Zenith Aviation, the company headed by Stuart Mulholland as managing director, has been in operation at Biggin Hill for the past six years. And it prides itself not only as being the sole operator of Learjet (75) aircraft in the UK, but also as the largest of its kind in Europe.
The company owns four Bombardier Learjet 75s. This, Zenith believes, gives it an edge over other operators. Stuart says the customers flying are almost evenly split between business and leisure. And when things get busy, as he knows they will this summer, he might help with flying aircraft as well managing them.
Stuart has flown as a commercial pilot for the better part of 11 years, with BAE Systems and several corporate operators. He is also now type-rated to fly the Learjet 75, which is, admittedly and bias notwithstanding, his favourite aircraft. He grew up near Manchester, which he left with his move to aviation.
He began his working career as an accountant, switched careers to become a pilot and moved into bizav thereafter. Now, he says, he has come full circle – thanks to Zenith’s acquisition of a hangarage in Manchester. Zenith has been eager to expand its reach, and the paperwork has now been set in motion. Stuart also hints that it could be operating other aircraft such as XLSs and Challengers, as it has done in the past.
“On the first of April,” he says, “we’ll start operating from Manchester, with one Learjet 75 in-house.”
CJI: What’s your history with aviation?
Stuart Mulholland: I am a pilot by profession. I did 20 years as a commercial pilot. Zenith acquired an existing business about six years ago, and I went from ‘Chief Pilot’ in that business, to ‘Managing Director’ now. So, I haven’t flown myself for a long time — coming up to 6 years now. But I’ve just renewed my rating on the Learjet, so I’m looking to fly the Manchester aircraft from time to time.
CJI: Why did you stop flying?
Mulholland: It just got too busy when I changed roles. I had too much to do really, between trying to grow the business and acquiring a fleet of brand-new Learjet 75s. We started off with a handful of staff members, and we’re now up to 50.
CJI: Who were you flying for?
Mulholland: It was not with an airline, but with BAE Systems. It has a corporate jet fleet within the company, that I flew for 10.5 years. Sometimes they were light jets, sometimes even 100-seater passenger aircraft. I was trained by a commercial airline though, that is now called Thomas Cook. But once I had completed my training, they didn’t have spaces available for pilots.
CJI: How did you get into aviation?
Mulholland: When I was a boy, I lived close to the airport. It was an attraction, and I always planned to be a pilot. Having said that, I went to university to study accountancy. It was only a few years later, after I had a job at KPMG, that I found what I was doing quite boring. And it sounds ridiculous, but I thought: “What happened to being a pilot?” And I went and started it the next day. That was in 1990.
CJI: So, was it easier to get your break back then?
Mulholland: Not really, I think there are more opportunities now. You can become a pilot quite easily if you have the money. If you go on an integrated course, you’re going to get an airline job in a heartbeat. But previously, the same courses weren’t available, and you had to make your way up. Starting with light, piston aircraft and then move into turboprops, before you got an airline opportunity. But it’s different now, you can have an airline job with almost no flying experience whatsoever. There’s lots of training, but very little flying. You built your hours up in those days — whereas now, you build training. It’s a different beast.
CJI: Why Learjet?
Mulholland: Biggin Hill has been the home of Learjet since it arrived in the UK. And we have developed that to the point where we are the biggest operator of Learjet 75 aircraft in Europe. We’ve just carved a niche for ourselves as the Learjet operator.
We’ve got brand-new airplanes, a maintenance facility for our own fleet, as well as everybody else’s fleet. Our staple product has always been Learjet.
CJI: Why Manchester?
Mulholland: Manchester and the North West were traditionally a hub for business jet activity. But in recent years, the number and variety of locally-based aircraft available for charter has dwindled. We were given the opportunity to base an aircraft here and will rotate our Learjet fleet through Manchester as often as possible. Basing an aircraft in this part of the UK lets Zenith compete for business further north and in Ireland as well.
CJI: What kind of people normally fly with Zenith?
Mulholland: We get businessmen, footballers and a few showbiz celebrities.
CJI: Have you had any unusual experiences?
Mulholland: Personally, I have flown people ranging from royalty to film stars, but they’re all genuinely quite nice people when you meet them. Very, very few prima donnas, but we’ll probably get sued if I mention any more.
CJI: You’re one of the operators that flies people with pets. Why?
Mulholland: In the past, there were very few airports you could fly into with pets, and Biggin was always one of them. Now, you can do this at many more, but not all companies want to carry pets. We’ve created a bit of a niche about carrying pets — mostly dogs, but also cats and strange birds. We did one flight, which the crew and ops people dubbed ‘Noah’s Ark’ flight, because there were a whole bunch of animals on.
CJI: What’s different about Zenith?
Mulholland: We’re probably one of the only operators that can provide a turnkey solution of managing and maintaining the aircraft. In terms of our little place, that’s probably a selling point. And we’re part of a very large organisation anyway. Unlike a lot of operators — I call them virtual operators — that don’t have assets of their own, we actually own Learjets and it’s our hangar and staff.
We’re a very robust organisation and we’re not financially constrained, which has enabled us to go and buy these aircraft.
And because we own the aircraft, we can confirm flights within minutes of receiving the request. We have our own crew, so all the pilots are employed by the company. We don’t have to check whether we can crew the aircraft. We don’t have to check if the owner will give us owner release. Our biggest advantage is that when a broker contacts Zenith for a flight, it will have an answer within a few minutes. And there is a certainty of crew and fleet. And I think that brings us a lot of work.