In 1932, Bill Piper dispatched his salesmen in $1,300 Cubs. They were paid $15 a week, given another $25 for expenses, and admonished not to return to the factory in Pennsylvania until their airplanes were sold.
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More than 70 years later, not much has changed for airplane salesmen. Now, as then, they spend countless solitary hours flying across the country in search of paying customers, who are generally wealthy, sometimes eccentric, and often unpredictable. During demonstration flights, salesmen are turning over control of their airplanes to total strangers without much knowledge of their flying abilities. Like peddling illegal drugs, selling airplanes is one of the few occupations in which a prospective customer can kill you.
When the job isn’t downright hazardous, it’s often wearying. Weather strands you at small airports in the most desolate of backwaters. There you sit in a deserted Denny’s on Thanksgiving, washing down your burned burger with a flat Coke. Lodging in a cheap motel, you have nothing but instant coffee, a bad television, and a weak shower for comfort, but you are so exhausted it just doesn’t matter.
Still, the profession has no shortage of takers, appealing to people who don’t want the 9-to-5 office life with a boss looking over their shoulders. And a top light-airplane salesman can take home more than $250,000 per year.
Bruce Keller knows about life on the road. He has been selling piston-engine airplanes for 35 years. Keller started working at Cessna in 1973, and aside from 1986 to 1996, when Cessna shuttered piston aircraft production, he has been with the company ever since. He calls himself “Old Bruce,” and speaks with a pronounced drawl that is part preacher, part carnival barker, and a little Chuck Yeager. At major fly-ins and conventions, you are likely to see him first thing in the morning, clad in straw hat, company shirt, and khakis. He stands in front of gleaming $241,000 Skyhawks and $326,000 Skylanes, rings his triangle, and yells, “Cessna’s open! Cessna’s open!” like a cowboy cook calling, “Come ’n git it.” He currently serves as a regional sales manager, assisting company-approved dealers in a territory that encompasses Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. But Keller’s beat was once the entire Eastern Time Zone, and he’s worked virtually every airport pancake breakfast and fly-in along the Atlantic. “I go to fly-ins for the Flying Farmers, the Flying Physicians, the Flying Dentists, and the Flying Morticians,” he says. “The Flying Morticians—now, that’s quite a group.”
Keller is a fount of insider information: He knows that if you buzz the airport at Carrabelle, Florida, the constable will drive out and give you a ride to Julia Mae’s restaurant. He knows that at a certain Arkansas airport the credit card machine for self-service fuel is hidden inside the refrigerator. And he knows where to find the keys in the beat-up Volkswagen microbus left for visiting pilots in Luray Caverns, Virginia.
The thousands of air miles that Keller has logged have given him plenty of time to cultivate a sense of humor, one that is reminiscent of the late comic Rodney Dangerfield. “I’m a VIP member in the Super 8 motel chain,” he says. “I’ve stayed in places that rent rooms by the hour.
“I flew a Cessna 150 from Wichita to Fort Lauderdale once—the trip took so long I grew a beard in the airplane.
“When I come home, my wife asks me to wear a name tag.”
Shtick aside, Keller understands what he is peddling. “It is a way of life I am selling, not just aluminum,” he says. “I want the customer to share that with me. If you look at my airplane and you sit in it, you are going flying.” The lifestyle that Keller is selling centers on the ease, privacy, and get-up-and-go freedom that comes with the license to fly: If you want to travel to a new city, there’s no need to adjust your schedule to a commercial airline’s timetable or stand in airport security lines with the masses.