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 3 of 5)
Sending a Falcon 20 into the night can cost up to $5 per statute mile, but the costs of shutting down an automobile assembly line (the specifics of which auto executives will not discuss) make this look like a bargain. Marty Goldman of Active Aero has seen his airplanes met by helicopters that fly the parts directly to the stricken plant in a scenario that seems more like medevac than air freight. Describing his company’s mission in supporting the automotive plants, Rick Zantop chooses words you would expect to hear from a paramedic: “You have to get them the parts before it happens, before the patient dies.”
At 2:25 on a rainy Monday afternoon, 10 minutes after Active Aero gets another “total emergency” call, USA Jet pilot Terry Wilmott’s home phone rings. At 2:45 Wilmott is met in Active Aero’s operation center by first officer James Gosslin, who recently joined the company after 21 years in the military, 10 of them, some 3,100 hours, flying AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships and C-12 King Air turboprops. Wilmott, with 6,700 hours of total time, ascended the ranks as a civilian, first as a flight instructor, then as a corporate pilot. He has served as a Falcon 20 captain for a little over a year and is getting ready to transition to DC-9s. The two men have never flown together before. This is not an uncommon situation at USA Jet, which will employ more than 140 pilots by year’s end. “In the old days,” says Wilmott, referring to the 1980s, “there were ten different ways to fly the airplane.” Thanks to standardized training, “now there is just one.” This allows Wilmott to fly with Gosslin, a total stranger, with confidence.
The pilots are briefed on their mission: Fly 220 miles to Indianapolis, pick up several pallets of General Motors power steering pumps, take them 327 miles north to London, Ontario, then fly a 126-mile leg home. On paper, it’s an easy trip. Weather, however, doesn’t respect paper. Wilmott heads for a waiting Falcon 20 with his rollaway suitcase and notebook portfolio. An ominous red sticker has been plastered to the portfolio’s cover: “Shipment Contains Human Remains, Handle With Care” (freight dog humor). Wilmott completes the preflight in the rain, clutching a windblown umbrella with more than a few exposed spokes.
The crew is buckled in by 3:17 and the Falcon’s 74-inch-wide cargo door is lowered into place. It does not seal tightly; daylight comes in around the edges, and the aircraft’s pressurization system will be working overtime to make up for the leakiness.
Wilmott hits the igniters, lets the engines run, and checks the air brakes. USA Jet no. 816 taxis out to five miles visibility in mist on Runway 5 Right. (At 7,526 feet, it is the longest of Willow Run’s five runways.) By the time 816 gets to Indy, there will be an excellent chance of thunderstorms there.
At 3:27 Wilmott advances the throttles as Gosslin reads the takeoff speeds. Wilmott rotates at 154 mph, lifts off, and quickly enters the base of an overcast at 10,000 feet. Just as soon as the cruise checklist is done, it is time to head down again, into Indianapolis Center’s airspace.
Things happen very fast in the Falcon; it is definitely a two-man airplane. The instrument panel is old and crowded but very functional. “The Falcon 20 is a very strong airplane,” says Rick Zantop, “It’s a small airplane, but it’s not a toy.” Cargo-configured 20s can fetch $1.5 million to $2 million, and those who operate them at Willow Run, primarily Reliant and USA Jet, run them hard, about 1,100 hours per year per airplane. With 5,700 pounds of freight in the back, a 20 can fly for an average of 1.5 hours with fuel reserves at about 450 mph. Most loads, however, weigh far less.
Rick Zantop was one of the first operators to see the value of Falcon 20s as on-demand cargo haulers after FedEx moved to larger aircraft for its overnight package service. Along with DC-9s, he calls them the backbone of the auto industry’s airlift. Today they are operated in quantity not only by Reliant and USA Jet but also by Toledo-based Grand Aire and Dallas’ Ameristar. Several other operators have two or three each.