994. He’d decided he’d like to fly, just a pilot’s private licence. The businessman in him became fascinated by the aircraft themselves. By 2000 he was aspiring to a commercial licence. “In six years of flying privately I’d not intended to become a commercial pilot. But I thought I’d see if I could do the necessary theory exams. Most people do these 14 exams in around a year. Still running my jewellery business, it took me two years.

“Elizabeth McLeod my wife and I hadn’t long had our daughter Bethany. Doing a correspondence course was difficult. I studied between 11.30pm and 4am while my wife was in bed – I’m still married! – then I’d later get up and help with our baby before going to work.”  

He qualified and could now start his first flying business, Northern Aviation, with a partner Terry Harrison. Initial aircraft purchase cost £40,000 because Terry, a successful Washington manufacturer of pumps, set up the firm 7030. A former mining engineer from Bowburn, Terry also worked for Scottish Land Developments before moving into plant and pump hire in semi-retirement. Craig was his flying chauffeur - “he got a free pilot, I got flying hours I needed.” After a couple of winters flying, sometimes amid snow, Terry rightly rubbished the aircraft’s heaters.”

After selling his jewellery business and some property, he and Terry invested in the Cessna 421c Golden Eagle – “a beautiful aeroplane” – cost, around £255,000. “I thought I’d finally accomplished all I wanted from flying. It was a complicated piston twin high performance plane, but with a pressurised cabin and a very good heater.”

It was too advanced for schools’ use, though. Terry seldom needed it, and it was too expensive for Craig to use alone. As it sat in the hangar, Craig realised they needed an air operator’s certificate, to operate it as an air taxi. Terry agreed but, sadly, died following illness before that service started. The Harrison link is retained today, thoug, through Kay Aitkin, Terry’s daughter who is company secretary.

Along the way, Craig and Terry had bought two of Teesside’s flying schools, Cleveland Flying School and Teesside Aero Club, gaining office space in so doing to fly 421 charters from. “I’m a Newcastle boy and want to be in Newcastle.” But Teesside proved more accommodating.

Only private training had gone on in the region before. “I brought commercial flight teaching there,” he recalls. “No-one had previously trained in commercial pilot’s licence and instrument ratings for commercial pilots or flying instructors’ courses.”  

The schools were consolidated, their existing aircraft replaced by the purchase of a fleet of Cessna 152s from Marshall’s of Cambridge. He also acquired: an ex-RAF Bulldog, a little helicopter and a Slingsby Firefly for aerobatics.

“While the school thrived, and we thrived upward of 60 PPLs a year – and all the Leeds University students – annual charter business peaked at around 250 hours on the C421. Piston engine twins, though quiet, fast and comfortable, lost popularity.”

Craig Mcloud 02Besides ferrying parts for just-in-time car production, the business for some years indirectly helped save lives, mercy-dashing hearts and other organs between various hospitals for transplants with a four hour deadline. You had to be ever alert. Once in his aircraft, registration letters G-OSCH, Craig was flying to collect a baby’s heart from Ireland to return to Newcastle. Blue-light ambulance and police deliverers handed him a big box. Craig said he expected a small box. They said: “This is for you. It’s got GOSCH written on the box”.

But not only was the box bigger than expected; never previously had a hospital or ambulance crew appeared to know the registration of his aircraft. “I insisted on ringing the hospital and co-ordinators to check,” Craig recalls. “I described the box and was told ‘that’s not for you. GOSCH stands for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.

Another ambulance is on its way with the organ for a baby.’ My box when it came had Freeman (Newcastle Hospital) written on.” That box was delivered safely. Aviation, having many standard operating procedures, is very repetitive, Craig maintains. “When something suddenly appears different, as then, an alarm bell rings or a red light flashes in your mind, and you must slow down and question before proceeding.”    

Recession has been tough for all businesses. Craig had mortgaged his house to pay a deposit on a large turbo prop aircraft - a Beechcraft King Air. The day both engines had to be overhauled - due to time expiry - coincided with the 2008 crisis, and banks raising drawbridges. When the firm tried to draw on a loan earlier agreed, the finance company said it couldn’t provide the US$1m.

“That ran us right down,” Craig tells. “We sold everything. But we started Naljets in 2009. Instead of selling charters, doing medical work and pushing here or there, we switched to acquiring and managing aircraft - for clients who needed and could afford aeroplanes but lacked expertise and required an aviation department to handle complexities of the industry.”

Today, while the aircraft are mostly owned by others, Naljets sets up and manages a suitable operating structure for them. “We’re now a rent-a-flight department for other aircraft owners. They want them flown safely and compliant without a crew of their own. Why employ 10-plus staff to do a few flights on one aircraft as and when required?

“Their aircraft are accountancy driven. When not flying for the companies’ own use, good solutions are needed. We’ve become a management company selling our skills. We know how to fly the aeroplanes, ensure their maintenance, provide compliance and expertise, without letting costs run away. We also know which aircraft best suit jobs required.”

Craig, who lives at Wynyard near Stockton, has no regrets about the change of direction. “We now manage very expensive assets. Previously, by the time we bought aircraft, maintained them, kept the staff and met all other outlays we were always driving hard to get cashflow and turnover up. We were profitable but it was very tight.”

The switch was helped by Craig’s involvement in procuring an aircraft for a big company into the oil and gas industry. Word of mouth brought another aircraft for Naljets to manage from energy trading firms in Geneva. Companies into car racing wanted their aircraft managed. George Davies of Asda’s plane came under Naljets’ wing too. “We’re now service driven, providing expertise in many areas of aviation, a team of highly skilled professionals, experienced flight crews and labour,” he explains.

Craig Mcloud 03

Where North beats South

Naljets has now acquired a new flight training facility - from Multiflight, a private aviation company based at Leeds Bradford Airport. Following a rebrand and marketing, the pilot training school, now called PTT Aviation - pilot training and testing - will add to the current training offer of a private pilot’s licence a commercial pilot’s licence also, and instrument rating necessary to fly under visually restricted conditions. A £500,000 investment in the school will bring new aircraft. While locating the entire business in the South might have promised even more opportunities, Craig maintains: “We’ve many loyal, driven and intelligent people in this area. Employing someone here’s much more reasonable than in a hotspot like London. I never was attracted there and live happily with the amount of business we have.  

“Besides, our clients are all international. Little seeds and dots we’ve laid are joining up, helping each other to make the business ever more robust.”

His personnel total around 35. Turnover from asset management is about £3m against £200,000 a few years ago, with around £8m from other sources.

Training continues at Durham Tees Valley Airport. At Leeds Bradford, Naljets is based and works with Multiflight. Other services to hand there include hangarage, towing, stock replenishment, aircraft cleaning, lounge and other passenger facilities.

As the region’s largest jet-equipped charter firm, Naljets also enables clients so wishing to use Newcastle Airport, providing door to aircraft service. Clients needn’t come to Leeds, Teesside or Newcastle though. Naljets will start and finish from and to anywhere preferred.  
But because of the holding that goes on over London it’s often cheaper and faster to fly from Europe directly into, say, Leeds from abroad. “In the North we can fly straight in, whereas often descending, and the track miles and time getting down into a London airport, can take longer. You could be circling over London half an hour or more,” Craig explains.