Jeffrey Johnson wanted to help people with medical problems once he completed his education, but a twist of fate forced his focus to airplane ailments instead.
At a glance
What: Charleston Jet LLCOWNER: Jeffrey A. JohnsonADDRESS: 2700 Fort Trenholm Road, Charleston Executive Airport, Johns IslandFROM: Charlotte. Plans to move to Charleston.FAMILY: Single; mother Dolores, brother Eric, both of CharlotteEDUCATION: College of Charleston, 1983. Majored in biology.CAREER: Studied cancer research at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., with plans to attend medical school; then became president of family-owned Commander Instruments and Avionics upon his father’s death in 1986.WHAT ARE AVIONICS?: Electronic equipment in an aircraft, including autopilot and instrument landing systems, radios, altimeters, etc.
That turn of events has led the Charlotte businessman to expand his aircraft maintenance and avionics business to the Lowcountry.
Johnson attended the College of Charleston, majored in biology, graduated in 1983 and went to work at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., doing cancer research as he figured out which field he wanted to specialize in while planning to enroll in medical school.
What happened in 1986 put him on a different path.
Johnson’s father, Myles, was a mechanical engineer and owned Commander Instruments and Avionics near Chester, a well-established business that helped airplanes stay fit and in compliance with strict federal air safety regulations.
At 58, Myles Johnson checked into the hospital for heart bypass surgery. He didn’t survive.
With his mother, Dolores, grief-stricken at the sudden loss, Jeffrey Johnson and younger brother Eric took over the then-16-year-old business, which the three now co-own.
“My brother worked there, and we had employees to think about,” Jeffrey Johnson said. “It was a fully functional business. We just couldn’t let our father’s business go away.”
Johnson, then 25, set his medical aspirations aside and decided to give himself five years before moving forward with a career outside the avionics business.
He didn’t need new training or specialized education for the transition from cancer research to airplanes. He and his brother grew up around the family airplane business. Their father owned a single-engine, four-passenger Piper. And the two helped repair parts as teenagers when they weren’t in school and or at college.
“I would take apart the aircraft instruments for the technicians to repair,” he said.
With five years under his belt as the head of the company, the opportunity arose to move the business to Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the tiny airfield in Chester. “That’s when business really took off,” he said.
The pursuit of a medical degree became a memory as Johnson focused his energy on the ship-in, ship-out airplane components business for corporate customers across the United States and sometimes overseas.
“We test, repair, overhaul and certify them as airworthy,” Johnson said. “This is a heavily regulated industry. Safety is the No. 1 goal. Otherwise, people would skimp and skimp until something goes wrong.”
On the international front, for several years during the past decade, Commander supplied the Japanese Defense Department with new avionics for trainer aircraft. That was before the exchange rate for the yen changed and financial markets collapsed in the deep recession.
Having gone to the College of Charleston, Johnson was familiar with the Lowcountry, and he and his mom often visited Kiawah Island. Over the years, he often thought about living in the Charleston area, especially with his Charlotte commute getting worse. “What was once a 15-minute drive to work turned into an hour every day as traffic got worse and worse” on Interstate 485 in south Charlotte, Johnson said.
When he works in Charleston now, he stays at Kiawah and drives up the dappled, tree-lined lanes of River Road to work.
“It’s a nice drive, and it’s much easier to get around,” Johnson said. “After many, many beach walks at Kiawah, I tried to figure out a way to be here full time.”
In 2011, he did.
Johnson, still president of the Charlotte company his father founded, struck a deal with Boxell Aerospace at Charleston Executive Airport that allowed him to sublease an office and a small repair shop as a branch of Commander.
The arrangement allowed Johnson to provide avionic services in conjunction with Boxell’s aircraft maintenance business. It also gave him an inside look at the facility, how it was run and how much business taxied in and out of the small airport.
“The traffic flow of corporate aircraft here is a continual thing, mostly to Kiawah and Seabrook,” he said.
When Boxell became involved with Boeing’s aircraft assembly plant in North Charleston on projects there, its focus shifted, and Boxell offered the aircraft maintenance business to Johnson.
He jumped at the chance.
“I saw the great potential for this airport, this area and this facility,” Johnson said.
But the deal didn’t come quickly. He had trouble getting banks to finance the venture. Even the “big bank,” as he called it without giving a name, that his Charlotte company had done business with for years wouldn’t put up the money, a crippling move for businessmen trying to grow a business and stimulate the economy, he fretted.
So Johnson, ever resourceful, used his own money and took on a silent partner to buy out Boxell and sublease the large office and hangar facility from Atlantic Aviation, the fixed-base operator in charge of fuel sales and property management at Charleston Executive.
He closed the deal Nov. 1, put his mom’s house on the market and plans to list his soon before moving to Charleston full time. He and his brother, who serves as vice president and operations manager at the family-owned business in the Queen City, will continue to operate the facility under the same name.
The former Boxell Aerospace site is now Charleston Jet LLC, a full-service aircraft maintenance and avionics business.
Johnson kept the five full-time employees plus himself at Charleston Executive and plans to spruce up the building with new flooring and paint, upgraded bathrooms and better landscaping.
He also wants to build another large hangar for corporate planes but realizes it will take the right group of aviation-minded investors.
“I’m glad I made this decision to come to Charleston,” Johnson said. “This airport is a diamond in the rough, and it’s a reliever airport for Charleston International.”
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlance wise.
Mark Hutchison (from left), Tom Randall, Kim Boshell, Kathy Randall and Katie Elliott with Charleston Jet aircraft maintenance and avionics company work on a Pilatus PC-12 at the Charleston Executive Airport on Johns Island.×