By Jane Applegate

If you are thinking of turning your passion into a business, read on.

Denise Wilson was teaching music at a private school and playing oboe professionally on the weekends when she told her husband (who is a pilot) that she wanted to learn to fly.

She signed up for lessons. Three years later, she earned her pilot’s license and started flying for commercial airlines. After 9/11, she went to work as a private pilot for a wealthy client. Things went well until the global financial crash hit in 2006 when her client admitted he could no longer afford the plane. Wilson suggested they start a charter service to help cover the expenses. “That way, he could keep the plane and not have to give it back to the bank,” says Wilson.

Passionate about flying, she decided to open her own company, Desert Jet, and applied for FAA certification. When it came through in 2007, she started the company using personal savings. Unable to buy jets outright, she followed her original model—leasing jet aircraft from owners and paying them for the use of their planes after billing her charter clients.

Today, Desert Jet operates seven small jets, flying mostly out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County. The company, which projects annual revenues of under $10 million, also operates a maintenance facility in Thermal, Calif.

applegate_report_headerWilson has 18 employees and focuses her energy mostly on running the business, although she still flies one or two charters a week. Clients range from businesspeople traveling to meetings to wealthy families who prefer to fly privately to vacation destinations. From take-off to landing, it costs about $2,500 an hour to charter a jet. But, with seven or eight seats, Wilson contends that a charter flight can be a more affordable way to travel.

“Many Desert Jet clients are high-profile individuals such as authors, musicians and golfers,” says Wilson, who adds she’s planning to acquire more aircraft to reduce her reliance on outside vendors.

What advice does Wilson have for you?

“Don’t let anything hold you back,” she says. “Women think they have to be the expert in something before they do it. Men say, ‘Okay, I can take that on, jump in and figure it out later. I say, just do it.”

Jane Applegate is the national correspondent for, author of four books on small business success and co-founder of the The Applegate Group is a multimedia production company.