Early ups and downs but now flying high

Helicopters nearly crashed Jan and Mike Becker's business dreams forever, but since returning from the brink of collapse, they have only soared higher.

Helicopters nearly crashed Jan and Mike Becker's business dreams forever, but since returning from the brink of collapse, they have only soared higher.

The Queensland couple launched their helicopter pilot academy, Becker Helicopter Services, 18 years ago in a rundown tin shed in Noosa.

They had just spent $60,000 on their first helicopter - a 1957 Bell 47 - and had little spare for luxuries. Even a $400 air-conditioner was a major purchase, which took them 16 weeks to pay off, Mrs Becker said.

"Our competitors would say, 'Go to Becker Helicopters and you'll be in a rusty tin shed with plastic chairs', but people didn't care.

"Some people go out and get big signs and fancy things. For us, the success was in the quality of the training. That's the gold."

It took a year of solid preparation for the husband and wife team to open their business, including nine months of regulatory compliance with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Mr Becker had piloted helicopters for 10 years and had a passion for showing younger pilots the ropes, but still needed to prove himself as a chief flight instructor and chief pilot. After jumping through all the CASA hoops, the couple happened to launch their business on the same day their second child was born.

If the helicopter business had not already tested the Beckers, the going only got tougher. A new engine for the helicopter set them back $45,000 during their second year of business.

"We almost went broke because the helicopters were so expensive," Mrs Becker said.

Things finally started looking up in 2001 when the Beckers secured a $1 million contract to train pilots from Hong Kong.

But their celebrations were cut short by a recipe of disastrous global events. The September 11 attacks in the US, bird flu panic in Asia and the collapse of Ansett Airlines in Australia put the aviation industry into a tailspin.

The Beckers lost their $1 million contract and were forced to sell the six helicopters they had accumulated in their first six years of business.

"We sold the helicopters, paid off our debts and just hunkered down," Mrs Becker said. "We had no money and we felt like we had let everyone down. It was soul destroying."

The Beckers rewrote their business plan and aimed for long-term contracts. But despite applying for hundreds of contracts, they landed none and, instead, became a target of a takeover bid.

With their personal finances also in a sorry state, it was tempting to sell out. But their lawyer advised against it and the couple chose to ride out the storm.

"I look back now and I still feel sick about it," Mrs Becker said. "We were driving around two unregistered cars and getting cash out of credit cards. Mate, it was desperate and we felt like losers.

"One day I broke down on the highway with our two small kids and I said to Mike, 'What's our plan B?' and he said, 'There is no plan B; the only way is forward'."

The Beckers sold their house and cobbled enough cash together to build a helicopter and purchase a flight simulator.

They then flew to Europe, hoping to get permission from international aviation authorities to develop an international pilot's licence.

"We had to think outside of the box ... necessity breeds innovation," Mrs Becker said.

"It was a turning point for us because we had to think ahead of our competitors."

The talks in Europe paid off and the Beckers came home with the licensing syllabus to train international pilots in Australia and send them home with the right aviation requirements.

The company now offers six-month courses for basic training, at a cost of $55,000, and 12-month courses for advanced students, priced at $75,000.

Becker Helicopter Services now has 18 helicopters and trains an average of 100 students - civilian, military and paramilitary - every year.

Venturing into night-vision goggle training - usually the domain of military aviators - has helped the company secure multimillion-dollar international contracts.

The business boasts a revenue of $20 million per year with a net profit of $2.8 million. With 70 staff, including 33 instructors and 25 engineers, the Beckers spend $800,000 per annum on staff training.

Their success was recognised last month when Becker Helicopter Services won the medium business award at the Telstra Australian Business Awards.

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