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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Reliability helps business soar

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Jerry Jackson doesn't waste a lot of time on words or emotions. Thirty-two years in the Navy — 14 of them flying around eight different Pacific commanders in Hawai'i — taught Jackson how to keep his thoughts to himself.

Jerry and Nancy Jackson and their Twin Beech E-18S aircraft have combined to make cargo service Kamaka Air a success. Jerry was a cargo pilot for the airline until 1995, when the couple bought it for $20,000.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

But when he does talk about the growing air-cargo business he runs, Jackson can be eloquently blunt. Asked why he decided to buy Kamaka Air seven years ago, Jackson, 65, says, " 'Cause I didn't know any better."

Is he happy spending seven days a week flying after 32 years as a Navy pilot? "I guess," he says. "Sometimes I wonder why I'm doing it. It's better than paperwork, I guess."

Kamaka Air is the smallest of the handful of air-cargo operators flying out of Lagoon Drive on the edge of Honolulu International Airport. But under the ownership of Jackson and his wife, Nancy, who runs the office, the company has grown from $200,000 in annual business to more than $600,000 today.

And it has become a critical link in the supply of fresh fish, meat and produce that goes to Lana'i and Moloka'i each day and on less frequent trips to Maui and the Big Island. Kamaka Air also jumps in regularly when one of the weekly interisland barges leaves something behind in Honolulu.

The business has grown even though Jackson just raised his rates a nickel — to 30 cents a pound for Moloka'i and 28 cents a pound for Lana'i.

Still, Kamaka Air's rates remain the cheapest of all of the carriers, said Jeff Egusa, president and general manager of Friendly Market Center in Kaunakakai on Moloka'i. And Kamaka Air continues to get Egusa's business because Jackson remains flexible and reliable and has people who deliver to Egusa's store.

"I can't say enough about him," Egusa said. "I've never even met him but he's always trying to make things work. When I have stuff that's going to be late, he tries to wait for it."

On Lana'i, Jackson has become a critical part of the food chain.

"Most of da kine merchants go with Kamaka," said Collin Tamashiro, who owns Richard's Shopping Center in Lana'i City with his two brothers. "You name it, they bring it in."

Jackson's ruddy and red face, streaked with deep lines, barely changed composure as the subject turned to the customers who rely on him.

"Some of the customers complain that I get short-tempered," Jackson would only say.

Jackson grew up on an Iowa farm where the family raised corn, oats and pigs. He learned to fly and in 1961 was a young Navy lieutenant with a transport squadron in Hawai'i when he met Nancy, a third-grade teacher at Iroquois Point.

Teachers and officers ate lunch together in the officer's mess and Nancy and Jerry started playing bridge together. They married and returned for two more tours in Hawai'i where Jerry flew four-engine turbo props and was responsible for flying eight separate Pacific commanders, then called Commander In Chief of the U.S. Pacific.

"I survived eight of them CINCs," Jackson said.

Jackson retired as a lieutenant commander and wanted to semi-retire in the Islands. He got a job flying tour planes and another flying cargo for the start-up company Kamaka Air. But the owner and founder got a captain's job with Hawaiian Airlines and needed someone to take over.

In 1995, Jerry and Nancy took $20,000 in savings and bought Kamaka Air. They spent another $70,000 in savings for a 1957 E-18S Twin Beech with a cargo capacity of 2,500 pounds and added another $100,000 for two engines.

"It was just something to do," Jackson said.

He started out flying one or two Neighbor Island trips a day and barely broke even. But word began to spread about Kamaka Air's reliability.

The Jacksons bought two more Twin Beeches, hired two more pilots and three mechanics and business grew.

"It's been going strong since," Jerry Jackson said. "It's a vicious circle."

He rises at 3 every morning in Mililani and goes to bed each night about 8 p.m. On the weekends he gives himself a break and arrives at work about 8 a.m.

The planes will sometimes make four or five trips a day and Jerry often loads all 2,500 pounds of cargo for his plane by himself. He's flown caskets carrying corpses, a live sunfish, pallets of car tires, office furniture, refrigerators and lots of cartons of cigarettes.

"If we can get it through the door," Jackson said, "we'll fly it."

Jackson hasn't had a vacation in four years, when he went on a three-day family trip to Disneyland. He long ago gave up any thought of a hobby.

Nancy often watches their grandchildren in the company's hangar, where one of their daughters inputs data. Another daughter and a son are both airline pilots on the Mainland.

It's not how Nancy imagined life would turn out after the Navy.

"We always talked about traveling," she said. "I wanted to take an Alaskan cruise."

So even though business is good, the Jacksons often hope that somebody will come along and buy them out, just as they bought out the previous owners seven years ago.

But then what would Jerry do?

"I could go back to Iowa and farm," he said. "But that seems like a lot of work."

Reach Dan Nakaso at 525-8085 or dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.