Crossing borders to sell business aircraft

From the 1970s, David Dixon pioneered the sale of bush planes in Africa before selling regional airliners in Asia. His new book documents the journey Words: Mike Stones

David Dixon, who is based in Hong Kong, is Jetcraft Asia President.

DAVID DIXON IS a pioneer. His love of crossing borders – whether geographical or political ones – set him on a path of selling business aircraft 47 years ago, with his first sale of a Britten-Norman Trislander. It is a journey that is still continuing, as he explains in his new book, I Sell Aircraft – No Plane Business.

Reading his memoir is a time-travel ticket to an era before smart phones, before personal computers and even – in some parts of 1960s Africa – before reliable telephone connections. “Telephone calls from some African countries to Europe had to be booked and in the case of Nigeria at least two weeks in advance,” David remembers ruefully. “And woe betide you if you were not in your hotel room to take or make that all- important call.”

To read I Sell Aircraft – No Plane Business is to take a rollercoaster ride. It’s a journey that encompasses African despots, such as the infamous Idi Amin, Cold War politics, belligerent North Korean troops, aircraft crashes, very long waits outside the offices of prospective buyers, and a lot of aircraft sales over 47 years.

But it is a journey that nearly ended before it began, according to an early chapter in the memoir. David, who soloed his first aircraft in November 1969, recounts how in 1972, he planned to fly himself from Biggin Hill to Bembridge on the Isle of Wight for a job interview as a sales representative with Britten-Norman (BN). As he was taxying the Rallye Club before take-off, the propeller suddenly stopped. A quick check revealed the fuel switch to be off. Had the engine run out of fuel moments later, in the climb, this is a story that may never have been told. Nevertheless, David survived the flight, and the interview, to become a sales representative for BN.

The first boundary he crossed in his sales career was the English Channel to attend the Paris Airshow of 1973 to sell Islanders and Trislanders. Alongside the excitement of the show came a grim reminder of the risks of displaying aircraft. For it was at this event that the popularly known Concordski – Russia’s TU-144 supersonic passenger aircraft – suffered a fatal crash; almost certainly terminating its commercial prospects.

Reporting for duty: This Shorts 330-UTT (Utility Tactical Transport) was delivered to Royal Thai Air to help replace its aging DC3 fleet.

The next boundary David crossed was a bigger one: to Africa to sell Islanders and Trislanders. During visits to Sierra Leone, Liberia and elsewhere, he learnt the value of cultivating local contacts and to rely on his own judgement when denied today’s instant communications and the ability to refer problems to senior management.

“Today, people seem paralysed, unable to make decisions or are frightened to make decisions,” David told Corporate Jet Investor Quarterly. “At school we were taught to analyse: what is the problem and how are we going to solve it. Now, it has been boiled down to two or three lines of a WhatsApp message or an email.”

The other key lessons learned on those early visits were the value of patience and persistence. Both of those virtues were rewarded in mid-1974 when BN delivered its first Islander to Sierra Leone Airways and, later in the year, the first Islander to Air Liberia.

“The simplest tasks became monumental efforts.”

The Trislander – with its third engine mounted on the rear of fuselage – is an aircraft David remembers with affection – despite prospective customers’ bemusement at its novel appearance. “Its unusual looks would always generate comments; sometimes negative or rude and often humorous. Sell that you sell anything!” he recalls.

Another aircraft he recalls with affection is the box-shaped Shorts Skyvan, which he sold after leaving BN to join the Northern Ireland-based Short Brothers in January 1978. It proved a memorable year – not least because he was honoured being made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his success in selling aircraft overseas. Successful sales of the Skyvan in Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi and elsewhere followed – despite sharp competition from the very much more capable de Havilland Twin Otter.

Frustrated with the limited opportunities to sell business aircraft in Africa, David jumped at the opportunity in 1980 to cross another boundary – and to work on a new project in Korea. It was this visit that forged his long and enduring passion for Asia. “Having been excited by what I saw in Korea and beyond in Asia. I could see plenty of other new opportunities in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and, of course, the then awakening China,” he recalls.

The patience and self-reliance learnt in Africa were to prove essential pre-requisites for sales success in Asia. Communist China particularly tested David’s salesmanship, networking skills and endurance. “The simplest tasks became monumental efforts,” he recalls. Grappling with armies of bureaucrats, composed of inscrutable officials, and accommodating their painstaking decision-making processes were key challenges to master. But the toughest challenge was unexpected. “Without doubt the hardest of all the new experiences was to sit through three hours of the Beijing Opera.”

Ultimately, the Civil Aviation Administration decided to buy eight Shorts 360 aircraft compared with an earlier expression of interest for 36 planes. The experience taught much about the subtle, labyrinthine and often ruthless business of selling in China. The learning curve was huge, every day was a fascinating challenge.

Just as challenging, but ultimately more successful, was his campaign to sell the Shorts 360 to Philippine Airlines “despite the minefield of distractions”.

In the late 1980s, David found himself with a new employer when Bombardier acquired Short Brothers. With the new owners came new aircraft to sell as the years unfolded. Amid sharpening competition between Bombardier, Gulfstream and Dassault, the Challenger series and the Global Express became key product lines. Reading the development of the market and seeing the evolution of new aircraft has proved immensely satisfying.

The first Shorts 360 handover to Philippine Airlines (PAL) at the factory. Alex Roberts (right) sales director shakes hands with Dante Santos of PAL.

This Learjet 45XR was sold to Cathay Pacific Airways for flight training.

An Islander below Mount Kilimanjaro.

This Defender was a variant of the Islander. Pictured over the Isle of Wight, this aircraft was delivered to the Malagasy Air Force.

Thrice as nice: The three-engined Trislander was an innovative design that turned heads.

Over the years Bombardier expanded, buying more companies, and, alongside businesses worldwide, suffered the financial pressures of the global recession. New management at the manufacturer and long chains of communication between David’s base in Hong Kong and company headquarters in Montreal changed his relationship with the company. So, after more than 33 years, David moved on to join Jetcraft in 2012 and currently holds the position Jetcraft Asia President.

It’s evident that more than 47 years of selling aircraft has not dulled David’s passion to sell planes by crossing borders – both geographical and political ones. “I love the processes of trying to sell aircraft” he told us. “At present, I’m in the corporate toy [jet] department, as I call it. But I’ve sold everything from bush aeroplanes to airliners to the ultimate in corporate aspirations. I love this industry.”

I Sell Aircraft: Order your copy

David Dixon’s new book – which charts his 47 years of selling business aircraft around the world – will be available this Spring. Published by Specialist Insight, publisher of Corporate Jet Investor Quarterly, the book can be ordered by telephone (+44 1737 241489) or email ([email protected]) or via Amazon.

I Sell Aircraft: Order your copy

David Dixon’s new book – which charts his 47 years of selling business aircraft around the world – will be available this Spring. Published by Specialist Insight, publisher of Corporate Jet Investor Quarterly, the book can be ordered by telephone (+44 1737 241489) or email ([email protected]) or via Amazon.

Mike Stones, Group Editor, Corporate Jet Investor

Mike Stones, Group Editor, Corporate Jet Investor