Lonnie Steverson feels like he’s living out his father’s dream: he’s working and growing the company his parents Joey and Jill Steverson started in the 1980s, he built a house just down the road from the business in Prentiss, Mississippi, where he recently added a 3,000-foot grass runway on his 20-acre property and he regularly flies his father’s 1977 Rockwell Commander 114 along with a Rans S-7 light sport aircraft and a 1975 Beechcraft King Air C90.
Joey Steverson didn’t get to do these things himself because he died in an accident 25 years ago. Lonnie was just 20 at the time and was chasing his dream of becoming a rodeo star. Losing his dad gave him a dose of “life is short and live like it’s your last day” that motivated him to continue pursuing a career as a professional bull rider, earn his pilot’s license and eventually return home to carry on the family business in south central Mississippi.
A Father’s Influence
Most of Lonnie’s interests were influenced by his dad Joey, who was a rodeo clown and bull fighter for 27 years. He also loved to fly and took his son up in his Commander often. “My best memories of me and my daddy are in the airplane flying,” Lonnie said.
Flying was mostly a hobby for Joey, but as he grew his business he occasionally flew the Commander to check on jobs, bid work or meet with clients.
Joey and Jill started in business in the late 1970s, taking whatever painting jobs they could find: from water towers to houses, even jobs in the shipyards of Alabama when local work was slow. That industrial work led Joey to bid on a project at a local paper mill. He got it, did a good job and that led to regular work. One Christmas Eve, a large piece of equipment plugged up at the paper mill and they couldn’t find a hydro blasting company to dispatch crews out to service the machine on the holiday. Joey had purchased a small hydro blaster for paint prep and was able to unplug the machine and get the plant back running again that night. “And the wheels in Joey’s head started turning,” Lonnie said, “and suddenly he was in the hydro blasting business.”
By the early 1980s the business had evolved into Circle S Inc., an industrial maintenance company that both Joey and Jill ran. Beyond painting and hydro blasting, they also handled vacuum truck services, scaffolding, insulation, as well as applying industrial coatings on tanks, piping and equipment for a variety of manufacturers. Joey was the type of guy who could find a solution for just about anything, for example converting a manlift into a machine that he could use to clean the paper machine rolls at the mill, solving a problem the mill had been having for years.
Lonnie grew up flying with his father and soloed an ultralight aircraft by time he was 14 and a Cessna 150 the day after his 16th birthday, but he didn’t immediately complete his pilot’s license. He also followed legendary bull riders like Ty Murray, Tuff Hederman and Cody Lambert, and when he graduated from high school in 1992, he was determined to someday ride at that level. As Lonnie worked to establish a rodeo career, he didn’t pursue flying though he said he continued to fly locally on a student certificate. His dad often asked, “Lonnie, when are you going to finish up your license?”
On Father’s Day 1994, Lonnie was on the rodeo circuit in Canada. He got a phone call from his mother that Joey had been in an accident, though his condition was unknown because the airplane had gone down in a heavily wooded area and had not yet been reached. As he made his way home via commercial flights, Lonnie checked in with family to find out that his dad had died in the accident. “That was the longest flight home,” he said.
About the accident, Lonnie said: “He was doing aerobatics in an experimental aircraft called a Bakeng Deuce. He had high blood pressure and found that the meds he was taking for this could have made him pass out under G loads. He was at the top of a loop at high altitude and the aircraft seemed to stall and went straight down impacting the ground. We feel he must have blacked out as there was no sign of trying to pull out. My father was a great pilot and loved aviation. He was always very cautious in an airplane and took it very serious.”
Rather than turn away from aviation, Lonnie said the accident drove him to embrace flying.
“Flying was the most fun I ever had with him and I wanted that back,” he said. “I wanted to get my license more than anything, to make him proud of me and to feel close to him as I fly.”
He got his license in December of that year.
The Rodeo Life
Also in 1994, Lonnie made his first PBR World Finals – every bull rider’s dream – where he finished third in the finals and eighth in the world standings. That year he also earned a spot in the Bull Riders Only Finals, an invitation-only competition for elite riders at that time.
“I was following my dreams and feel my father was looking down and helping me along,” he said.
When he had time away from competing, Lonnie would join a hydro blasting, painting or sandblasting crew in the field for Circle S. “My father believed in hard work and was involved in all roles of our company,” he said. “He taught me that the best way to learn the business was to work in various parts of the business.”
He also was starting to fly himself to competitions. He earned his instrument rating in 1995 by flying to rodeos with chief flight instructor Jim Latta from American Flyers in Dallas. “He wanted to learn about bull riding, so while we were at the rodeo I would help him with his riding and I would receive training on the way there and back,” Lonnie said. “I traveled a lot when I was competing by flying myself to and from the rodeos or bull ridings. I would get two other bull riders to jump in and off we go.”
He met his wife Joann Whitman Steverson in 1996 through her brother, professional bull rider Spud Whitman. He proposed to her on the beacon tower at Prentiss Jefferson Davis Airport and they married in 1998 as he continued to rodeo and work for Circle S when he was home.
He rode bulls professionally from 1993 to 2005. He made the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas five times and once held the record for highest marked score in the PBR. He scored 96 points at Nashville on a bull named Zandy, a record that was later beaten by a half-point by several other riders.
Throughout his bull riding career, his mom and employees at Circle S had managed the business through ups and downs. He credits the strong will and determination of his mother to keeping the company running. In 2000, after several general managers at the business and various injuries riding bulls, Lonnie felt it was time he partner with his mom and become manager of operations. Jill remains president and Lonnie is vice president and operations manager.
“The company survived after my father died because of my mother and the amazing employees we’ve been blessed with,” Lonnie said. “Our business has always been pretty solid, however we landed a couple of accounts that had us growing from about $3.5-4 million in sales in 2004 to $11 million in sales in 2009, and that’s where the company has stayed for around the last 10 years.”
Most of the company’s work is in the southeast, though some specialty work of hydro-blast cleaning asphalt hot mix silos sometimes takes them all over the U.S.
From the Commander to the C90
Lonnie, who turns 45 this month, has been flying his dad’s Rockwell Commander 114 since 1994, first flying himself to rodeos and for fun and then flying business trips and vacations with his family. His first daughter Cali was born in 2002 and a second daughter Kenzi in 2004.
Several years ago, he decided he wanted to add an aircraft for family flights and business missions that weren’t solo. Often operating from his own 3,000-foot grass strip, he wanted an airplane that could handle the density altitude and hot days of southern Mississippi. He also wanted to be able to fly nonstop to one of his favorite destinations: Great Guana Cay near Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, where he lands at Leonard M Thompson International Airport (MYAM).
“I am very confident in our plane and its mechanical shape, however I was flying over lots of open water with my family and sometimes would have my mother, who is president of our company, on board with me,” Lonnie said. “If we were to go down and not survive a crash, our company would be in turmoil and that was not fair to the 75-plus people or their families who depend on us to keep the company in operation. So I started looking for a twin-engine aircraft that could carry six people and go nonstop from Prentiss to Marsh Harbour at gross weight and still fly on one engine if we lost one.”
With help from his friend Paul Barnett, who owns a 1981 King Air C90 and operates it from a nearby airport, they set out to find the best plane for the mission and they settled in on the King Air 90 series aircraft.
“At this point, I did not even have a twin rating but obtained it very quickly,” Lonnie said. “I found N26RE, a 1975 King Air C90 with -21s that is on the M.O.R.E. Program. It was equipped pretty nice and had a nice interior and paint job. We took a ride in it and, wow, I was in love. It was a strong bird and I was tickled to have found it. I had to fly it with another King Air rated pilot for a minimum of 40 hours before the insurance would allow me to be insured in it. So Paul and I flew the 40 hours off in about a month or so. We flew to Colorado Springs to eat lunch then to Texas to see family and friends. I adapted very quickly to the King Air as it is a very stable platform and a joy to fly.”
Lonnie worked with Todd Thacker, owner of Turbine Solutions in Griffin, Georgia, to upgrade the avionics. He decided to keep the steam gauges and rebuild the whole panel installing GTN 750, GNS 530, remote audio panel, remote transponder and ADS-B in and out to replicate the Commander panel.
“If I had it to do over again, I would probably go with the Garmin G600,” Lonnie said. “Now after flying it awhile, I’ve had several problems with the older gyros for the old HSI and with the G600s it’s all solid state and I wouldn’t have had those problems. At the time, I was thinking simplicity and safety between the King Air and the Commander and cost.”
Lonnie flies about 150 hours per year, about 75 hours each in the Commander and the King Air. He keeps the Commander at his home, along with a Rans S-7, a tail dragger made for landing on rough terrain such as local river and sand bars. “When the girls were young, they could both sit in the back seat we would fly over to a nearby river, land on a sand bar and catch catfish. That was really cool and some of the best times spent when our girls were young,” he said.
The C90 is hangared at Prentiss Jefferson Davis Airport (M43) and sometimes when he’s taking the family on a trip he’ll fly the King Air over to the airstrip at his house the day before, load up and depart from there the next morning. “That’s a dream come true,” he said.
He also uses the King Air for business meetings, to shuttle key personnel to safety meetings during plant shutdowns and to move employees between job sites when deadlines are critical. Circle S Inc. today employs between 70-80 people full time and ramps up to more than 100-125 during high workloads such as shutdowns and turnarounds at plants, the ideal time for maintenance on equipment.
Lonnie imagines having both the Commander and King Air for a while.
“I’ll always want to keep the Commander because it was my father’s and hopefully one of my daughters will fly it and keep it in the family when I’m not able to fly anymore,” he said. “When it’s just me flying, it makes more sense for me to jump in the Commander and go. And it’s a lot of fun to fly. We did the super conversion, which put a 320 horsepower engine in it, and it really changed the climb and cruise speed. It went from a 140-knot airplane to a 170-knot airplane.
“While the King Air has a respectable speed, it truly is a King of the Air, but more than that it is King in Comfort and Safety. I think I will be flying this one for a long time also.”