Airliners built in Canada and flown in Spain. An American air freight company president with a vision to turn four of them into freighters. And a Federal Aviation Administration regulation that threatened to derail everything.
For Rick Durden, it added up to a high-stakes challenge. How do you get an airliner from Spain to Pontiac, Michigan, when an FAA regulation requires you to re-do an expensive conversion to fly the plane at a high enough altitude to make it across the ocean?
When Durden, who is now retired from legal practice, was general counsel at IFL Group, an air freight company based in Michigan, this was among the legal puzzles he had to untangle. If IFL bought the airliners in Spain, it would have to send a team of technicians across the Atlantic. If IFL ignored the FAA regulation, which Durden’s team caught just in time, it would have faced an even more expensive mess.
“It was one of those, you’ve got a complicated deal that’s coming together and then all of a sudden someone throws a monkey wrench in it,” Durden recalls.
The bigger picture is that circa 2015, IFL Group was virtually alone among air freight companies in deploying this strategy: It made big investments initially in order to save money in the long run. Company leadership would buy airliners and turn them into cargo planes by adding oversized doors and reinforced floors that could support the weight of heavy cargo. They invested in the largest, most efficient engines available. And the deal with the Spanish airline was part of this strategy.
“The air freight world is pretty cutthroat, and it’s all cash flow,” Durden says. “They try to do as little as they can to keep the cash flow going. And IFL’s policy of making an investment up front was somewhat unusual.”
A nail-biter of a deal
After many phone conversations with the Spanish owners and operators of the airplanes, the English insurance company, the Canadian manufacturer and a company in Florida that had offered to do the conversion, Durden worked out a deal at the last minute in which the Spanish would fly the planes to America, and then IFL would buy them.
“Because everybody wanted it to happen, it was: ‘Relatively short notice, but okay,’” Durden says.
So, on the appointed day, Durden and his colleagues went to the customs office at the Pontiac airport and followed the tracking of the first airplane as it made its way across the Atlantic. When the plane taxied up, they went out to meet the crew, knowing that just because they’d done all the necessary paperwork didn’t mean customs couldn’t hold things up.
As the crew and a customs official disappeared into the customs office, Durden and his colleagues debated where to go for coffee. But then the crew and the customs official suddenly reemerged and shook hands.
So, Durden, his team and the Spanish crew piled into the airplane and taxied it 300 yards to IFL’s office. There they gave the Spanish crew a bunch of swag—jackets, baseball caps—and treated them to a limo ride to Detroit Metro Airport.
From salad days to Cessna
It wasn’t always limos and baseball caps. Durden’s aviation law career had a rocky takeoff. Back when he learned to fly, the major airlines required pilots to have uncorrected 20/20 vision. Durden couldn’t meet that requirement, so he flew freighters through college and law school.
With a glut of pilots, the going joke was that the biggest danger to flying freight was starving to death. And freight operators didn’t just cut corners on pilot salaries. One day Durden filled out a squawk sheet, or a performance issues log for maintenance engineers, because the plane’s heater didn’t work. The gyroscopes on flight instruments need to reach at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain their accuracy. So, a broken heater is a flight safety issue.
“Wear a coat,” the chief of maintenance told Durden.
Many of Durden’s colleagues aimed to land jobs with the airlines. As for Durden, he had clerked for an aviation law firm in Wichita that served as the general counsel for Cessna Aircraft Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of general aviation aircraft. The firm’s leaders promised to talk to him about hiring at the end of the summer before his senior year. Then it was September. Then it became December.
Meanwhile, the law firm was falling apart and losing the Cessna account. His job vanished into smoke. He graduated and took the Michigan bar, flying planes to pay rent. He applied to Cessna and got a polite form letter back. Then the Michigan economy cratered and freight flying dried up.
And then, just as Durden was starting to sweat, he got a phone call. It was the head of human resources at Cessna offering him a job. He interviewed, landed it and started ten days later.
“About three years later, the airlines quit requiring 20/20 vision to fly for them,” Durden says. “One of my friends called up and said she could get me hired. But I was finding that I enjoyed the intellectual challenge.”
Ever the student
Today Durden is still, as he puts it, “a weary soldier in the war on boredom.” He has written three books, one of them—“The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual”—an Amazon bestseller. He contributes several articles per month to various airline industry publications, most of them on aviation safety.
And he’s still flying. As fate would have it, in the Idaho town of 2,500 where he lives, a local business owns a jet and employs a captain but couldn’t find a copilot. So, the business turned to Durden, offering him what he says is an “embarrassing” amount of money to help fly the plane six to eight days a month.
After a long career, Durden says he’s learned to stay flexible and to approach every experience with an open mind. Mother Nature can be a harsh teacher. And hubris is dangerous for a pilot.
“Yeah,” Durden laughs. “And for a general counsel.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer III 2023 Edition here.
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