Back when Rob Ceravolo piloted fighter planes over Iraq, he’d fly seven days a week, sometimes seven hours straight. He’d return at maybe 1 a.m., staring down at the flashing lights of a bobbing aircraft carrier.
“I would look at that aircraft carrier and, every time, I’d be thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Ceravolo, 44, recalls. “It was a whole lot like starting a company for the first time.”
The company Ceravolo started, while still active duty in the Navy in 2009, took everything he had to get going. But now Tropic Ocean Airways claims to be the largest amphibious airline in the world.
Ceravolo grew up in Fort Lauderdale, and he knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot ever since his Italian immigrant father would tell him World War II stories about American planes screaming overhead, signaling the pending liberation of his village. He added seaplane pilot to his to-do list after he took a ride in a seaplane and read the Jimmy Buffett book “Where Is Joe Merchant?” with the lead character who’s a former Navy airman who becomes a seaplane pilot.
Near the end of his 14 years flying for the Navy, he took a motorcycle trip with a buddy across Italy. Along the way, Ceravolo read “Screw It, Let’s Do It” by Richard Branson, and the message about taking a risk convinced him to finally try the dream he had as a kid. Ceravolo sold his house, boat, motorcycle and Porsche and maxed out his credit cards to buy a 1976 Cessna 206 Stationair seaplane.
He was days away from bankruptcy in 2011 when he finally got approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. The two $100 bills he made for his first flight are framed over his desk now with the message: “Break in case of bankruptcy.”
By 2013, he hit up friends and family for investments and bought a Cessna 208 Caravan model that can transport eight people. The company has grown 30 to 40 percent yearly since, now with 13 planes and flew more than 35,000 passengers last year. With more than 100 employees, Tropic has operations in eight countries.
After Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, Tropic began collecting supplies that Ceravolo said would be delivered with his company’s planes, by parachute if necessary. With extensive damage to Bahamian airports, his planes had a better shot at reaching the islands.
Among the reasons Tropic Ocean Airways has worked, Ceravolo says, is that he set out to change the culture of seaplane travel.
“Seaplane pilots have always had this reputation as cowboyish,” Ceravolo says, noting that seaplanes had several accidents this summer in Alaska. “We simply wanted to make it more professional.”
Ceravolo believes seaplanes solve many of the problems of airlines, including exorbitant airport gate charges, congested runways and the lack of airstrips in rural areas and islands, which has equaled a five-star rating on TripAdvisor. While seaplanes were once mostly the toys of the super-rich, Ceravolo set out to make them more accessible.
“We’ve got celebrities—we actually just flew someone you’d know about an hour ago to her private island—and we also have just regular people going on vacation,” he says. A seat on a plane to Bimini, for instance, costs about $400 and comes with a far easier security check-in.
So he could concentrate fully on the company’s growth, Ceravolo stopped flying five years ago, although he’ll take over at the controls occasionally when he takes a flight. But he says he’s no less committed: perhaps as proof, on his right forearm, is a tattoo of the company’s logo, a Frigatebird in flight soaring in front of the sun.