Saint Simons Island, GA. – At sunset, flying low over the labyrinth of salt marshes, lush maritime forests and sandy beaches that lace together Georgia's Golden Isles, you realize there can be truth in advertising, that a place can live up to its name.
It becomes clear, as your aircraft points toward the runway at McKinnon Airport (SSI) and a world-class golf course rolls into view, that the idyllic seaside resort of St. Simons may just be gold after all.
"The approach is gorgeous, flying over the waves and sand between two islands," explains Larry Wade, owner of Golden Isles Aviation, the sole fixed base operator on the field. "On the right are the island's historic lighthouse and the fishing pier, on the left, a beautiful, seaside golf course in the tradition of Scotland's St. Andrews. Below is the golf resort's Forbes Five-Star lodge with its brick patio where a bagpiper plays every day as the sun sets."
The bucolic resort scene is a stage set for high expectations, particularly for the Fortune 500 crowd of second and third homeowners, as well as the executives on corporate retreats, that often fly into Golden Isles Aviation.
So how does an FBO meet those lofty expectations? Especially an FBO located next to one of the highest-rated golf courses in the world?
Well, if you're Golden Isles Aviation, you hire a golf caddie.
"Caddies are so good at anticipating the needs of their customers," explains Wade. "You're at the third hole. The caddy is going to 'pre-think' it and have everything all ready for you. That caddie has the right club, knows the path your shot should take, which iron to use on the fairway, where the lay rolls and the best approach to the green."
And while Golden Isles Aviation has indeed hired caddies to work the line, Wade says the FBO uses the caddy approach more as an example for great customer service.
"The idea is that we've 'pre-thought' our customer's visit," Wade says. "We want to have all their services and the things they need for their visit ready and waiting for them. So like a caddie at the golf course, we've pre-thought it all out in advance."
With a seasonally shifting population, St. Simons is known as a micropolitan area. At certain times, some 21,000 people live there.
"We are a transient resort destination," Wade explains. "Our aircraft base is a small one. As a destination location, we feel like we really want to provide a comfortable home away from home. So we have well-kept, well-done facilities. They are not overdone, just well done. Our visitors have all they need from an FBO."
Golden Isles recently joined the Phillips 66® Aviation-branded dealer network and now "flies" the legendary wings logo on their ramp. Wade says he always had an affinity for Phillips 66.
"I always thought their programs were great, for both the FBO and pilot," says Wade.
The FBO's line crew is NATA Safety 1st PSLT certified, which falls in well with a Phillips 66 program that gives FBOs access to online training for ramp safety, customer servicing and fuel farm management. Already, Golden Isles Aviation is participating in WingPoints®, the Phillips 66 program that rewards repeat fuel purchases.
As part of its "home away from home" ambience, Golden Isles Aviation offers a nicely appointed pilot's lounge, a pilot's quiet room, showers, a full kitchen and concierge service that arranges discount lodging. Aircraft services include government contract fuel, conference room, overnight hangars, lavatory and GPU, Palmetto Aviation aircraft maintenance and self-serve avgas to complement the full service fueling.
Many of Wade's customers fly into St. Simons for corporate retreats at the island's resorts. Others like being able to escape to what Wade calls "a small and simple spot, an out-of-the-fray place where people can come and not be recognized by the outside world."
The laid-back, island lifestyle of St. Simons has lured several professional golfers to live there full time. Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III, Chris Kirk, Lucas Glover, Zach Johnson and Jonathon Byrd have made St. Simons their residential 19th hole. With access to a full-featured FBO – and a PGA TOUR course at Sea Island golf club – the pros have found St. Simons a place to raise a family and relax while off the tour.
While the 15th century Scottish game is big on the island, so is local dining, says Wade. Golden Isles Aviation keeps five courtesy cars ready to take customers for some wild-caught Georgia shrimp (with grits, of course) or other low country specialties.
"Pilots will fly in just to do lunch or dinner," says Wade. "Everything here is locally owned, with only a few chains on the island. And 95 percent of our restaurants are within two miles of the FBO."
With mild weather, St. Simons also has no problem satisfying a hunger for recreation. There's a host of outdoor activities on the island, from fishing salt marshes and boating along the coast, to riding horseback on beaches and pedaling bicycles across a 27-mile trail system.
The 14 barrier islands that make up the Golden Isles of Georgia teem with wildlife, forests and coastal habitat that's home to many endangered birds. There are pristine beaches with dolphins playing offshore, sprawling wetlands sprinkled with Roseate Spoonbills, Sandpipers and Painted Buntings, and tunnels of stately oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.
In fact, the trees here played a role in the American Revolution. Rock-hard timber harvested from two thousand Southern Live Oaks helped build five Navy frigates and the USS Constitution. Cannonballs bounced off that hard St. Simon lumber. Old Ironsides is now the oldest commissioned warship afloat.
History buffs that fly into Golden Isles Aviation get their first taste of the past from the air when a meticulously restored 1872 lighthouse comes into view near the FBO. Its Fresnel lens is rare, from 19th Century Paris, but it still beams across St. Simons Sound. The rest of the island has historic Indian burial mounds, strategically important Colonial and Civil War sites, and a church where the British founder of Methodist Christianity, John Wesley, preached.
All of those things – the golf, outdoor activities, history and upscale dining – make St. Simons gold to Wade. But it's the aviation bug that's got him most.
"I love this industry and the business," he says. "We really love being able to serve the folks that fly in here. Whether they're in a 150 or a G5, it doesn't matter. We just want to be that excellent, well-done, courtesy-driven FBO that's pre-thought our customers' needs."
Just don't ask Wade to lower your handicap.
For more information on Golden Isles Aviation, call 912-638-8617, or visit www.goldenislesaviation.com.