Rockhill Group continues to grow
At first he was all thrust and no vector, but the former Air Force pilot quickly changed
that and his Molino-based aviation services company has grown over 900 percent in
the last few years...

David Tortorano
February 2016

MOLINO, Fla. -- James “Rock” Rockhill isn’t afraid to admit that when he first started
his business a dozen years ago, he was “all thrust and no vector.”

“When I first started, I never saw a contract that I couldn’t do,” he says now. But it
didn’t take long for the former F-15E pilot to realize that if he expected to survive in
business, he had to add some direction to his charge forward approach. Once he
did, the company started to take off.

The Rockhill Group (TRG) is one of the major entrepreneurial success stories from
the Gulf Coast region. An aviation services company headquartered in Molino, north
of Pensacola, it provides flight training, courseware development, aircraft leasing,
maintenance and cryogenic services for the Air Force, Army, Navy and Federal
Aviation Administration.

It now has operations at more than two dozen locations and about 200 employees.
And with a new contract TRG won in December, the company founder and president
expects to add another 100 employees. The biggest boost in employment will be at
Hurlburt Field, which will grow to about 70 workers from today's two.

The $13.2 million contract calls for TRG to provide Air Force Special Operations Air
Warfare Center aircrew training at Hurlburt Field in Northwest Florida and Cannon Air
Force Base, N.M. TRG will provide instructors for several models of the C-130,
including the AC-130 gunship, the C-12 and remotely piloted aircraft.

The contract also has two and one-half option years which, if exercised, would bring
the total value of the contract to $57 million. TRG beat out 10 other bidders to win
the contract from the Air Force Installation Contracting Agency at Wright-Patterson
Air Force Base, Ohio.

The growth of TRG is an example of how a determined entrepreneur can leverage
experience to create something new and exciting, and provide jobs for hundreds of
people.

Rockhill enlisted in the Air Force in 1983 and was assigned to Keesler Air Force
Base in Biloxi, Miss., where he was enrolled in the air traffic control school program.

He moved up the enlisted ranks to staff sergeant and later attended Officer Training
School. In 1987 he started pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Okla. He has been
“Rock” from the time he became a pilot in the Air Force. He said he got off easy
compared to the call-signs the others in his class of about 30 students were given.

He was assigned to an F-111 and later transitioned to fly the F-15E fighter. He flew in
Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Operation Provide Comfort I and II and Deny Flight,
earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and seven Air Medals. Rockhill later
became an F-15 instructor and served at Naval Air Station Pensacola, where he was
the first Air Force Operations Officer in the history of Training Squadron VT-4.

He retired from the Air Force in 2004 after 21 years of service. When he took off his
military flight suit for the last time on a Friday, the next Monday he was already
putting on a civilian flight suit as a pilot for a contractor. In that job in Pensacola, he
flew T-1 twin-engine planes while military sensor operators were learning their trade
aboard the plane.

He became the chief pilot in just a few months, which provided him with an even
better understanding of what it took to be an aviation contractor. He liked the job, but
started to ask himself if he wanted to work for a contractor or be a contractor himself.
The problem with working for someone else is there is a ceiling on just how far you
can go. By owning his own company, the sky is the limit.

“I always had confidence, I thought I could do more,” he said. After retiring from the
Air Force at a young age, he didn’t feel like he was even half-way through with what
he could do.

He started his own business Oct. 15, 2004, and began attending workshops through
the Florida SBDC at the University of West Florida. He credits to a large extent Laura
Subel, an SBDC government contracting specialist, for providing him with the tools to
change his approach to his business.

TRG, which hired its first 16 employees in October 2005, has grown 3,000 percent
since it launched.

He said he stopped reaching so high and ended up landing his first contract for
nearly $39,000, low-hanging fruit, if you will, providing pilot training materials to
Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.

That was just the start. He also learned that he needed to diversify his business.

“Sometimes, there’s a tendency that with a business they do something well and get
comfortable,” he said. He realized he had to prepare for new things - remotely piloted
aircraft was just one example.

His company can take credit for helping to train thousands of warfighters, both pilots
and flight officers, and is currently training Air Force pilots and sensor operators
under government contracts now approaching $100 million.

In addition to running TRG, he has also taught at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical
University, where he had earned a bachelors and masters in aeronautical science in
1987 and 1993, respectively.

He’s encouraged about the future of the region. Providing aviation services for the
federal government is like a pendulum that moves back and forth, with more work at
times, less at others. But he’s prepared to some extent by having diverse services
available - and keeping his eye on how TRG vectors.

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