It isn’t every day that you come across a Black entrepreneur and pilot who is making waves in the aviation industry. As a matter of fact, only 3% of commercial pilots are African American*, so we can only imagine the lack of representation when it comes to Black-owned businesses in the charter industry. New Jersey-native and first-generation pilot, Bernie Burns, set out to defy the odds and make a mark in the white/male dominated industry with the launch of his private aviation company, B2 Aviation. B2 Aviation is an aircraft charter company and creative agency providing private jet flights and experiences for celebrities, major brands, and those celebrating special occasions. After discovering his passion for aviation as a child, Bernie followed his dreams, attending Jacksonville University where he gained all of his pilot certificates. Although most of his peers went to work in the airline industry, Bernie chose the path less traveled and pursued a career in private aviation. We recently spoke with the entrepreneur to learn more about his journey as a Black entrepreneur in aviation.
Mandy: What inspired you to launch B2 Aviation and what were you doing prior to starting?
Bernie: That’s a very long story! The short answer is that I was obsessed with people’s experience when they travel and wanted to start a business focused on mesmerizing our clients. Prior to B2, I worked for Cessna Aircraft Co. and Bombardier which are two of the largest companies in private aviation. My roles in those companies prepared me to run an operation with many moving parts and showed me a world of infinite possibilities for servicing clients.
Even though I had many other hobbies growing up, my curiosity kept leading me back to airplanes and how they stayed in the air. Learning to fly and starting B2 Aviation was the manifestation of that passion and curiosity.
Mandy: How was the transition from the corporate world to being a FT entrepreneur? Were there any major steps you had to take to raise capital?
Bernie: I was preparing to leave my last corporate position for roughly a year and a half before the day I felt comfortable to walk out on the ledge. That day would prove to be the greatest and the worst thing that could happen for my transition to a full-time entrepreneur. Immediately after leaving a hard conversation with boss, I received a phone call from a prospect that was ready to move forward with his trip and my first sale for my business. I felt like it was all going to work out! While success came early, I thought other business would come just as easy which was completely wrong.
I started B|2 with about $6,000 that I saved from my last position. Most of that was used just to keep afloat while I built the company. My advice would be to save or raise enough capital to maintain your stability for at least a few months. When your passion leads the project and you can run with speed; all is possible.
In the end, I would say that the transition was not easy and required tireless work to develop relationships and tell our story. Every second has been worth it.
Mandy: What kind of services do you provide with B2 Aviation?
Bernie: Our passion is to provide experiences around private aviation that impact our clients in overwhelmingly positive ways. Some of our clients need to fit multiple business meetings into the course of 2 days versus using the airlines which can be inefficient. Other clients want to find new and exciting ways to impress their own customer base by using our services.
Simply put, B2 Aviation is an experience design company. We arrange private jet flights all around the world and curate experiences for humans to connect to one another through the heightened senses that travel can provide. We work with brands and individuals alike.
Mandy: Describe one of the most unique flights and experiences you’ve planned.
Bernie: I have seen everything by working in this space…everything. I have been on teams where we had pony horses waiting at the foot of the airplane door for a little girl’s birthday and landed a $44 million-dollar airplane on a dirt strip in Africa. The one trip that comes to mind most is an experience that we built for Unilever. I think they expected us to only arrange the flight and call it a day. Instead, we created a pre-flight reception for them using their brand name products, arranged for their baggage to magically appear in their hotel rooms and facilitated all of their movements during a week-long press trip in Miami. Did I mention the 100 private vehicles they needed during rush hour in NYC? This trip really showed me what was possible from our company and how lucky I am to have my team at B|2.
Mandy: It seems as though there isn’t much representation of Black entrepreneurs in aviation. Why do you think that is and do you see the landscape changing? How do we increase our representation there?
Bernie: You are correct. There is a huge lack of black entrepreneurs and professionals in aviation but, it is getting better every day. Until very recently, aviation has always had a private club mentality where only those “in the know” had access to it. As an industry, we must open our doors to everyone if we are to continue to thrive.
I am constantly balancing my own pursuits within aviation alongside my role to educate our culture with how private aviation can impact our lives. Conversations with pioneers like Stephanie Chung, Jerome Stanislaus and my business partner, Jay Benton, have led me to commit to this goal. Our task is to show our community that there are other alternatives we typically gravitate to; by choice or stereotype. I’ll be creating an interview series on airplanes with influential figures in our community to be that example.
Mandy: How does B2 Aviation differ from other aviation companies? What makes it unique?
Bernie: I think it is best to answer this question with a recent interaction I had with a long-standing client. She recently left NetJets, the largest aircraft provider in our space, to work exclusively with us. Her answer cracked me up. She said, “We just give a damn!” Her language was a lot more colorful than ‘damn.’
Humor aside, our difference stems for our attention to detail. Most companies tout customer service but how many will continue to check the weather days before your flight and suggest a slightly altered departure time in advance to make sure you have a seamless flight without issue.
We like to get to know our clients extremely well and suggest places they should visit when they are visiting a new city. Above and beyond a dinner reservation, we can arrange for a private fitting at Rich Fresh or Tom Ford when our fashion forward clients are on the west coast.
On the operations side, we are tremendously intimate in our knowledge of airplanes. Out of the 2200 airplanes available for charter, we have a list of 600 that we use. With that said, we religiously call on 75 or so to execute flights for our clients. I know what is stocked in the candy draw or which pilots are great at flying into the mountains if we have a nervous flyer on board. So, I suppose our client’s response was perfect. We give a damn about the experience and the person who we are catering to.
Mandy: Were there any major road blocks you had to overcome while getting your business up and running?
Bernie: Every day, it seems as though I wear a fireman’s helmet and put out fires. Being the leader means that all the issues end with you. In the course of 6.5 years, I have dealt with a lot of barriers or problems that have landed on my doorstep.
Before working in sales for Cessna Aircraft Co. in May of 2008, the most expensive item I had ever sold was an iPod at Best Buy. The economy crashed in September and our clients stopped buying aviation products immediately. My biggest roadblock was figuring out how to survive in a new city and build my business on the tail end of the economic meltdown. I did so by taking an anti-sales approach and made myself a resource to potential clients. By making sure that I was over prepared for meetings, I was able to fight toe-to-toe with much larger competitors. I also made prospects feel completely comfortable as if a sales transaction was not my goal. That gave them the freedom to reach out to me with any questions they had. Once I built a relationship with them as their expert resource, I was an obvious choice to help them purchase an aviation product.
Credit was the second obstacle as we first began. We needed to cover the “what ifs” should changes occur. We could lose everything if we didn’t partner with and build strong relationships with vendors. Eventually, we created a proprietary process for risk management out of that necessity that I credit as one of the biggest innovations that sets our company apart.
Mandy: What are your top 3 biggest achievements so far in business?
Bernie: Keeping in mind that this whole journey is a marathon, there are a few things that have really made me pause.
After a full year in the business, I could feed myself and was wearing clean clothes.
Flying Imagine Dragons to their American Music Awards where they performed and won Best Pop/Rock Group.
Flying Guns N Roses
I sat in awe from the couch as the Imagine Dragons performed live with Kendrick Lamar. I remember thinking how dope it would be to have them as our client. About a year later, that hope became a reality.
Never would I think that I would meet Axl Rose, Slash, Duff or rock stars of that caliber. The idea that we have built something quality enough to attract individuals at that level of their game is both humbling and rewarding. These milestones forced me to stop and reflect on where this all started. The true achievements were the friendships that have been forged that created these opportunities. They are what I am most grateful for.
Mandy: What advice do you have for other aspiring business owners who are hoping to get into this side of the aviation business or become a pilot?
Bernie: There are no perfect moments. Follow your passion and go for it! Everyone should try to be experts in their field so that you are equipped to deal with the changes and issues that will inevitably arise. If you strive for excellence, operate with integrity and maintain a good reputation, you can not lose. And if you want to specifically be a pilot, play a lot of video games. It will work out…I promise!
Mandy: Where do you see B2 Aviation and yourself in 5 years?
Bernie: In 5 years, I hope we have a growing list of clients that appreciate the experience we put into each and every interaction. I see our team growing to 20 and becoming a household name to those who want the most unique travel experiences around the world. I want to look back in 5 years, having worked with the biggest names in fashion and culture, to help brands reach more audiences that look different from the demographic of today. In 5 years, I want to hire the kid who felt inspired by reading this interview and work with them to build the vision for the next 25 years…