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Rock star's business ready to take off on a worldwide stage; Llewellyn Jones speaks to Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson about his new airline business.


THE scene, as they say in theatre programmes, is the dimly lit flight deck of a Boeing 737 simulator.

There are two seats in front of which are the controls, which can move forwards and back and raise the plane off the runaway which appears through the cockpit screen, all part of the willing suspension of disbelief.

There is an array of screens embedded in a dashboard surrounded by winking lights and scores of switches. Between pilot and co-pilot is the computer which flies the aircraft or in this case the simulator, and those levers that throttle the engines forward or back.

Not the most comfortable space in which to talk to Bruce Dickinson, chairman and co-founder of Cardiff Aviation, the company that owns this marvel of electronic wizardry.

He is about to explain, in simple terms, what each of the major component parts on display does. His enthusiasm, dedication and knowledge of the simulator's mysteries is extensive and exemplifies his passion for aviation.

When this is over we return to the company's boardroom, where the suggestion that he begins his narrative at the beginning prompts the sometime frontman for Iron Maiden, one of heavy metal's most popular and influential acts, to confess: "That's the only bit of Under Milk Wood I can remember."

Perhaps it's a legacy of his days at Oundle School, where he spent a few unhappy years before returning to the state system and eventually to Queen Mary College, London, to read history.

In 2012 Cardiff Aviation acquired the Twin Peaks hangar at St Athan used by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for VC10 heavy maintenance and which, at the time, no one knew what to do with.

"We went in there with a vision of a one-stop-shop for aviation encompassing training and being a heavy maintenance repair organisation (MRO). I liken our role to being a garage for aeroplanes," he said.

"A part of that - and a very important component of this overall strategy - was the development of an airline, but the problem with airlines is they are always perceived as being high risk, It's the old joke, 'How do you make a million from an airline? You start with 10'."

This was the vision shared with Mario Fulgoni, his business partner in the enterprise, and this leads him to explore the psychology of those who start an airline business.

He explained: "A great deal of aviation thinking is linear, where people like to think in tram lines, which is the nature of the business. We started by trying to create something imaginative out of a combination of the facilities we could offer.

"These we thought were unique, having realised that in the Twin Peaks we had a manufacturing facility which came fully equipped. This almost enabled us to build an airliner there, and we thought we could build the maintenance business back up."

Such a maintenance facility would attract aircraft whose owners - leasing companies - didn't know what to do with them.

"They bring them for storage or while they wait for a customer," he said. "Our idea was that if we had an airline, that could offer the facility to fly these planes rather than having them cost money to remain on the ground, and might be the way of starting a low risk airline.

"The reason airlines fail is because they own aircraft, so logic says if you want to start a low risk airline you must get your aeroplanes for free. At which point someone who thinks in a linear fashion says, 'you can't do that.' "But it can be done and although it sounds glib the reason we have been able to do it is because of the people skills and the knowledge that we have in our core team."

This inventive approach has resulted in the delivery of the first aircraft three months ago, the first of an intended fleet that will fly under the VVB banner which stands for Valley View Builders, a reference to the third investor whose interests lie in the construction industry.

With this in mind Mr Dickinson said: "The name was immaterial because we are a business to business industry so it doesn't matter what we are called. We already have a brand in Cardiff Aviation, the maintenance repair organisation and a consultancy which is restarting Air Djibouti, the East African nation's former flag carrier which went into liquidation in 2002.

"So we have an airline with an aircraft and act as consultants to the national airline of Djibuoti. They will use our planes because there are problems with certification. Djibuoti is not a popular jurisdiction at present with many countries, so they use a European airline to do their flying. That airline will be VVB, although it will say Air Djibuoti on the tail."

This he labels 'an airline in a box.' The concept is, he explains, quite simple. "Any African or Asian country that has a problem with certification, regulation or safety but wants an airline can come to us and we can give them everything they need. We can give them the pilots, the training, maintain the aircraft and fly them.

"All they have to do is sell the tickets and worry about marketing. The day to day business of operating the actual aircraft, that's the pain we take away, and because our model is a lean one we offer a low risk way of starting an airline," And the rider to this is: "If that model doesn't work our costs are so low we can stop flying and start again in six months time. We can bring the aircraft back to Cardiff, park them and redeploy the crews."

That redeployment can be centred at the training centre Cardiff Aviation has established and which Mr Dickinson said is six months ahead of schedule.

In order to ensure its success the presence of an airline is essential.

As he explained: "People pay for their training with a provider that can give them some kind of work experience or a job at the end of it. At the Norman Hanger [at Cardiff Airport] we laid concrete and put in the simulators and now we find the business is picking up with turnover going from about PS250,000 to PS300,000 this year to more than a million in the next 14 months.

"This will not only secure the business but enable it to export its expertise which is where the huge opportunities lie."

Exporting expertise from South Wales to Asia and around the world he sees as a growth industry as the demand for pilots increases.

This leads him say: "Like me, many pilots are approaching 65. Once, they retired at 55, now under EU law that's illegal and everyone can work an extra 10 years, which meant that airlines didn't hire new pilots.

"Now these guys have had their 10 years and are all retiring at once. In Asia, where airlines are expanding, the problem is even greater. They need large numbers of pilots to be trained, while aircraft manufacturing companies are worried because they cannot sell planes if there is no one to fly them."

All this, he explains, has ramifications for safety, along with the quality and diligence of training standards which in this respect Europe is perceived as having.

Of the UK Mr Dickinson said: "This country is one of the paragons of training in Europe and we would like to see Cardiff at the forefront when it comes to representing Wales in Asia."

From training he moves on to the engineering side of the business, where expanding its capabilities has seen work on the hangars at St Athan increase aircraft accommodation.

On a visit to He said: "When we took over those hangars they could accommodate two aircraft but with some welding and cutting we have doubled the size of the facility. Now we can take four aircraft at a time and our intention is this year to increase turnover to between PS8m and PSUruguay plaque to Welshmen had helped PS10m.

that railway, message there and "The big growth in turnover will be the addition of extra aircraft to the airline. With engineering we have been busy enhancing our current facilities, our design and manufacturing capabilities and particularly in terms of composites, which is vital these days. "Before we start training people I think we need to get a solid business base in there and that is now coming, with major UK airlines currently using our facility and committed to giving us 40 aircraft over the next five months for maintenance."

All this is masked in non-disclosure agreements and business confi-dentiality, which leads him to say: "We have made massive strides in going from picking up stragglers, which is what this business is about, to being trusted by those giving you a PS20m asset and asking you to fix it."

As to the future, Cardiff Aviation's flight plan is firmly in place. Winter is the peak time of maintenance work, with airline flying activity being at its highest during the summer, which is handy in terms of cash flow.

Explaining this Mr Dickinson said: "Our winter peak last year saw us have 150 employees, in an industry where there is expansion and contraction dependent on demand. "However, each plane we add to the airline requires three or four sets of cabin crew, along with pilots that will have to be trained, and we will be installing the appropriate 737 simulator to train them on.

recent I saw a "Suddenly you go from 150 people at last year's peak to another 200 people on top of to that, which makes 350, plus ancillary and back room staff."

who build " It could, he said, become a generator of opportunity forcountry's employment and this he hopes will be the case.

so the is get out do it Next year there will be an aircraft based in Malta, one in Djibuoti and another at St Athan, depending on the opportunities.

He said: "While the business is based here, opportunities are elsewhere. On a recent visit to Uruguay I saw a plaque to Welshmen who had helped build that country's railway, so the message is get out there and do it."

His next meeting is about to start and Mr Dickinson takes his leave, but not before one final aside: "This business is not just in Wales, though Wales is a hot spot for aviation. The business is out there in the wide world."

we took over those of in be installing the. On a recent visit to Uruguay I saw a plaque to Welshmen who had helped build that country's railway, so the message is get out there and do it


Bruce Dickinson on stage with <B Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden singer Bruce <BDickinson at his flight simulator company Cardiff Aviation Andrew James 250815DICKINSON_07
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 9, 2015
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