The Detroit Airlift

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

Air & Space Magazine

The man had a six-inch butcher knife and he wanted to go to Washington, D.C.—immediately. The knife was aimed at the ribs of Conrad Kalitta, famous for his hard-charging drag racing career and the founder of what was then, in 1989, one of America’s most successful on-demand air freight companies. The man with the knife, Allen Stahl, marched Kalitta out to the flightline at the Willow Run airport in suburban Detroit and pointed to a Learjet that had been converted to haul cargo. It wasn’t Kalitta’s but Stahl didn’t care. He told Kalitta to forget about the pre-flight—get in and crank the engines. Kalitta complied. He had a plan.

Kalitta’s intention had been to get airborne, don an oxygen mask, and depressurize the cabin, which would have caused Stahl to lose consciousness. But once the two men were inside the Lear, all hell broke loose. Stahl began swearing, swinging the knife around the cockpit, and reaching for the throttles. Kalitta exploded and attacked with bare hands, sustaining minor cuts. Meanwhile, outside, a mechanic flung open the Lear’s door and a state trooper drew down on Stahl, who promptly surrendered.

Some 12 years after it happened, the “Connie and the knife” incident is retold with relish and often much embellishment by line freight pilots based at Willow Run, who primarily serve the just-in-time parts needs of the U.S. automobile industry. Theirs is an unabashedly unglamorous existence, flying 50,000 tons of freight every year in approximately 200 gutted Learjets, Dassault Falcon 20s, DC-9-32s, Lockheed L-188 Electras, CASA 212s, and other airplanes well past their prime. The swashbuckling image of a freight pilot created by actor Mel Gibson in the movie Air America is largely nostalgia now. “It’s not two guys off in the jungle bouncing around upside down half the time,” says Jeff Anderson, a Falcon pilot and general manager of flight operations  for Willow Run-based Reliant Airlines.

The operators have carved out a profitable niche delivering freight that must arrive at its destination in a matter of hours. When a factory needs auto parts to keep assembly lines open, overnight on Federal Express is rarely fast enough. Other airports around the country, notably El Paso, Kansas City, Memphis, and Toledo, also do a thriving ad hoc air freight business for the auto industry. But Willow Run has the nation’s largest concentration of operators and activity. And the self-made Kalitta remains its most colorful character.

Kalitta started flying auto parts for Ford in 1967 with a twin-engine, piston-powered Cessna 310. By 1995 Forbes estimated Kalitta’s holdings at more than $250 million. His investment had blossomed into an empire: five companies employing 3,000 workers and generating $450 million in annual sales. Measuring by fleet size, his company was the world’s 25th largest airline, and his airplanes hauled everything from professional basketball players to rock stars’ concert equipment.

By 1997 Kalitta’s empire had fallen on hard times. In a cash-and-stock swap, it was taken over by Kitty Hawk, a much smaller air freight company. What started as a risky strategy under the best of market conditions came completely unglued as jet fuel prices spiked and wages increased in the wake of a pilot shortage. On May 1, 2000, Kitty Hawk filed for bankruptcy. Said one Willow Run insider of the deal: “Jonah swallowed the whale.” Five months after the bankruptcy filing, Kalitta bought back the troubled company for $10 million.

Kalitta’s near-hijacking cemented his place in Willow Run’s colorful lore. His company’s history also symbolizes how rough-and-tumble the on-demand freight business can be. Two companies have since emerged as the leaders: the Active Aero Group and Reliant Airlines.

“It was truly a pilot’s industry in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s,” says Ray Mundt, assistant director of operations at Active Aero, currently the automotive industry’s largest single supplier of airlift services. Speaking of those times, Reliant’s former director of operations, Paul Stephenson, says, “The old way you learned by doing it. If you came out clean and unscathed, you lived to do it another day.” Preston Murray, president of Murray Air and another old Willow Run hand, agrees. “The wild days ended in the 1980s,” he says. “There was a time when we didn’t close this airport in bad weather.” (There were two fatal air freight accidents in 1987 alone.)

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.

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