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Executive Watch - Mike Stanberry of Metro Aviation

Posted 7 years 338 days ago ago by Admin



“I was oil field trash.” When an interview starts with a quote like that, good stories are in store. However, Mike Stanberry, the president, CEO, and sole owner of Metro Aviation headquartered in Shreveport, Louisiana, is much more than just a storyteller. Rather, he has seized opportunities throughout an eventful career to create one of the rotorcraft industry’s premier companies. When President Obama implies that owners didn’t build their businesses, you get the distinct impression that Stanberry would reply, “Yes, Mr. President, we did.”  

Those businesses that Stanberry and his team have been building at Metro Aviation since 1982 include a HEMS operation and a completions center. As an operator, Metro Aviation owns and flies more than 130 aircraft for over 30 programs in 18 states. The completions center installs full medical and law enforcement kits, components, and avionics packages.

Stanberry stresses the primary focus for both operations and completions is safety, which is also the core goal of Metro Aviation’s new Helicopter Flight Training Center. Equipped with a FlightSafety AS350 Level 7 flight-training device, a Frasca Bell 407 flight-training device, and a FlightSafety EC135 Level D full-motion simulator, the center also has a CommLab and dedicated maintenance classroom.

Owning such an accomplished company means a lot has happened in Stanberry’s life since he was a boy moving around Louisiana with his family as his petroleum engineer father worked in the oil fields. That’s where the stories begin, told with a down-home Southern accent. “I was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi,” says Stanberry. “My dad, Wallace Arthur, worked for Gulf Oil and got transferred to Buras, Louisiana, 50 miles south of New Orleans in the middle of nowhere. Living conditions and education were so bad there that Dad quit his job and moved us to Shreveport when I was in the third grade, where he hung out his own shingle.”  


However, the elder Stanberry did more than engineering. Also a pilot, he began using his flying skills in a commendable way by starting a mission in Honduras. He ferried doctors, dentists, and nurses to bring medical care to those in need. Eventually the mission constructed a nondenominational school in the capital city of Tegucigalpa—a school that still exists. “I’m very proud of what he accomplished,” says Stanberry. “I went on several of those mission trips with my dad, so flying was always a part of my life from an early age.”

Later in high school, the father’s faith continued to influence Stanberry, when the student became active in The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). “My dad and I flew over twice to pick up the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry, to speak at our FCA banquets. What an absolute gentleman Coach Landry was, and how pro football has changed. If they could all be the gentlemen he was, we’d all be better off.”

Next, Stanberry attended Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. “I started off in pre-med, but liked to party and have too much fun, so I switched over to business and got a degree in marketing,” he laughs.  After graduation, Stanberry spent a number of years working for “the man” at Georgia-Pacific.


An entrepreneurial spark ignited when Stanberry and a church friend went into business together. Their new company sprayed wood cellulose fiber onto lawns. Soon the dynamic duo had government contracts from around the state. Both men were fixed-wing pilots, but renting planes and cars to travel to job sites wasn’t efficient. “So,” says Stanberry, “we got the idea to buy an Enstrom helicopter and hired a pilot to teach us how to fly it.”

The Enstrom got so much publicity in 1981 around Baton Rouge, that the partners bought a Hughes 300 and launched a flight school. Stanberry also purchased several aircraft to transport checks needing processing for a bank. Shortly before beginning the new service, his prospective bank client was sold to new owners who didn’t think much of “helicopter banking.” It was a painful lesson, says Stanberry. “I got stuck with three aircraft, but no contract and no business. This was the early ‘80s and interest rates at that time were tremendous. I learned my first business lesson: Always get it in writing.”

Stanberry quickly sold one of the Hughes, then fledgling Metro Aviation packed up their entire corporate belongings into a U-Haul and moved North to Shreveport, with Stanberry and a pilot transporting the helicopters. Stanberry then flew one of the Hughes out to California, where he had a medical interior kit installed. That newly equipped aircraft would become part of perhaps the most synergistically creative venture in helicopter history.


In 1983, Stanberry made a deal with a Shreveport hospital and a TV station across the street from it. (The original document was on a cocktail napkin—in writing!) The hospital agreed for Metro Aviation to operate its new HEMS service, and the TV station agreed to fly along and cover the Hughes’s missions. The station branded their newscast Channel 12 Eyewitness News, so Stanberry christened his helicopter Life Eye 12. There was only one logistical problem with this inspired venture: Once the patient was onboard, there was no room for the videographer. Therefore, the TV employee remained at the landing scene for a ride back, while the videotape was flown with the patient for broadcast.

This joint electronic newsgathering/HEMS operation worked great for six months until the hospital needed to increase their flight capabilities. No problem, Metro Aviation was ready to grow with them. The company bought its first twin-engine aircraft, a Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) Bo-105. “From there, our operations just progressively moved on down the road,” says Stanberry.


That Bo-105 soon inspired Metro Aviation to get into the completion business. The aircraft had come with a beautiful cabinet in the back bulkhead with sliding Plexiglass doors. However, the cabinet had been designed with the aircraft level; the Bo-105 flew nose-down. When the cabinet was opened in flight, out tumbled the contents. Furthermore, transported patients kept complaining of back pain. Metro Aviation discovered the culprit was a hidden stretcher restraint.  

Stanberry and his team believed they could design better interiors, and thus began their foray into completions. By the ‘90s they were doing so many Bo-105 and Bo-117 completions that the OEM began calling them “MBB South.” Today, Metro Aviation’s completion business continues to grow, and it all started by turning little problems into big opportunities. It’s something Stanberry loves to do, be it for cabinets or industries. “Everybody I knew told me I was insane for getting into the helicopter business during the early 1980’s recession, but I’ve always had a theory that industries in hard times always have opportunities,” he says. “I love it when someone says ‘you can’t do that,’ because there’s always a way to do it. You just got to figure it out.”


Stanberry has figured a lot of things out over the years, including how to manage employees. “I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I have a knack for finding very qualified, hard-working, professional people with integrity that don’t mind doing the job. The trick is to hire those people and pretty much leave them alone. If you continually question everything they do, then you’re taking away their entrepreneurship and creativity. They feel like they’re in a box and they are afraid that if they get out of the box that they’ll get stomped on. Instead, turn them loose and let them be creative, then they’ll have a lot of buy-in.”

Stanberry not only values hard work, but also communication. “I love it when people claim they tried to call me but couldn’t reach me, because I know that person is a liar,” he says. “Everybody’s got my cell phone number. I’ve always got my phone, and I always take my calls.” He also insists that when people call Metro Aviation that a person answer the phone, not a machine. It’s just good service.

Teamwork is equally valued, and Stanberry illustrates this with another anecdote. “I’m a big LSU fan. At one time we had the best football coach in the industry, Nick Saban, until he went on to greener grass at Roll Tide Alabama,” Stanberry (somewhat) laughs. “Saban is a great leader. He might not have the best team at the beginning of the season, but as he goes down the road he gets everybody pulling as one. That’s why he wins all the time. That’s our job—to lead.”


Stanberry has slightly throttled back his work hours in recent years. He still puts in nine-hour days at least five days a week, and sometimes works on Saturdays, so rest is relative. However, he makes time for reading (his nonfiction recommendation: The Devil in the White City—Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America), motorcycle riding with his wife, Debbie. (They just returned from riding in Alaska and British Columbia.), snow skiing (They have a place in Colorado.), and lots of international travel. “I just love traveling. My wife and I mix business and pleasure,” he says. Next summer they’re heading to New Zealand and Australia for more business and memories.


An interview with Stanberry would be remiss without seeking his wisdom. He has been in the rotorcraft industry most of his adult life and those years of experience have given him valuable insights. Fortunately, he willingly shares on several subjects …

Safety: Stanberry received the Jim Charlson Award for safety, and is a founding members and past chairman of the Air Medical Operators Association (AMOA). “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” he says. “With safety there’s no silver bullet, but there are a lot of bullets and when you put them all together you have a safer operation.”

The FAA: “They just don’t get it. One of the pillars of the FAA was to promote aviation. Now, if you’re drowning they throw you an anchor. They need to loosen up and listen to us before they make rules.” Stanberry uses the recent helicopter terrain avoidance systems (HTAWS) mandate as an example. “Our industry started putting TAWS in before there was HTAWS, and now the FAA is saying that TAWS is not acceptable because they’re not called Helicopter TAWS. It’s just crazy.”

Regulations:  “We’re moving more towards a European culture of more regulation. Regulations are killing this country as well as this industry.” Stanberry relays an example how Metro Aviation designed, obtained certification, installed, and delivered an EMS interior within five months in 1996. Then he laments, “That cannot be done now. It’s a shame, but it can’t be. And what we’re doing doesn’t affect safety. It’s not like we’re hanging something outside the aircraft that creates an aeronautical problem. How many interiors have killed people in an accident?”

Then he stops himself by saying, “I could go on and on and on.” Based on his decades of serving the rotorcraft industry as one of its most respected business owners and leaders, Mike Stanberry will likely do just that.