Sunday, November 01, 2009

The High-Flying Life of American Expat and Pilot Art Dawley - An Interview

When I met Art Dawley in San Jose, Costa Rica,  in early October 2009, I asked him about life there as an American ex-pat and the charter plane business he launched, Paradise Air. It was fun to talk with a pilot who spent years flying Hollywood’s top executives, including Steven Spielberg and his partners at Dreamworks movie studio, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg.


Art said Paradise Air, with three planes and five U.S.-certified airline transport pilots, is the first air taxi company to be certified under the new, stricter aviation laws of Costa Rica. The company offers aerial tours, air transportation and transfers, safaris and executive services.


Art and I had tea and talked at the lovely patio of the historic Hotel Grano de Oro in San Jose, Costa Rica, on October 11, 2009.

1. QUESTION:  How did you choose to live in Costa Rica?
ANSWER: I am from Ohio and grew up in California. My former brother-in-law told me that there was a small airline charter business for sale in Costa Rica. I was looking for a new challenge. The opportunity could have been anywhere in the world, but it was here in Costa Rica... I moved here in November 2004. I didn't know Spanish.

2. Q: What do you like most about living in Costa Rica after nearly five years here?
A: I like the people…As a pilot, you get to know many people. In addition to my work, I have also helped with search and rescue and medical flights. I also like the physical beauty of the country. I prefer the mountains and the cloud forests for their cooler temperatures.

3. Q: What were you doing before you came to Costa Rica?
A: I spent my whole life in aviation - 24 years. For seven years, I worked as a pilot for Steven Spielberg and before that, 17 years with Petersen Publishing Company, which owned about 47 magazines including Motor Trends and Hot Rods.

4. Q: What was it like flying for Spielberg and the others?
A: I really enjoyed flying Spielberg and my non-disclosure agreement doesn't prevent me from saying that! I enjoyed the travel and excitement of the job not to mention flying the most advanced equipment (airplanes) in the world.

5. Q: Why did you leave what some might consider an ideal job?
A: I wanted to pursue my dream of owning my own aviation company.

6. Q: What’s been the biggest challenge living in Costa Rica?
A: Doing business here. For one thing, the language barrier. Very little is done in English. When I got here, I discovered an amazing maze of inefficiency. All the forms and data were entered by hand; nothing was computerized. Getting permits and licenses was nearly impossible.

7. Q: Why did you choose to stay?
A: I had no choice. I had sold everything I owned - two houses – and I left a full -time job.

8. Q: What else are you doing?
A: I have two other companies. I run a helicopter corps maintenance facility and SEACSA, which are helicopters that do maintenance on electrical lines. That’s where I am putting a lot of energy right now.

9. Q: What is most rewarding about building your own aviation business?
A: With Paradise Air, I brought a new level of customer service to the business. I set the bar higher in providing high-end customer service. And I also brought a new internationally recognized standard of aviation. On a personal level,  I enjoy flying with families who have young kids. I’m a dad myself – my son is 13 and my daughter is 10. I love seeing how excited the kids get when they see the forests, the turtles…

10. Q: You have built three companies in the time you have been here. What’s next?
A: I don’t plan on retiring! I enjoy my work too much. I truly love living and working here. I have my eye on expansion through the Caribbean and Central and South America.

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