Clear for takeoff: Midstate plane detailer sees open runway for growth
One flight was all it took for a 12-year-old Dan Lightner to realize he was meant to fly.
He recalled being scared before he boarded the de Havilland Dash 8-100 turboprop for a flight from Harrisburg to Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. It was the first leg of a trip to Orlando, Florida.
But, Lightner said, “As soon as we got going down the runway I just fell in love with it.”
After he returned home, he started scraping together money from odd jobs after school — cleaning and fueling airplanes at Carlisle Airport and stacking hay and milking cows at a local dairy farm — to pay for flight training.
At age 16, Lightner took his first solo flight, and the Carlisle native set his sights on a career as a corporate or commercial airline pilot.
But before he went down that path, a neighbor offered him a part-time job staffing the help desk at a local internet services company. That job led him into information technology, where he worked up to systems administrator and eventually IT director.
His itch to fly never went away even as he built a career, got married and had children.
“I still had a passion for it,” said Lightner, who is now 36.
About three years ago, he jumped back into flying as a hobby.
Then last year he got a call from a friend in corporate aviation who was looking for help in finding someone to clean and wax a Beechjet 400A that his company was managing for a client.
Lightner poked around, but seeing few options and high price tags, he decided to take on the job himself.
After that plane, Lightner started a detailing business called NuAero Detailing LLC, which he runs in the evenings and on weekends.
He now provides interior and exterior detailing services on a few corporate planes every month at Harrisburg International Airport and other small airports within a few hours of Carlisle.
“I never intended to get into this type of business,” he said. “I intended it to be a side job to do to have a little extra income.”
But if Lightner wants the detailing business to grow, regional aviation experts believe NuAero has an open runway ahead.
“It is hard to find people who do it correctly and want to put the time in,” said Austin Heffernan, owner of Royal Aircraft Services in Hagerstown, Maryland, a company Lightner has worked for a few times since starting his business.
Royal Aircraft Services specializes in major structural repairs and painting. It doesn’t offer detailing services.
“We have people who can do it, but they are way too busy in the paint shop to have them spend a day detailing,” Heffernan said.
He said companies like NuAero can offer a complementary service to aviation maintenance and repair shops.
Mark Tomlinson, operations manager for York Aviation, which operates the privately owned York Airport in Jackson Township, agrees that the pool of detailing companies isn’t very big in Central Pennsylvania for the number of airports and people flying private and corporate planes.
He thinks that is due mainly to the added time and detail involved in cleaning or waxing an airplane compared with detailing a car. Depending on the size of the aircraft, some jobs can take more than one day. And detailers have to know where not to spray water or wax to avoid damaging antennas or other sensitive instruments that are critical to flying.
“The main concern is finding someone who is knowledgeable about the nuances of detailing the aircraft and has the experience,” Tomlinson said.
Most companies also are flying their aircrafts during weekdays and don’t keep them parked for long, which means detailing work often has to wait for nights and weekends or downtime on a multi-day business trip.
Other owners may consider detailing services for their planes only during annual maintenance and inspection checks, resulting in fewer opportunities to coordinate service.
Still, Heffernan, Tomlinson and others in Central Pennsylvania say there are opportunities for service providers like Lightner.
“There are good opportunities if he wants to get into it,” said Jeff Evans of aircraft management company PAM Aviation LLC, the friend who hired him initially. “There is really no one in the Harrisburg area that is taking care of the aircrafts based here.”
Lightner’s name also has been spreading outside of Pennsylvania. He recently picked up a job for a plane coming to Harrisburg from Barbados. And he said he’s planning a spring trip to New Jersey to service a small fleet of corporate jets.
He services craft ranging from six-seat corporate jets up to 17-seat passenger planes.
Increasing demand could force him to hire staff to help, as he has no intention of leaving his IT job with Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners.
“I love IT,” he said.
He would rather be in a position to manage NuAero, he said, “because I can’t be traveling long hours in the evening.”
Lightner said he isn’t detailing planes to make a living or get rich. He simply hopes to offer an affordable option.
Costs for detailing can vary depending on the size and condition of the aircraft, as well as the level of detailing requested. Packages can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Lightner said that if he can make enough money to put towards flight hours and improving his own flight rating, he’s happy.
He also hopes the venture will last.
“I now have boys who are 9 and 10 and they are both identical to me. They love aviation,” he said. “My hopes and goals are that this grows large enough where both could get involved in it someday.”