Bill Bohlke | International Airways
In 2022, Bill Bohlke—the retired former owner, president and CEO of Bohlke International Airways—received the NATA Distinguished Service Award, recognizing superior service to the aviation business community.
Read the following NATA Aviation Business Journal (ABJ) interview with Bill Bohlke to learn more about how he got his start in aviation and the path that led him to where he is today.
ABJ: First off, what’s your reaction to getting this Distinguished Service Award, a career recognition?
Bill Bohlke: I was very surprised and flattered that my name even came up to be considered for this. I guess it means I’ve done a good job helping the community out and helping people get a start in aviation. We’ve done that with a lot – a lot, a lot – of people. Bohlke International Airways is now a three generation family business.
ABJ: Can you share the story of the very first spark that got you into aviation, following in your father’s lead?
Bohlke: It started in New York: after World War II, my dad returned to his birthplace to build his own airport, which he owned from 1946 until 1959. When my parents got divorced in the 1950s, he decided to move to the Caribbean, looking to build another airport. He went to Puerto Rico first, then to St. Thomas, where the Governor of the Virgin Islands at the time said, “Well, you can take anything you want over in St. Croix because there’s nobody there.” So, he found a plot for a hangar near an over-grown WWII-era runway, sold his New York airport, and took a couple airplanes down to the Virgin Islands. I was still in high school, living with my mom, when he said, “You’ve got to come down here: you can get all your ratings.” In 1962, he came up to New Hampshire to solo me on my 16th birthday, and then I finally went down full-time in 1964 and never looked back. Thanks to my dad, and his foresight in putting me forward and giving me a lot of responsibility, I excelled very quickly. Do you have any favorite stories from your early days in the family business? In 1971, my father went into the cargo business after selling his Virgin Island Airways to Prinair, the largest commuter operating out of Puerto Rico at the time. He had a DC-3 and a Short SC.7 Skyvan, which is like a boxcar, but he needed bigger planes. The Bank of Honolulu had repo-ed three aircraft from a defunct airline in Honolulu, which they offered for $5,000 apiece, as is, where is. Two were flyable, and the third had a lot of good parts. So, he came back from Hawaii and said, “How would you like to go to Honolulu and fly a Curtiss C-46 Commando home?” I was 24 years old with a captain’s rating but a very small amount of captain’s time, I’d never flown over the Pacific, and these airplanes hadn’t flown for two or three years – yet I went out there and brought the first one back with two other pilots. We loaded it up with a tank, a bunch of groceries, and a bunch of parts from the third plane. I look back on that now: if that engine had so much as spit one time, we’d have been in the water, because we were way too heavy. But we made it back! It took 38 hours. We went from Honolulu to Phoenix, Phoenix to Dallas, Dallas to Miami, and Miami to St. Croix. When I got home, he asked, with a straight face, “How would you like to go and pick up another one?” I said, “No, sir. Once was enough!” Fast forward 10 years. I’m flying co-pilot on a DC-10 for American and we’re going to Hawaii. I remember hitting the button to ask the flight attendant for coffee with two sugars and cream, please. And I said to myself, “How the hell did I ever do that in a C-46?” But I did!
ABJ: What has it meant to your family to have this business and to have seen it passed down through successive generations?
Bohlke: Well, for one thing, it has meant that we’ve missed a lot of holidays and festivities! Running a family business sometimes means you’ve got to take the flights nobody else would, solve the problems no one else is around to solve. We lost a lot of playing baseball together and stuff like that, things we would normally have done if we were not involved in our own business. But I don’t think I’d trade it for anything.
ABJ: When you think about your success, is there any driving personal philosophy that you credit for making the business what it is today?
Bohlke: I think the philosophy is to work hard and have the foresight to look down the road. My dad deserves a lot of the credit, obviously, for having the insight and leading me to get involved. When I got out of high school I’d been accepted to several colleges in New York, but my dad said, “No, no, no. Come down to the Virgin Islands: we’ve got a new two-year college where room, board, and tuition for residents is 400 bucks a semester.” I went to school full-time in St. Thomas. I would fly over in one of our little airplanes, park on the soccer field on the north side of the runway, go to college during the week, and then fly back to St. Croix on weekends. By the time I was 19 years old, I was a captain flying scheduled service passengers back and forth to San Juan, St. Thomas, and St. Croix on a four-engine De Havilland Heron. Without my dad, I would have never had that opportunity and I don’t think I would be where I am today. What’s it been like to pass it on to your son Billy in the same way? When he was about 19, Billy came to me and said, “You know, I think I want to fly.” I’d already helped him solo and earn his private license, so I suggested he join the Puerto Rico Guard unit, where he got his wings in a T-33, became a second lieutenant, and earned lots of ratings and experience. Now Billy flies Captain on everything we have. He could have moved on to the airlines, but he said, “No, I want to stay in this business because I love it.” So now he’s running the business eight days a week like I used to, and he still serves in the Guard as a lieutenant colonel. Billy loves what he does, and he loves aviation. He, his wife, and two kids even live right next to the airport!
ABJ: I see you’ve still been busy, even in retirement.
Bohlke: The Gray Eagles — which is the retired American Airlines pilots’ group — had asked me to serve on their board for almost 10 years. I kept saying, “I really don’t have any time,” because when I retired from American in 2006, I continued to work full-time with my son. When I fully retired, though, they came back and said, “Would you like to come on the Board now? You’ll be the second vice president the first year, first vice president the second year, and by the third year — it’s your show.” We’re having our convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October, so I’m heavily involved in that right now.
ABJ: What does the NATA Distinguished Service Award represent to you?
Bohlke: I’m sure there are many people that are deserving of the award, but I’m appreciative of it and honored to receive it. I’ve been involved in NATA for a very long time and have always thought the world of the Association. I think we became NATA members about 1970, and I was on the board of directors at one point. Visiting NATA’s headquarters in Washington was a chance to meet senators, FAA administrators, all kinds of people in the industry, and it really increased my knowledge of what the aviation world was about. When I reflect on my time in aviation – particularly thinking about “service” to the industry – one thing I’m proudest of is helping others get their start. My whole life, when I met a kid who was interested in airplanes, I’d always, always, always say, “Come on over – we want to work with you and show you what you can do. You might have to polish a few airplanes or clean some latrines, but we will get you some flying time to get you started.” And we did that with a lot of kids. You know, general aviation in the Virgin Islands was in its infancy when I first got here. There was nothing going on. Now look at it: kids we trained became Navy, Air Force, and airline pilots —777 captains and 747 captains — and we’re so proud that we were able to help. If they had the initiative, then we’d go forward from there. That’s my story.