At 5:07 p.m., Niswonger, an experienced pilot, landed his new $30 million airplane, a Gulfstream IV-SP at the Greeneville Municipal Airport, where his companies have their headquarters.
There was no ceremony for the occasion. But as Niswonger's wife, Nikki, had predicted, Scott Niswonger did not land on his first approach.
Rather, he did a high-speed "fly by" at low altitude over the airport as several dozen family members, friends and employees waved and watched admiringly.
"It's so awesome. It is just fabulous!" Nikki Niswonger exclaimed as she watched her husband land the custom-made jet aircraft that can fly up to 550 mph and travel non-stop about 5,000 miles.
She was the first one on the ground to spot the new plane, when its twinkling lights became visible on the distant skyline.
"I've watched for those little lights a lot over the years," she confided, adding that she enjoys flying, but only as a passenger.
Niswonger flew Thursday from Savannah, Ga., where the plane had been manufactured by Gulfstream, a General Dynamics company. Before landing in Greeneville, however, he made a practice landing at Tri-Cities Regional Airport.
The plane made a good landing here, not needing to use all of the Greeneville Airport's 6,300-foot runway, slowing promptly as Niswonger reversed its two big Rolls-Royce jet engines. (Plans have been approved to extend the Greeneville Airport's runway to 7,100 feet, providing an added margin of safety for such large corporate jets.)
"I love hearing the engines reverse," Mrs. Niswonger said with relief as the plane slowed on the runway.
The handsome plane is painted white with black and red trim, the colors of Forward Air and Landair. Niswonger later proudly pointed out that the six windows for passengers on either side of the plane are 20-inch oval "picture windows," much
larger than the small windows provided passengers on commercial airliners.
After the new plane came to a halt in front of the Forward Air/Landair office building, Niswonger rolled down the pilot's window and waved to those cheering him, including two balconies full of employees.
He had made the flight from Savannah with a professional pilot and mechanic from Gulfstream, as well as a pilot and mechanic who work for his own companies, but he had done all the flying himself.
Larry Mueller, the Gulfstream pilot who served as copilot, complimented Niswonger on his landing.
"It was only the third time I have landed this plane," Niswonger said later.
Asked how he felt after arriving home flying an airplane he has waited for a year to have custom built, he said, "I feel great. It's a fantastic airplane."
Plane's Many Features
Niswonger, who has become widely known both as a businessman and as a philanthropist, eagerly showed friends and colleagues the plane's attractive interior.
The Gulfstream IV-SP can carry eight passengers and a crew of three, it being required to have two pilots on any flight. Its luxurious chairs and sofas come equipped with telephones and pullout desks, so that executives can work while in flight.
The plane's galley has both a high-temperature oven and a microwave oven, dual coffee-makers, two large ice drawers, cold food storage, wine and liquor storage, and special Gulfstream-supplied china and crystal.
The chairs and sofas can be converted into beds for six passengers. The attractive lavatory area at the back of the plane has a vanity with brass faucets.
Niswonger pointed out some of the Gulfstream's extensive audiovisual equipment, including a compact disc player, a VHS videotape player, a digital videodisc player, a television set, and a master control for the plane's lighting and entertainment systems. There also are individual computer hook-ups and a fax machine.
Niswonger said that he expects the plane to be used two-thirds of the time by his businesses and for charter flights, and one-third by himself personally. Already, he said, the plane has been booked by others for two flights to Argentina and one to Ireland.
Can Fly Nearly 5,000 Miles
Niswonger said the plane can fly non-stop for 11 hours, traveling 5,000 miles without refueling.
Gulfstream says in its promotional literature that this model plane can fly non-stop, for example, the 3,799 miles from Miami to Buenos Aires, or the 3,735 miles from New York to Rome, or the 3,444 miles from Chicago to London.
Niswonger said his Gulfstream IV-SP, which he personally purchased, cost $30 million. He said he expects the plane to rise in value over the years, that being typical for such planes.
Mueller, the Gulfstream copilot, said that Gulfstream IV is a "qualitative leap" ahead of the company's earlier Gulfstream III. He said it is an extremely safe airplane, being "redundant" with dual electronic, hydraulic and other systems, just in case one should fail.
Niswonger added that the SP in the plane's title stands for "special performance," the plane having enhanced capabilities over the standard Gulfstream IV. He said the new plane will prove cost-effective for his companies.
"We have very lean top staffs" at Forward Air and Landair, he said, so the time of his companies' few top executives is very valuable.
He said that the new plane can fly to Columbus, Ohio, where Landair has one of its major hubs, in just 40 minutes, a trip that can take eight hours by car.
Another factor, Niswonger said, is the added security for those who will be flying on the plane, rather than on commercial flights. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, he said, "Security is a very big issue."
Niswonger said he has sold his former Citation Excel aircraft, which could carry eight people, but is buying a smaller eight-passenger Citation Bravo.
He said it will be more cost-effective to use the Bravo
for short flights of an hour or so, while the Gulfstream will be reserved for long-distance flights, including those across the Atlantic Ocean. "We have an increasing number of customers in Europe," he said.
Much of Forward Air's business involves express trucking of goods flown to this country by foreign airlines that are required by law to land only at the airport destinations to which they regularly fly. Forward Air's trucks then quickly transport such air cargoes to their final destinations in the U.S. or Canada.
A Family Welcome
Among those on hand at the Greeneville airport to welcome Niswonger and his new plane were his mother, Sharon Niswonger, and his father-in-law, Eurie "Nib" Elliott, both of whom live in Greeneville, their spouses being deceased.
Another excited observer was Tyler Gentry, Niswonger's 12-year-old grandson.
Asked how she felt, Sharon Niswonger said, "I was proud of him before, and I'm proud of him now. He was always a good boy, and now he's a good man."
While waiting for the new plane to arrive, Elliott recalled how nervous he had been decades ago when he found out that Niswonger, then a teen-ager, not only wanted to date his daughter, Nikki, while they were living in Van Wert, Ohio, but wanted to take her flying. Eventually, he agreed, Elliott recalled.
Nikki Niswonger said that one of her first dates with Scott involved his taking her to the local airport and asking her to sew fabric onto the wings of a plane he hoped to fly. She said it was not the most exciting date she can recall.
Mrs. Niswonger noted that the new plane's "tail number," or official registration number, is N1SN, transferred from her husband's former plane. She revealed that she and her husband have joked that N1SN means, "Nikki one, Scott nothing."
A Long Love Of Flying
Niswonger said that he has owned more than 40 airplanes over the years, but his wife pointed out that the Gulfstream is the first new one he has purchased.
Having started flying when he was a teen-ager, Niswonger studied professional pilot technology and airline management at Purdue University, then came to Greeneville as a pilot for Magnavox, the television manufacturer that later became Philips Consumer Electronics Co.
In 1973, Niswonger formed General Aviation. In 1980, with a friend, the late Ed Sayler, and a loan from First Tennessee Bank, he launched Landair, a company that was first planned on his kitchen table.
There has been great growth since then. Landair and Forward Air had total revenue of approximately $350 million last year, a company spokesperson said.
Speaking of what flying means to her husband, Nikki Niswonger said, "It's so much a part of him, being a pilot." She said she sees how being a pilot has influenced her husband's approach to challenges.
"There's a thoroughness to his research and preparations. Being prepared is a big part of it. He is always prepared for opportunities or new situations. It is almost uncanny how he is prepared for such things."
Building contractor Bob Biddle, a friend of Niswonger's for many years, also was on hand for Thursday's arrival of the new plane. He noted that Niswonger also has a playful side.
Once, Niswonger persuaded Biddle to fly with him, supposedly to Florida, to look at a building he was considering buying.
As it was winter, Biddle recalled, he welcomed the opportunity for a quick flight south and dressed lightly for the expected warm weather.
When Niswonger landed the plane, however, Biddle discovered he had been flown to Columbus, Ohio, where there not only were no palm trees, but the temperature was seven degrees above zero.
On Friday, Niswonger laughingly confirmed Biddle's account, adding that when they arrived in frigid Ohio, Biddle "didn't even have socks on."
Much Preparation Involved
Nikki Niswonger said her husband was so excited about the construction of the Gulfstream that they were present at the plant last September when the first rivets were put into it.
Both Niswongers were involved in selecting the colors and fabrics for the plane's interior. When she saw the impressive cabin for the first time on Thursday, she commented that "It looks even better than I expected."
Niswonger had hoped to fly the plane here last weekend, but when that schedule didn't work out, he then intended to come earlier this week.
However, he was aboard the plane on Monday as Gulfstream pilots flew it over the Atlantic Ocean on its important certification flight, Niswonger said, during which it was made to do "all kinds of maneuvers," including steep turns and dives, to be certain it is fully capable of doing all the flying expected of it.
Then, on Tuesday, Niswonger landed the plane for the first time. He still wasn't ready to fly it home, he said, though he was growing restless in Savannah.
He said Gulfstream personnel were busy for three days, eliminating "11 squawks" he had about minor aspects of the plane, until he was satisfied that he was getting it in perfect condition and was ready to accept ownership.
Mueller, the Gulfstream pilot who flew here with the plane, will stay for five days, and
Gulfstream's mechanic will stay for two weeks, as they continue to check out the plane.
Intensive Training Required
Preparations for Thursday had not just involved examining the plane completely in Savannah.
Although he is an experienced pilot, Niswonger spent four weeks there last spring, taking an intensive, challenging course for those who would fly the Gulfstream-IV-SP, which has been described as "the heavyweight champion of the in-service, intercontinental-range business-jet class."
A journalist and pilot who wrote about the course in an aviation publication said of the training, "At this level, they expect you to fly reasonably well, so the course emphasis is on mastering the aircraft's multi-level automated systems. This complexity was a source of apprehension for my 15 classmates," all experienced pilots.
Niswonger said the course was intellectually demanding and a bit nerve-wracking, as he and the other class members were being graded by their instructors.
The course even involved using a simulator to practice ditching a plane in the sea, doing so in a big pool at Gulfstream's training center. They then escaping from the plane's cabin.
To make the practice very realistic, Niswonger said, it was done in darkness, the simulated cabin being then filled with smoke and sunk into the pool at a 30 degree angle.
He recalled that he and the other pilots in training then had to get their passengers and themselves out of the cabin and into the water so they could be lifted skyward by a big hook, such as a rescue helicopter would use.
Gulfstream students are told that they have an 88 percent chance of surviving a ditching at sea, compared to a 45 percent chance for passengers in other general aviation planes, and a 15 percent to zero chance for airline passengers.
"These suckers are built tough, but water crashes decrease your resale value, we learned," the journalist wrote.
As Niswonger finished showing a Greeneville Sun writer around his new plane, he pulled out a gold-plated Gulfstream key to the plane, which he said had been given to him in Savannah as hundreds of Gulfstream workers applauded.
"When I got this," Niswonger said, looking at the key, "I knew I had arrived."