When area resident Kevin Carbone planned a mid-afternoon flight in his Piper Arrow 3 last weekend he had two objectives in mind; First, he wanted to show a friend, who is interested in flying, the beauty of Virginia’s fall foliage from the air. Second, Carbone needed to test one of his most recent aviation software products which provides pilots with a moving in-flight chart (maps are known as “charts” in pilot parlance) driven by a global positioning system (GPS).
Carbone is one of those all-to-rare individuals who have managed to turn their love for a hobby into a business. Carbone runs his business, VFR Copilot, from his home on Raven Rocks Road in Bluemont, Virginia. Carbone’s idea sprang from his life-long love of learning and simultaneously provided the perfect segue from a dying business to a thriving enterprise.
“My previous business was the market leader for software that enabled brides to print their own wedding invitations” Carbone explained. “Bigger companies copied my product idea and, using a significantly larger advertising budget, essentially eliminated my elegant product from the market.”
As Carbone’s wedding invitation software business declined he found that he had extra time on his hands and decided to pursue a life-long dream to learn to fly.
“When I turned 60 or so, I decided I needed new challenges and thought that learning how to fly would be the answer. What fun!” he said.
Being a former engineer, Carbone found that he already had many of the basic flying skills like a love for reading instruments and physical dexterity. He quickly found that he enjoyed flight school so much that he was prompted to do something very uncommon for a flight student; Carbone purchased an airplane even though he had not yet received his pilot’s license.
Fortunately Carbone was able to successfully earn his wings and his passion for the skies has not waned. But even after Carbone mastered flight school and received his pilot’s license he found that his learning experience was really just beginning.
“Pilots are required to know exactly where they are at all times in case of an emergency so that they can find the nearest airport, a major highway, or any large flat grassy area for landing” Carbone said. But even in the age of modern technology he found that pilots still were operating in the dark ages once they were airborne.
“After I was certified as a pilot I saw a need for new in-flight technology” Carbone said. “I decided to add an “Aviation Division” to my software company and now we’re doing quite well in a much nicer market with aviation products.”
Carbone’s idea was to digitize the paper sectional charts used by pilots so that the information can be packaged in a more useable form. Using Carbone’s software, pilots are now able to print small “trip-tic” charts that only include the flight path that the pilot intends to fly that day. Pilots can balance Carbone’s small trip-tic on one knee for quick reference rather than trying to navigate with the large, traditional four-foot folded paper charts as they fly.
Like all good idea’s, Carbone’s trip-tic quickly caught on with pilots. Since then he has released additional pilot assistance products including “e-Sectional” and a sister product called “e-Pilotage”.
“The FAA requires that air-ambulance pilots locate the highest obstacle, typically towers, and the highest terrain for each leg of an emergency flight prior to launching” Carbone said. ”About 50% of air ambulance providers, called HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service), are using my software to comply with FAA safety regulations.”
Prior to the publication of Carbone’s digital chart software, using a paper chart to comply with FAA regulations could take as long as 15 minutes for emergency helicopter pilots; Valuable time when an air ambulance may be the bridge between life and death for an accident victim.
“With my eSectionals software, it takes less than 10 seconds” Carbone said.
But as with his other software business Carbone has found that competitive pressures are constantly at work marginalizing his efforts. “I don’t make a fortune with my aviation products but I do get the satisfaction that I have added to flight safety and response time for these critical missions.”
e-Pilotage, another Carbone product, provides a moving digital chart that tracks in parallel with an airplane’s location using GPS technology.
Carbone says that each of the three local airports in our region, Winchester Regional, Manassas, and Leesburg all use his software products as well as many airports nationwide. He believes that the importance of small, local airports will only increase in the coming years and hopes that increased reliance on small planes will translate in to greater demand for his software.
“Many folks have no idea how valuable a local airport is to their community” Carbone said. “And most people don’t realize how important it is for small businesses to be able fly to meetings or to visit customers using their own corporate aircraft.”
“For example, if a small business needs to fly to some small town via commercial aviation they first have to drive to Dulles airport, then fly to one of about 12 major airports, and then rent a car to drive a few hundred miles to their customer which all takes time” Carbone said.
Carbone said that a small business, like Valley Proteins which has a jet based at Winchester Regional airport, can fly from Winchester to any one of about 5000 regional airports without booking a flight.
“A small business with their own aircraft saves both time and money making their business operations much more efficient” Carbone added.