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Posted September 24, 2010 | Leave a comment
Up, up and away
Used-car salesman makes daily commute in plane
By Preston Knight -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK -- Talk about your early bird.
Bob Niesslein has made a habit of starting his days at 4 a.m. and, literally, having the sky be the limit from there.
"I can't imagine anybody that has it any better than I do," he said. "I wake up, fly an airplane to work and just enjoy life. It doesn't get any better than that."
Indeed, Niesslein, 60, a Warrenton resident who owns Woodstock Used Cars LLC on North Main Street, is the most frequent of flyers, choosing to exchange the anguish of interstate travel to take to the skies for his daily commute to work. Even though he winds up driving in 60 percent of the time -- either because of inclement weather or needing to pick up cars in Northern Virginia -- the days when he can bypass traffic and cover roughly 60 miles in 20 minutes are the best ones.
"Sometimes if the wind is blowing in the right direction, I can get here in about 10 minutes," Niesslein said while in his office this week. "So, it's nice."
It's also an interesting way of life that probably could never be fully understood unless actually lived. A rundown of Niesslein's normal fly-into-work day is the next best thing. His version of 9-to-5 monotony is his glory, all starting with the 4 a.m. wake-up.
Niesslein first gets the National Weather Service on the phone to see what the forecast is for the day, and as long as conditions are right, he begins preparing his 1978 Cessna 180 for takeoff. He leaves around 6:15 a.m. from his Warrenton farm, which he purchased 15 years ago from a former American Airlines pilot. The land includes the oldest grass airstrip in Virginia, Niesslein said, and was once used during World War II to train women on Piper Cub planes.
He lands his plane on property owned by a friend, Haymarket resident Danny Niblett, off Coffmantown Road, where a private 3,100-foot-long airstrip, originally used for farming purposes, sits on what is registered with the Federal Aviation Administration as Woodstock Airport. Niesslein drives the remaining 10-15 minutes to his dealership in an "inexpensive get around" car he keeps at Niblett's property.
"How many people get to walk out of their front door, get in an airplane, cross the Blue Ridge Mountains ... and land then in the valley, which I think is the most gorgeous place in the world?" Niblett said. "How could you ever dread going to work?"
Once he arrives at his job, where Niesslein has been the dealership's only employee since opening in 2007, he goes for a run, and then returns to ready himself for the day. He leaves around 5 p.m. and returns to his plane, which is parked on a slope so no fuel leaks and quietly sits outside of a hangar Niblett built along the gravel path that takes you from Coffmantown Road. Niesslein is back home as early as 5:30 p.m.
He has done what he can to make himself feel at home while at work, though. Niesslein showcases his love of airplanes with the airplane clocks, pictures and a calendar hanging in plain view. The office is equipped with a treadmill -- the only way for Niesslein to stay in shape in the winter, he said -- and a shower.
"So I don't look like a bum trying to sell cars," he said.
There's a bit of irony that a man who relies heavily on selling cars to make a living is, for the most part, devoted to airplanes. Niesslein estimates that his Cessna, which he has had for five years, is his 10th aircraft. His first was an ultralight he built himself.
"You're always stepping up," Niesslein said. "You graduate to other airplanes."
As for the irony of selling cars, he said: "Yeah, I wish they were all airplanes. That would be fun."
Niesslein grew up around Pittsburgh flying model airplanes, but he got "hooked" on flying when he took an aeronautics class at Penn State University, where he was working toward his master's degree in industrial arts. One portion of the class put the students behind the controls of a small plane.
"I had never flown an airplane before," Niesslein said. "After that, when I could get in an airplane, I would."
Making a daily commute into work a part of that did not occur by design. Niesslein taught industrial arts around Pittsburgh but, as many instructors at the time did, had to work two jobs to support a family (he now has four grown daughters). That took him into the steel mill, which eventually paid more than teaching and became his sole source of income.
"Cars were just a means to an end," Niesslein said. "You've got to pay the bills."
Niesslein had previously purchased a cottage in Edinburg and was fixing it up, but to start a life as a used-car dealer, he sold it to establish an inventory of vehicles. Niblett, who befriended Niesslein through the car industry, said he had a lease agreement on the North Main Street property to open a lot before another opportunity arose. He told his friend to take the spot.
"I told him he's leading my life," Niblett said.
Moving away from Warrenton never seemed to be an option for Niesslein, who figured he had an airstrip to take off from and, in Niblett, a friend with an airstrip to land on.
The Woodstock Airport is managed by one of the adjacent landowners, Randy Hoover, but used by everyone who has land touching it, Niblett said. It serves as a place to hunt, garden, ride four-wheelers, host weddings, farm and, of course, fly airplanes.
When Niblett bought the land in 2002, the airstrip had been abandoned and was just a cornfield. Hoover graded the property for him, and with the help of others, and approval from Shenandoah County and the FAA, the property was ready for takeoff once again, he said.
"You can have a torrential downpour here and five minutes later, you can land on it," said Niesslein, adding that the strip is nicer than his in Warrenton.
Niblett now has the property for sale because he has a new job that requires a lot of travel. He has proposed to Niesslein that he sell his Warrenton farm and buy the Woodstock land.
"He says, 'Well I wouldn't get to fly to work then,'" Niblett said.
When Niesslein first opened for business he advertised his fondness for flying, even offering a ride with the purchase of a car. He has since scrapped that idea, but he does participate in various raffles by giving a plane ride to the winners.
"I've only taken one up," Niesslein said. "They get a little bit of cold feet."
He said he finds it more dangerous to drive than to travel in an airplane, and he further justifies his unique commute to work by estimating that the costs are about the same. Niesslein's plane burns 12 gallons of fuel an hour. With a flight time of 20 minutes, he's using 4 or 5 gallons per trip.
"I was happy as I could be," Niblett said of Niesslein's idea to fly to work. "I encouraged him to do it."
Niesslein, who is engaged, will soon have to realize that the "Hi honey, I'm home" routine will be like breaking old news each time, if the noise level based on his takeoff serves as any indication. It's difficult to discretely arrive at a place in an airplane.
But Niesslein will not be looking to sneak his way home. He is simply beating rush hour traffic, enjoying himself and getting a chance to have more recovery time at home before the next early rise and shine.
"He's the only person I know who complains that his commute to work is too quick," Niblett said. "He loves to fly."
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