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The Detroit Airlift

This hard-working band of pilots and fleet of weary airplanes keep the U.S. auto industry rolling along.

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.

Typically, the six to eight operators who provide the vast majority of Detroit’s airlift trade airplanes and parts among themselves or scoop them up from bankrupted brethren. The rising fuel prices and pilot shortage of 1999 combined to chase several marginal along with a few well-known operators out of the marketplace. “Most of our aircraft come from companies that no longer exist,” says Zantop. “There is a high failure rate of companies in our industry.” At least two of USA Jet’s Falcons were previously registered to Kalitta. Airplanes gleaned on the cusp of a creditor auction typically require few modifications to convert them to freight haulers, as they are already configured for cargo. Generally, avionics must be added, subtracted, or relocated to satisfy fleet standardization requirements. (Converting a passenger-configured Falcon 20 to cargo costs $500,000 and up, largely due to the airframe modifications required for the large cargo door.)

Big cumulonimbus cells are forming on the left side of the airplane as 816 drops through 4,000 feet and slows for landing. Wilmott and Gosslin touch down at 4:30 p.m.

A forklift with three pallets holding 1,893 pounds’ worth of power steering pumps is waiting on the ramp. The air is dripping with humidity. Wilmott heads into the freight terminal to recheck the weather and file a new flight plan. Gosslin fetches his heavy duty cargo mitts from the airplane’s storage locker and hooks up the cargo straps to the pallets. Sweat pours off the beefy Bostonian’s brow as he and the fork driver push the load into the rear of the aircraft.

“There’s nothing in this business you can rely on,” says Wilmott. “You may be told that you are taking on one pallet and you get four.” By 4:45 816 is loaded and ready to go—almost. U.S. Customs must clear the departure, and Customs is nowhere to be found. After 25 minutes, an inspector finally arrives and saunters casually toward the aircraft. Wilmott and Gosslin know better than to appear annoyed or anxious. No amount of pilot agitation will convince the bureaucracy of the Detroit Airlift’s urgency. Schmooze mode prevails.

By 5:45, 816 is loaded and legal. Gosslin will fly this leg. After liftoff, 816 is cleared to 16,000 feet and vectored right into a large bank of towering cumulus clouds that is turning the onboard weather radar’s screen ominous shades of crimson. Wilmott calls air traffic control to ask for a turn, but the frequency is clogged. Turbulence begins to buffet the Falcon, followed by sheets of rain that pelt loudly against the fuselage. With the Falcon penetrating the precipitation at 288 mph, the raindrops sound more like hail. Gosslin and Wilmott confer and decide to turn left 20 degrees before things get any more interesting. Rain follows 816 all the way to London, where it lands at 6:45. A delivery truck and Canadian Customs are waiting; fifteen minutes later the forms are signed and the Falcon is unloaded. The power steering pumps will make it to the plant on time.

Wilmott, who will fly the short leg back to Willow Run, opts to take on 3,000 more pounds of fuel (“The only time you can have too much gas is when you are on fire,” he says). Due to air traffic control vectors for traffic and weather, the short 126-mile trip will take a lot longer than the pilots think. Flight 816 breaks out of the overcast 350 feet above the runway at Willow, and the pilots do not make it back to the USA Jet ramp until 9:00 p.m.

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