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The first leg of Mitt Romney’s journey to a private equity fortune ran between Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas and the Tonopah Test Range, deep in the Nevada desert. In the mid-1980s Tonopah, also known as Area 52, was home to the newly developed, top secret F-117A stealth fighter. Pilots and support personnel lived in Las Vegas and spent their working week in the desert.
The partners sent a team of Bain employees, including Meg Whitman, then in her mid-20s and today the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, to check it out. Key was small but generated stable cash flows. In addition to the Tonopah contract, it serviced aircraft that passed through Salt Lake City, operated an air ambulance and ran a Cessna dealership.
Bain Capital sold Key Airlines in July 1986, after the union threat was over, to another company it had invested in on the basis of airline deregulation. That buyer was Presidential Airways. The price was $18m.