Housed at the Moore County Airport, the team at Sovereign Aerospace view their company as an incubator to help new aviation-related veteran businesses get a foothold.
“We want to help launch and use the synergies that are created between these businesses,” said CEO Slim Thompson, noting their whole operation is run, centered around and facilitated mainly by active and retired military.
Thompson was a founding member of the Sandhills Fliers, formed in 2014 by several retired military pilots, an engineer and doctor. That community has grown to 130 members and now averages 185 flight hours a month. The program is approved to work with the Veterans Airlift Command and as an internship partner with the USSOCOM Warrior Care Program–Care Coalition (WCP-CC) to assist eligible special forces service members who are preparing to transition to civilian careers.
“I always had a little entrepreneurial thing. But really when I retired in 2014, it wasn’t about a business need. I enjoyed the aviation lifestyle and wasn’t going to give up flying,” Thompson said.
He had owned a share of a personal aircraft and then bought his own plane. He started using it for Christian mission and humanitarian work, in addition to helping transport veterans and their families to medical appointments through the Veterans Airlift Command.
“We would carry these guys and so often they would say they wanted to learn to fly,” Thompson said, noting that they developed a training kit they could work at home. “We would then check back on them every month or so.”
But the interest encouraged Thompson to purchase an aircraft that could be used for pilot training, a 1979 Beechcraft Sundowner. Within three years of that investment, 22 students were in flight training, and five planes were in the fleet.
Last year when Sandhills Fliers opened its doors to the public, it had a groundswell of interest. By the end of June, Thompson said there will be 16 planes and 160 members. The concept behind the “community” program is that members can take lessons, share hangar costs and own a share of an airplane.
“We help manage or broker airplanes based on their needs. Aviation is expensive, so we came up with a system. This is what we do better. ” Thompson said.
Ken Hadaway, Sovereign Aerospace’s director of operations and chief financial officer, clarified that Sandhills Fliers operates as a 61-pilot training center. “We are not a club.” Future plans include a collaboration with Sandhills Community College to help support a 141-pilot education program.
The Sovereign Aerospace business umbrella also supports an FAA medical examiner, with an office at the airport.
In addition, Pinehurst Aviation Services at Moore County Airport is another enterprise under Sovereign Aerospace’s company leadership.
Run by Paul Mullin, director of maintenance, the program currently supports five airplane mechanics and four apprentices.
“We are the sole general aviation maintenance provider at the airport. We have clients from all over the world come here to let us work on their plane. We do everything except turbo props and jets,” Thompson said, noting they hope to partner with SCC to develop a full-blown training ground for airplane maintenance education.
“The biggest thing is we want guys to come here to learn to become a pilot or mechanic. There is a huge shortage of airplane mechanics and we are meeting that training need right here.
“When veterans leave the military, often they lose a sense of community. They don’t belong, if you will, and we are giving them a new place to belong as they build their skill sets. We have marriage counselors, pastors and guys who’ve been there to help them work through whatever they need to help them transition.”
Hadaway, who previously worked as a SCORE mentor, said Sovereign Aerospace is one answer to the discouraging statistics related to military suicides.
“This provides that camaraderie, shoulder to shoulder, we can relate and talk. So when someone is having those moments of feeling like people can’t understand or depression, we provide that shoulder to lean on. And this is not just for the soldier but the spouse and the children too.”