Reaching New Heights

Nothing runs like a Deere. And for Susan Potter, nothing flies like one, either.

“This job is really a dream come true for me. It’s such a great feeling to be able to connect our company with our customers, no matter where they might be.” – Susan Potter, international captain, John Deere Aviation

Three gleaming white aircraft — buffed to a mirror-like shine the likes of which would draw an “ooh” at the Saturday night car show — are parked neatly inside the John Deere Global Aviation Services hangar in Moline, Illinois.

There are a pair of Cessna Citation X business jets, the world’s fastest civilian aircraft, and a large Gulfstream 550. Each plane is meticulously maintained by a team of highly-trained aviation mechanics. It’s a sight to see, that’s for sure.

And for Susan Potter, John Deere’s first female international captain, the view is still breathtaking.

“Every time I walk into the hangar, I’m excited,” she said. “The feeling takes me back to when I was younger. I remember seeing those big Gulfstream jets taxiing around and thinking, ‘wow, will I ever get to fly something like that?’”

As you’re reading this story, Potter might very well be cruising above 40,000 feet, flying John Deere leaders to see dealers in Finland, customers in China, or employees in North Carolina. The world of corporate aviation seems cool, and many parts of it are. But as Potter will tell you, it’s an exceptionally demanding job. The hours are long, you sometimes live out of a suitcase, and even the smallest mistake can have major consequences.

“I used to fly for an airline and they do a great job, but we can get our passengers to places commercial aircraft might not be able to go, or to places that might take several days and several connections to get to. That saves us time and money.”

“I absolutely love what I do but it’s not particularly glamorous. We fly in the middle of the night, on weekends, over holidays, and we can be away from home for a while,” she said. “But it’s important to keep in mind that John Deere considers our corporate fleet essential to business. In other words, they’re business tools. These planes enable our leaders to work and conduct meetings while they travel. And that’s exactly what they’re doing from wheels-up to wheels-down.

“I used to fly for an airline and they do a great job, but we can get our passengers to places commercial aircraft might not be able to go, or to places that might take several days and several connections to get to. That saves us time and money.”

From Gliders to Gulfstreams

Potter grew up in “The Thumb,” a region of the state of Michigan, and dreamed of becoming a college athlete and an Air Force pilot.

“I played volleyball and was pretty good at it, so I accepted a scholarship to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was the first time I’d ever been introduced to the world of aviation,” she said. “When I was a freshman, we all got to fly in the Cessna T-41, a small single engine training aircraft, and we learned about the fundamentals of flight, aerodynamics, and navigation.”

The following summer started off well, but little did Susan know trouble was on the horizon.

“I was enrolled in the glider program and I did that until my very first solo flight. It was exhilarating. I remember they towed me up, released the cable, and suddenly I was on my own. There was no instructor, just me and the sound of wind going by, and the beautiful sights of the Rocky Mountain foothills below.

“I realized this is what I wanted to do with my life.”

But life, as they say, happened. Susan contracted severe food poisoning and spent several days in the hospital. Her pilot’s slot at the Academy was at risk. She left, went back home, and enrolled at Central Michigan University.

“I ended up getting an interview at John Deere and got hired in 1998. It was like a dream come true. When I was a charter pilot, I flew a turboprop and thought ‘if I had to fly this for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy woman.’ Then, you get into the Citation X, and you’re like ‘wow, this is really cool!’”

While attending Central Michigan, she earned her private pilot’s license, and after graduation, went to a flight school near Chicago to complete her certification.

“They hired me as an instructor, which was really important because to progress in your career, you’ve got to accumulate flight hours and gain experience,” she said.

Susan then took a job working as a charter pilot for a Wisconsin-based company, flying small planes to small midwestern towns.

“On one of my charter flights, I had to fly people from Dodge County airport in Wisconsin to Moline. After we landed, we had a short break. I got a crew car, drove over to the John Deere hangar, and handed in my resume.

“I ended up getting an interview at John Deere and got hired in 1998,” she recalls. “It was like a dream come true. When I was a charter pilot, I flew a turboprop and thought ‘if I had to fly this for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy woman.’ Then, you get into the Citation X, and you’re like ‘wow, this is really cool!’”

Twenty years later, she’s made her mark.

“What makes Susan a capable pilot and teammate is her experience and vast knowledge of the aviation industry,” said John Deere senior global pilot Robert Fleming. “She’s built her skills from corporate and commercial aviation experience. I’ve flown with Susan many times and I can tell you that she is very detail-oriented and leaves no stone unturned, so to speak, while organizing and flying a trip.”

Part of an Industry-Leading Team

Since its earliest days, collaboration and teamwork were woven into the fabric of John Deere—a tradition that continues today. And it’s no different in the Aviation department.

“It’s a big team effort for us to be successful. Before every trip, pilots, schedulers, security personnel, and a whole host of aviation experts get together to talk about everything from route planning to crew schedules to visa requirements,” Potter said. “We have to be very thorough. For example, if we’re flying from Moline to India we may have to fly over countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran. Those countries require overflight permits.

“We’ve got to figure out how much fuel we need and where to fill-up because some airports charge more than others. We have to make sure we have the right paperwork for compliance and ramp inspections. We’ve got to figure out where to station relief crews, too. Because if we’re going to India, we may have to switch out pilots in Europe. There’s a lot that goes into our jobs.”

The number one priority for Deere Aviation, however, is safety.

“We’re an industry leader in safety,” explains Jay Sears, director of Aviation. “We use the best training providers and methods available. We have a fatigue management system that can analyze a trip and digitally ‘score’ the risk by using the parameters of the trip, the flight crews’ circadian body clock, the crew’s previous duty, rest cycle, and several other factors. It’s absolutely vital because as a business partner, we have to provide the safe travel for our passengers so they, in turn, can be efficient and productive.”

A Higher Purpose

Potter has worked very hard to get to where she is today. And there’s nowhere else she’d rather be.

“What I really enjoy most about flying is seeing all the different things you can see from an airplane,” she said. “One of my first international flights as a John Deere pilot was when we flew over Iguazu Falls on our way to Brazil. It was gorgeous. Plus, during some trips, we’ll get a break to see the sights. One time in China, we had a day we weren’t flying, so we toured the Great Wall.”

Despite the unique schedule demands, she strives to balance work with life.

“Our leaders want to talk to those who work the land because it helps us improve our processes and products. And It makes me feel good to know that I can help make those connections happen.”

“When it comes to my family and friends, sometimes I have to explain things, but they understand it’s my career. It’s a career of travel, it’s a service industry,” said Potter. “We’re providing a service and a tool to our passengers and we have to be flexible. For us pilots, we work with each other on scheduling in case a colleague’s child, for instance, has an important event. But there are just times when you’re going to miss stuff.”

She doesn’t have to travel far, though, to witness the purpose of her profession.

“I go home to Michigan and I see my sister and brother-in-law working really hard on their farm. And I know that our executives and our employees — the people who fly with me — really care about these folks because they’re taking enough interest in them to go where they live and work,” Potter said. “Our leaders want to talk to those who work the land because it helps us improve our processes and products. And It makes me feel good to know that I can help make those connections happen.”

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Reaching New Heights

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