Our Stories: Air Wisconsin Pilot Commands Sea and Sky

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
One of six vessels Burgess operates, the Queen of Excelsior II is an 80-ton, 125-passenger ship.

As pilot-in-command, Capt. Bob Burgess (Air Wisconsin) wears two distinct hats. When he isn’t flying CL65s out of his home domicile in Philadelphia, Pa., Burgess is an excursion vessel captain for a company based in Minnesota. He helms each of the operation’s six charter yachts, carrying as many as 150 passengers on Lake Minnetonka and the Mississippi River, in and around Minneapolis.

Burgess acknowledged that he has to carefully manage both his flying and seafaring work schedules, noting, “I’m senior at Air Wisconsin so I can bid the flying I need. I try to focus my vacation in the summertime. Basically, I give my flight schedule to the cruise company, which accommodates me as best it can.”

As an excursion vessel captain, Burgess manages a crew of up to 10, depending on the boat’s size and the number of passengers. Primarily overseeing dinner cruises and party charters, his responsibilities include monitoring the safety and security of the operation, providing some narration during the trip, and engaging with the ship’s passengers. Cruises typically run up to three hours, with an additional hour for prep and another to wrap up. Burgess usually runs two to three cruises a day.

Among his various certificates and ratings, Burgess holds a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard near coastal master license, which he secured more than 30 years ago. “In Minnesota, you need a Coast Guard license to run boats for hire carrying passengers on the Mississippi. On Lake Minnetonka, you can either have a Coast Guard license or a state-issued boating pilot’s license,” which he attained when he first got started in the business.

Burgess moved to the Minneapolis area at the age of 13. His family’s new house was just three blocks from a local marina on Lake Minnetonka, where he spent his next eight years working. He eventually became the marina manager. “The boating thing kind of evolved over time. I knew the lake really well. A local company had a house boat it asked me to run,” said Burgess, who networked with other lakeside businesses and said that one job led to another.

The ship captain also developed a fascination with flying. Burgess was initially interested in enlisting in the Air Force but, with 20/30 vision, could only be considered for a weapons officer or navigator position at the time. He declined, opting instead to build his hours flight instructing and later flew Beechcraft King Airs for a small Syracuse, N.Y., operation. Burgess went on to fly for Air Cargo Masters, AirVantage, and the new iteration of Pan Am, enduring numerous furloughs before moving on to Air Wisconsin in 1998.

How do boating and flying compare? Burgess acknowledged that “there’s more involvement in customer service on the boat because you manage the food and beverages and you communicate more frequently with your passengers. With flying, passenger interaction is mostly handled by the cabin crew.” He added that in both scenarios, you monitor the vehicle’s systems, watch the weather, and make timely safety decisions. You also navigate while watching out for other craft, “so there are a lot of parallels,” he added.

“My ALPA volunteerism is another important component in all of this,” remarked Burgess, who’s the chair of both Air Wisconsin’s Local Executive Council 51 and the pilot group’s Negotiating Committee. The consummate time manager, he said, “I’m busy seven days a week and spend at least two to four hours each day reviewing e-mails and responding to questions, especially now” with the Air Wisconsin pilot group in late-stage mediation for a new contract.

As for colorful experiences afloat, Burgess commented, “I’ve seen everything but birth and death. Like the airline business, you learn to hope for the best and plan for the worst.” He recalled one boating excursion dealing with a large, rowdy group of passengers. “I literally had to wrestle several people away from the controls,” he said, noting that he returned the ship to the dock early that day.

As to whether he prefers boating or flying, Burgess said that it’s nice to do both. He confided, “If I could only do one, I wouldn’t appreciate either as much.” 

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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