Gray Stone Advisors “walks the walk” when it comes to utilizing business aircraft to maximize travel efficiency

February 1, 2015

Knoxville, TN-based Gray Stone Advisors (GSA) focuses on helping good flight departments become great ones, and business aviation is an integral tool for accomplishing that mission. Founder and principal James Lara flies the company’s 1977 Beechcraft BE55 Baron “virtually every week” to consult with clients and is often accompanied by some of GSA’s 15 team members.

“Business aircraft allow us to respond in a timely fashion to client concerns and to manage our time more efficiently,” he explained. “If the situation and schedule allow for multiple missions during the same trip, that efficiency is enhanced – but clients always drive the schedule.”

The company also leases a Beechcraft King Air 90 twin turboprop for when weather precludes lower-altitude flying. Lara often serves as the sole pilot, although GSA also uses a contract pilot when Lara’s schedule prevents him from operating a flight.

“If the issue is fatigue or mental distraction on my part, I become a passenger, not a crew member,” he pointedly added. “We have a strict duty day limit of 12 hours.”

A Flight Department of One

Lara not only flies many of GSA’s missions, but he also serves as his own flight planner, dispatcher and coordinator. Following each trip leg, Lara completes a flight evaluation, noting particular challenges and areas for improvement. He also employs numerous resources to maintain proficiency, including instruction provided by Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training Inc., King Air simulator training and training on how to operate the Garmin G500 avionics installed in GSA’s Baron.

GSA became an NBAA Member in 2007. For the past three years, Lara has been a member of NBAA’s Safety Committee, serving as the group’s secretary for a year and leading the Single Pilot Safety Working Group for three years. The working group focuses on issues affecting operators like him. One of the most important aspects of that role, Lara emphasized, is knowing when not to attempt a mission.

“I’m a frequent airline traveler,” Lara said. “If the stage length is greater than 650 nautical miles, we opt for the airlines. Weather is also a limiting factor. If, on the day of the trip, the weather exceeds our limits, we will reschedule the trip or attempt to use the airlines.”

From Blue Jeans to Business Consulting

The benefits of utilizing business aircraft became apparent to Lara while working for Levi Strauss, as he was required to drive to plants throughout the Southwest. “It soon became obvious that I simply could not oversee those plants without being able to fly,” Lara explained, which led him to purchase a Bonanza. “I realized that even a small, single-engine airplane allowed me to be on the floor of every plant, every week, interfacing with folks. That’s something that others could not do, and it made a tremendous difference to my path within the company.”

After departing Levi-Strauss, Lara spent 15 years in the turnaround industry. “All this time, we used business aviation as our time machine to adroitly address the needs of these companies.” Following years of “100-hour weeks,” however, Lara opted for a slower pace in Knoxville. But he did not stay out of consulting for long. The head of a local company soon sought advice on how to reduce cost overruns and address reliability issues within his flight department.

“I agreed to do a one-year trial, which turned into a 17-year relationship,” Lara noted. To share his expertise with others, he formed Gray Stone Advisors in 1996.

Multiple Challenges, Common Goals

The challenges that GSA has helped flight departments address include running an aviation department as a business within a business, organizational development, launching international operations and obtaining professional certifications, such as International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations registration. Another aspect of GSA’s work involves helping business aviation leaders to more astutely interact with company executives.

Steve Brechter, GSA’s senior advisor of operations, noted that his most important role is that of a “trusted advisor” who can answer questions from aviation leaders and executives seeking to learn more about running their operations while also maintaining confidentiality. Once people reach a certain level at a company, they often don’t have someone they’re able to confide in, or seek advice from, explained Brechter. “I love it when my phone rings, and I hear ‘Hey, I have this issue and would appreciate some insight on how to do this.’”

But regardless of a company’s mission, Lara noted that all flight departments share two common interests: using business aviation to remain competitive and flexible, and their desire to improve upon what often are already professional and well-managed operations.

“There’s nothing standard in business aviation,” Lara concluded. “The principles are common, but their application differs for each company. Every solution is bespoke.”

Snapshot: Gray Stone Advisors

Employees: Fifteen professionals specializing in different facets of business or commercial aviation, working from offices in Knoxville, TN, and Columbus, OH.

Aircraft: One Beechcraft BE55 Baron, with a Beechcraft King Air 90 available on lease. Company founder James Lara operates most flights single-pilot, with a contract pilot available when required. For longer trips, company personnel travel by airline.

Safety: As his company’s sole pilot, Lara relies on a variety of training resources to maintain his proficiency, including resources offered through the NBAA Safety Committee. He also leads the committee’s Single Pilot Safety Working Group.