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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Editor's Notebook

The Commodore

James T. McKenna
 

I have just finished reading a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. “The First Tycoon,” by T.J. Stiles, recounts how Vanderbilt rose from a young descendant of Dutch settlers on New York’s Staten Island to a man who transformed commerce in the U.S. and helped lay the foundation for today’s capital markets. Other captains nicknamed Vanderbilt “the Commodore” in jest for his vigor in winning a share of the New York Bay ferry market, but the name stuck and he grew into it. Stiles explains how the Commodore conquered competitors and technologies to rule shipping in the Northeast U.S., speed Gold Rush booty from California to Eastern markets and forge many small, short railroads into a network of steel ribbon on which tons of freight raced from western farms, slaughterhouses and oil fields to the Atlantic seaboard. (Along the way, he played a role in helping the U.S. win its Civil War and then, years later, worked to bridge the divisions of that conflict.) The 2009 book is compelling. I didn’t need six years to finish it. (“The First Tycoon” had been about halfway down my stack of books to read.) Stiles’ impressive, well-documented detail on Vanderbilt’s business exploits does make for a long haul, but it is a worthwhile one. I was left wishing I’d had that book to read 25 years ago. Had that been the case, I would have returned to it again and again. “The First Tycoon,” and the lessons of the Commodore’s business life, would have informed my reporting on competition and consolidation in aerospace and defense and our ongoing struggle to overcome the effects of 2008’s Great Recession. Vanderbilt quickly grasped the potential of technology, and its shortcomings. Where other men failed, he applied that insight to succeed (often through his actions) and dominate the markets he entered. He left markets he felt he could not dominate. The Commodore recognized that technology in its various forms was a tool to facilitate his business, and that his business—at its core—was transporting people and goods. Those who followed him in transportation have shared many experiences of the Commodore’s business life, though they have not always applied the lessons of those experiences. This came to mind as I visited with manufacturers and operators at the Paris Air Show in mid-June. The pitfalls of today’s market were apparent at Le Bourget. The downturn in the offshore oil and gas support market has major airframe makers hunkered down. It has depressed offshore flight hours and the corresponding need for more aircraft, engines, parts and maintenance services. It also seems to be affecting purchases of such products and services in other sectors, such as public safety and aeromedical ones, particularly in oil-based economies. Still, the heads of Airbus Helicopters and Bell Helicopter each stressed at the show that their companies are investing in new aircraft and technologies for the future. The market’s prospects also were evident. Here was Kaman, restarting K-MAX production to meet customers’ pent-up demand for unique heavy-lift capabilities (both in manned and unmanned configurations). Here was Sikorsky Aircraft, about to embark on a new chapter in its storied history. Such pitfalls and prospects, and the efforts of those who navigated them, are what Rotor & Wing International has specialized in chronicling over its 48 years. We are well positioned to track these latest developments for you. Our legacy of chronicling rotorcraft’s evolution is built in large part on the writings of skilled and experienced contributors, some experts in their own right. Many have moved on. Many contribute to this day. And some, like me, return. This month we welcome back an old contributor, Arthur J. Negrette. For many years, he penned a column for us offering legal insight to helicopter operators, and reported on far-flung companies visited during his international travels. With the new Legal Perspective column this month, he resumes that work. A new column will build on the legacy to which Art contributed. “Military Transition,” which contributor Mike Hangge helps us launch this month, will look at the challenges facing military veterans as they move into the civilian workforce. This ongoing column aims to share lessons from veterans who, in recent years, have successfully navigated those challenges. If you have lessons to share on legal matters, military transition, business history or other areas, please let us know.

Correction: The June 2015 cover concept of a single-engine helicopter certified for IFR operations was based on a photograph of a Bell Helicopter 407 taken by our former Assistant Managing Editor, Katie Kriz, at Heli-Expo 2015 in Orlando, Fla. last March. We failed to credit her in the table of contents in that issue. We apologize for the omission.

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