The Detroit Airlift

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

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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.

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.

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