What began as a hobby for their father and his twin brother is now the business of three siblings who own RAI Jets, an aviation company based in Portage.
When brothers Brian Riley, 52, and David Riley, 49, and their sister Becky Bakeman, 45, were kids, their father, Ronald, and his twin, Donald, had a thing for flying and started a small aviation company in Sturgis. The company, Riley Aviation, provided flying lessons and some charter flights and managed the Kirsch Municipal Airport for the city of Sturgis.
David remembers being in middle school when the elder Rileys’ hobby became a vocation. “It all started when my dad started taking flying lessons and the man who ran the place wanted to retire, and so my dad and Uncle Donnie won the bid to manage the airport and traded a dump truck and backhoe for an airplane,” says David.
Their vocation ultimately included Ronnie Riley’s children. “We’d gas up the planes, clean planes and watch the office,” says David. “Oh, and we ran the rental car desk too.”
The kids also worked in the other family business, Riley Construction Co., pouring concrete sidewalks and driveways.“It supported the hobby,” David says.
All three of Ronald Riley’s children learned to fly, with David and Brian both soloing on their 16th birthdays. After Brian graduated from Mendon High School in 1984, he went straight into helicopter flight school with the U.S. Army, flying a UH1 (Huey) helicopter out of Fort Hood, Texas. David went to Western Michigan University and studied aviation. But Brian was the one who was really into planes.
“My dad was a crew chief on a helicopter in the Army, and Brian to got play in it and just wanted to be a helicopter pilot forever,” recalls David. “Brian knew so much about airplanes as a little kid that if he saw a piece of an aircraft through a window, he could tell you which aircraft it was. He had models everywhere. When the opportunity came up for our dad to learn to fly, Brian was 12 or 13, so he brought him along and brought him into it.”
Brian is a little more taciturn about his fascination with flight. “It seemed like a fun thing to do,” he says, “and it beat pouring cement.”
Becky, on the other hand, originally went in a different direction. She was a cheerleader at the University of Kentucky and graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in business management.
All three of them ultimately landed back at Riley Aviation. David helped manage the Sturgis airport while he attended WMU. After six years in the Army, Brian came back as well. “I really liked being in the Army, but my dad thought I would be better off doing this and, I suppose, in the long run I was,” he says.
The company was better off as well, David says. Ronald Riley died in 1990, shortly after Brian returned. “My dad and uncle — I’m more like them — they did not follow any rules. They did whatever the heck they wanted,” says David. “Luckily, my dad raised Brian to be disciplined and so when he got out of the Army and came back, the way he did things really changed the way I did things. Everybody’s more disciplined. You don’t do stupid stuff. You do what you’re supposed to do, that sort of thing.”
Their sister came back to Riley Aviation in 1995 and put her degree to work in sales and marketing, making cold calls and getting customers for the charter company.
When their Uncle Donnie died in 2005, the company passed into the hands of the three siblings. In 2009, during the economic downturn, the trio decided they needed to revamp to weather the times. They renamed the company RAI Jets (RAI is short for Riley Aviation Inc.) and focused on three things: aircraft management, maintenance and charter service. They still manage the Kirsch Municipal Airport, but the business’s emphasis has shifted to jet management, which includes helping jet owners offset their operating costs by using their planes for charter service.
“Instead of owning aircraft, we manage aircraft for other people that own them,” explains Becky. “There’s a lot to owning a plane, especially a jet. There are many inspections to keep up on for the planes, whether it’s by calendar or flight time, and we track all that. There’s regular maintenance that needs to be done, and we schedule it and line it up. We also hire the pilots that fly the jets, and because they need specific training and ratings for the jets we fly, we make sure they get those.”
RAI Jets manages an impressive fleet of aircraft: a Beechcraft King Air 200, which can seat nine people; a Cessna Citation III, which can also hold nine passengers; and the newest addition to the fleet, a Cessna Citation X, which, with a top speed of 700 miles per hour, can travel at 92 percent the speed of sound.
The company has 20 full- and part-time employees including pilots, maintenance crew and administrative staff. In 2016, RAI Jets expanded its operations in the Kalamazoo area, locating in a building and hangars on Willoughby Drive in Portage, at the southern end of the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport.
Becky is the CEO, but in the past both David and Brian have served in that role. “We’ve all been president of the company through the years, at different times for different reasons,” David says. “The two of us (he and Brian) were feeling burnout from the stress of the economy falling apart and everything. And, really surprisingly to me, Becky stepped up and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
David now oversees the company’s operations, a job that includes scheduling maintenance and certifications. “I do a lot of paperwork,” he admits. Brian is the company’s chief pilot. “He bitches. A lot,” says David with a chuckle when asked to describe Brian’s role.
The business also includes their mother, Kay Scobey, and Brian’s 26-year-old daughter, Christina Riley. “Her crib was in our office when she was a baby,” says David of Christina, who helps with scheduling. Scobey helps schedule maintenance and does bookkeeping. And there’s a fourth pilot in the family as well: Becky’s husband, Mike, whom she met when he flew for Riley Aviation many years ago.
‘All walks of life’
The bulk of what RAI Jets does now is manage aircraft and provide charter jet services. “If someone calls us and they need an airplane size that we don’t have, we can get what they need and we’ll arrange it for them,” Becky says. “We have contacts with operators all over.”
Many of RAI Jets’ frequent clients are large companies in the area with groups of employees who need to fly to the same location or with employees or executives who need to be in two places on the same day.
“It makes sense if someone has several people going to the same place to look at a charter rather than the commercial airlines,” Becky says. “They might find it is not any more expensive, and they save the time waiting in airports for flights and layovers.”
Other RAI charter clients include families and groups going on trips together. Becky says that a group traveling together may find chartering a jet an easier and more economical way to go. One client has RAI fly their elderly parents to Florida each winter and bring them home in the spring.
“It’s much easier on them and their health,” Becky says of the elderly couple. “They can be driven right out to the plane. We load their bags, and they board. There are no lines, no being X-rayed or frisked by TSA (the Transportation Security Administration), and they don’t have to worry about getting around in airports to make connections.”
“My estimate is that 95 percent of the people that can afford to charter private airplanes don’t,” says David. “They truly think it’s only for the ultra-wealthy.”
In addition, the company often provides medical flights, transporting organ transplant teams or taking critically ill patients to specialists in other cities.
“We work with people from all walks of life, and I have been to some really cool places,” says Becky, “but it’s really awesome to know that your work might help save someone’s life.”
Much of the work RAI Jets does to arrange a charter flight may not be obvious to customers. They provide concierge services such as arranging ground transportation at arrival or departure points and, especially with flights to foreign countries such as Mexico, work with “handlers” to coordinate services at local airports.
“You need someone on the other end to do the legwork, someone who knows the language, and who to pay off,” Brian says. “They tell you where it’s safe to fly into and will make all the arrangements for permits and licenses. They know which hotels are safe to stay in. They are literally invaluable, because you can’t do it in a foreign country without one. You really have to be able to trust them, because without them you’d be like a pig looking at a wristwatch.”
RAI Jets also helps clients who want to buy planes understand which aircraft fits their needs and what it takes to own and operate that aircraft.
“There are a lot of people out there who are teetering on the decision to buy an airplane but don’t know where to go to buy one,” Becky says. “We have people who have been our charter customers forever and want to see if they should buy one. We can help run the numbers, because sometimes it turns out that it’s just more economical for them to charter. We are not very good plane salesmen because we’re going to tell them the truth about whether or not it makes sense for them to buy one.”
David says that when Riley Aviation started in 1982, his father and uncle had twin desks that faced each other. When the siblings took over, Brian and David sat at those same desks “looking at each other.” The desks are still there, but David admits that between the flights and operations in Kalamazoo and Sturgis, it’s rare that the three siblings are all in the same place at the same time. But they are all on the same page when it comes to the business.
“We really do get along well,” David says. “People always say they couldn’t do it because they’d fight with their siblings too much. We fight, but then we forget about it. Not everybody does that.”
“I can’t imagine not working with them,” Becky says of her brothers. “It’s not all hugs and la-la land, but we always figure out a way to make things work in the best interest of the business.”