The Detroit Airlift
This hard-working band of pilots and fleet of weary airplanes keep the U.S. auto industry rolling along.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, July 2001
(Page 2 of 5)
Murray remembers the unfashionable 1970s at Willow Run, when freight pilots who were part of first-up and second-up crews lived at the airport in spartan rooms above the hangars with the bare amenities—bunks, hotplate, and a black-and-white television. They would “borrow” the shower at the airport firehouse. “On a big weekend you would get a room at the Howard Johnson and then sit around the hotel restaurant with fellow pilots talking about airplanes,” says Murray. “There was an underlying competition to see who knew more about aircraft systems.”
Today pilot hygiene may be better, but life on the line at Willow Run still lacks cachet. Some of the roads around the airport retain a rustic charm—and an absence of pavement. Most of Willow Run’s cargo haulers operate out of the old faded brick airline terminal and hangar complex that once served as a center for modifying and repairing B-24 bombers during World War II. Nearby is the 50,000-employee bomber factory that Henry Ford built. The factory has long since stopped building aircraft, but its productivity has never been matched.
Now it is the training of freight pilots that is conducted with wartime efficiency. Favoring regimentation, instructors torture pilots with compound aircraft-system failures in full-motion simulators. Some of these pilots fly regular, scheduled runs, but most of them live “on the beeper,” with a packed suitcase at the ready and a mandatory 25-minute response time to the airport. They could be gone for four hours or four days, and may not know for sure until they are airborne or until they land at their first destination.
“I always take a suitcase with me,” says Terry Wilmott, a Falcon 20 captain for USA Jet, Active Aero’s in-house freight airline. When his beeper goes off, Wilmott could be headed for Kansas City—or Kuwait. Chances are the destination airport would never make the pages of a travel magazine. In the years following passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, border towns and trade gateways such as El Paso and San Antonio, Texas, Tuluca, Mexico, and London, Ontario, have become frequent stops. Memphis, Tennessee, home of FedEx and convenient to the auto assembly and auto parts plants of Tennessee and Kentucky, has become a secondary hub for Reliant.
“Our job is to manage chaos,” says Reliant’s founder and president, Rick Zantop, a 30-year veteran of the Detroit airlift. “It asks an awful lot of the pilots.” Zantop started flying auto parts for his father in the 1960s and founded Reliant in 1984 with a handful of Falcon 20s converted to haul cargo then jettisoned by Federal Express. “It’s a simple business,” says Zantop. “We are expected to do the impossible on no notice.”
“It’s a total emergency when the phone rings here,” says Brian Hermelin, Active Aero’s chief operating officer. Hermelin, a 35-year-old Wharton Business School MBA, speaks in Wall Street staccato as he stands in the center of Active Aero’s computerized command center. Forty-three people work in here. The monitors display live Internet auctions that are under way on jobs Active has put out for bid. Active is both a freight hauler and an air freight broker, and counts Ford Motor Company as one of its largest customers. When Ford’s auto parts supply chain is threatened with interruption, Active gets the call. It immediately puts the job out on its proprietary computer network to a list of pre-qualified air freight vendors. Active’s own charter subsidiary, USA Jet, is among them. The entire process is heavily price-driven and not unlike a consumer Internet auction that one might find on eBay. Only in this case, the low bidder wins. The system is transparent and Ford and the company’s other clients can monitor the auction in real time to ensure that they are getting the best available price. For the jobs it brokers, Active takes an undisclosed cut off the top, not unlike a stockbroker’s commission.
Indeed, the command center more closely resembles a brokerage house’s trading floor than an air freight dispatch operation. Some deals close in as little as two minutes. Giant video screens on the walls display tracked flights with weather depictions overlaid. Following Kitty Hawk’s bankruptcy, Active has become the largest air freight charter manager in North America. It also operates its own fleet of Falcon 20s and DC-9s through USA Jet Airlines. “Our business model is the Strategic Air Command—with ready-alert crews,” says Hermelin’s partner and Active Aero’s chief executive officer, Marty Goldman, a lawyer lured out of retirement. During the Korean War, Goldman flew C-119s manufactured by Kaiser-Fraser. (Kaiser took over the Ford B-24 plant after World War II.) Last year USA Jet flew three million miles and Active Aero managed an estimated 20,000 charters, a 15 percent increase from 1999.
Automobile industry executives prefer to downplay the role of ad hoc charter in keeping their assembly lines running. Bill Storves, North American supply manager for vehicle operations and power trains at Ford, will only say that just-in-time charter business accounts for “less than one percent” of the company’s transactions. And the charter operators themselves do not wish to discuss the economics of the service they provide, though one industry insider estimates that flying parts ad hoc contributes $300 to the cost of each vehicle made by General Motors, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler.