While the experience piqued his interest in aircraft and planted the seed for learning to fly later in life, he never imagined that he’d one day operate an air charter business out of “The White Building” at Cardiff Airport, a facility that back then was the head office of the airline that was eventually absorbed into British Airways.
His was not a direct flight path, however. Howard had a successful career as a lawyer, learning to fly at age 40 and then using an airplane for business travel throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. When he decided to retire from practice in 2003, he hit on the idea of setting up the only air charter company based at Cardiff and the first in Wales to offer jet-engine aircraft.
DragonFly Aviation Services Limited, which acquired the airline’s old call-sign of Cambrian, turns 16 this year and has flown more than 12,000 commercial charter hours, nearly all in Beechcraft King Air 200 series aircraft.
Filling an unmet need in Cardiff
His father was an engineer who had his own small garage, which stoked Howard’s lifelong interest in cars. (He owns a rare 1957 Daimler Drophead Coupé, of which only 57 were made, and a BMW Z1 that he bought new in 1990 and has driven fewer than 1,000 miles per year.) While aviation was also an interest, neither became his career.
Instead, he became a lawyer. He spent his first 20 years in the practice he joined out of law school, then started his own practice with two junior partners in 1992. What he intended to be a boutique firm specializing in litigation, principally acting for insurance companies, rapidly expanded into a large practice so that in five years the firm employed 70 lawyers and a total head count of 130. It was during that time that he realized the time savings of flying himself to visit his offices in five cities and clients located throughout the U.K.
“My interest in aviation was sufficient for my wife to make the inspired choice of a trial flight as a present for my 40th birthday,” Howard said. “I very much enjoyed that, signed up for some lessons and qualified for a pilot’s license in 1990. With a friend who is a true aviation enthusiast, who had also qualified for his license, I bought a Socata TB-200, an attractive, modern and well-built four-seat, single-engine French aircraft. Flying this aircraft around the U.K. for business and realizing the savings of time that could be achieved prompted me to set up DragonFly 10 years or so later.”
Howard retired from his firm in 2003 and opened DragonFly in 2004 with his wife Nerida. At first, he maintained a connection to the legal industry as chairman of an international association of lawyers headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, while growing the charter business. It didn’t take long, though, for DragonFly to command all of his attention.
Growth was fast because DragonFly was the only air charter company to serve the business community in South Wales. His decision to start the business with a King Air and operate from Cardiff Airport allowed him to offer time-efficient and cost-effective transportation throughout the U.K. and Europe.
“We are based on the south side of the airport, on the other side from the main passenger terminal,” Howard said of the Cardiff Airport. “Traffic is relatively light and we are not subject to the use of slots for aircraft arrivals and departures. Because there are no environmental restrictions, the airport is open 24/7 which is rare in our small country where airspace is busy and highly controlled.”
Another factor that accelerated the company’s growth from a standing start to nearly 400 charter hours within a year was the recognition of DragonFly by charter brokers. These brokers produced charters from airports other than Cardiff, mainly in the South of England and peripheral airports in the greater London area, which are no more than a 30- to 40-minute flight from Cardiff.
“I believe the brokers were pleased to have another option to put clients, and those relationships we made with brokers in the early days still hold good today,” Howard said. “They soon found that we were competitively priced, able to position quickly and inexpensively from our base, and were not restricted by airport closing times. Brokers were also impressed by the safety factor of flying at all times with two fully qualified, type-rated commercial pilots: a captain and a first officer. Although a significant extra cost to us, I believe that in the densely congested airspace in which we operate, having two genuinely experienced pilots up front provides an extra margin of safety.”
Building a business around the King Air 200 series
Howard said he briefly considered purchasing a Cessna Golden Eagle to start DragonFly but a test flight in a 1980 B200 Super King Air owned by Manhattan Air Charter changed his mind.
“I was guided by a professional pilot who had flown as safety pilot with me in my light aircraft,” he said. “The test flight confirmed not only that it was the type of aircraft that was ideal for the proposed operation, but the buzz I felt following the flight confirmed to me that electing to switch from law to aviation was the way to go.”
He ended up buying the very aircraft he flew that day, tail number G-BVMA. It is still part of the fleet – “performing sterling work” he says – and a few years ago was retrofitted with Blackhawk PT6A-61 engines and 4-blade props. The aircraft’s avionics have been upgraded and the transponders are scheduled to be modified soon for ADS-B Out.
A little more than two years into operating DragonFly, Howard decided to add a second aircraft to help manage maintenance downtime and overlapping charters. In January 2007, the company purchased a 1995 King Air B200SE, tail number G-MEGN.
“MEGN was named after our first grandchild,” Howard said. “The aircraft was built as a special equipment model with limited instrumentation and furnishing. On acquisition, it was virtually rebuilt with new avionics, tables, partitions, window polarizers and a full strip and respray in the company livery. Expecting a gradual increase in business, I was taken by surprise by the rapid growth that ensued. This was largely attributable to the brokers who had access to what was, to all intents and purposes, a new aircraft with an attractive beige leather interior that gave the cabin a light and airy feel.”
DragonFly holds an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) issued by the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority and technically is classified as an airline since most of its flights are international. More recently, DragonFly has added two more King Airs to its AOC that were purchased on behalf of clients and are managed and operated for charter by DragonFly. In 2014, a 2003 King Air B200, was purchased for a U.K.-resident French client. This aircraft was originally operated as a training aircraft by the Royal Air Force before it was reconfigured as a civil aircraft, refurbished and repainted in DragonFly’s livery. The aircraft was given the registration G-OLIV after Howard and Nerida’s second granddaughter, Olivia. DragonFly added the fourth King Air in May 2019, taking delivery at the Textron Aviation factory in Wichita, Kansas, of a new King Air 250 with the registration of G-NICB.
“Technically a B200GT, we acquired the 250 for a new client and arranged to ferry the aircraft to Cardiff on a route from Wichita to Montreal in Canada, to Goose Bay in Newfoundland, to Greenland, then Iceland, to the Isle of Man and then to Cardiff – a journey of three days in testing weather conditions,” Howard said. “We manage this aircraft and operate it for commercial charter having generous access to it. Being virtually brand new and looking to be ‘just out of the box,’ it is a firm favorite with clients.”
The company also manages a Nextant 400XTi, a variant of the Hawker 400 and therefore a close relative of the King Air. This aircraft, registration G-SKBD, is used exclusively by its owner and is no longer available for charter.
DragonFly’s business falls into two categories: charters for individuals or corporate clients (booked direct or through brokers) and AOG recovery work for a major U.K. airline. They gained the prestigious contract in 2016. This requires G-MEGN to be stationed at Luton Airport 24/7 and, depending on the time of year, there are either one or two crews in readiness to be airborne within 90 minutes of receiving a request for a flight to take engineers and/or parts to any of the airline’s fleet of 300+ airliners that may be grounded anywhere in Europe.
Howard said his experience operating King Airs has confirmed his choice when starting the company. “The King Air is a truly iconic machine that has evolved through a process of continuous development,” he said. “Apart from winglets it is difficult to distinguish a new 250 from much earlier versions of the aircraft. It has a commanding ramp presence which never fails to impress passengers. It does everything well.”
His team’s focus is to continue to impress passengers with the service they receive before, during and after the charter. “I follow the principle that I had in my law practice, which was to provide a complete personal service to clients so that they would bring repeat business or spread a favorable word,” he said. “In 16 years, we have done very little advertising. Our growth has been from recommendation and word of mouth.”
He added: “The judicious charter of an aircraft is an efficient and cost-effective use of time: private flight is not simply an indulgence by the rich and famous. Remember, that the business sprang from my experience in piloting my own light aircraft for business travel and discovering firsthand the time savings and sheer convenience that I could achieve.”
Enduring pandemic times
Howard and Nerida are the sole directors and shareholders in DragonFly: he serves as CEO and accountable manager for the AOC, while she is the CAA-approved ground operations manager responsible for ground operations, day-to-day finances and human resources. They entered 2020 with 22 employees, including 14 pilots. Maintenance on the King Airs is carried out by an external company, Iscavia Ltd, based in South West England, a two-hour drive that is reduced to 15 minutes in the air by flying directly across the Bristol Channel.
We reached the Palsers while they were in self-isolation at their home just outside Cardiff. They were then 11 weeks into their ongoing isolation in compliance with strict regulations imposed by the U.K. and Welsh Governments to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on travel imposed by the governments meant that literally overnight both income streams were cut, requiring a shift in focus from the usual commercial activity to a fight for survival until such time as some semblance of normalcy is restored in the aviation world.
DragonFly’s last AOG flight was on March 21 from Hamburg, Germany, to London Gatwick. The U.K. lock-down restrictions were imposed on March 24. All five aircraft (the four King Air turboprops and the Nextant 400 jet) returned to Cardiff and were placed on a “care and maintenance” package to maintain their airworthiness, and most em-plo-yees were furloughed. All ad hoc charter bookings were canceled.
The shutdown came at a time of year when activity typically picks up after a quieter winter for both parts of the business (charter and AOG support). DragonFly has elected not to suspend its AOC but to maintain its operational capability. As a result it has performed a handful of emergency flights, and is in a position to become fully operational very quickly.
Howard said that the airline whose AOG recovery the business supports planned to resume a limited flight schedule in mid-June that would likely regenerate AOG activity in the near future.
“It is too early to judge the extent of the loss of income, but it will be substantial,” said Howard, who is of the view that when general travel restrictions are lifted in the U.K. there will be a surge in private charter, on the reasoning that clients who can afford it would prefer to fly in a private aircraft where the environment and precautions can be tightly controlled rather than trust their luck in the back of a Boeing or Airbus.
Howard concluded by saying: “We have been running and growing this business over a period of 16 years with all of the weather, economic and engineering issues that are a daily feature of aviation. Whatever it takes, we intend to get through this pandemic and continue to provide the quality service for which we are renowned.”