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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“Nobody in this business ever says ‘thank you,’ ” says Reliant’s Rick Zantop. “The pilots are worked very hard.” (They fly an average of 800 hours a year with additional hours spent on-call.) “We know where we are on the food chain,” says Active Aero’s Brian Hermelin. The freight pilots are not on the bottom, but close to it. Last summer United Airline pilots ratified a new contract that will pay senior captains more than $300,000 per year with a fixed schedule. Senior captains of the Detroit Airlift can make around $135,000 with overtime and incentive pay. Instructors and check airmen can conceivably boost that to $150,000. A first officer starting off on the Falcon will make around $32,000 a year.

Then there’s the stress and uncertainty of living life at the beck and call of the beeper. “You can’t guarantee the schedule at this company,” says Active Aero’s Ray Mundt. His pilots and those at other companies are often asked to work scheduled days off. In 1999, the red-hot auto market stretched the Detroit Airlift to the breaking point. “Automotive consumed all available lift,” says Zantop.

Zantop is standing in his hangar where, during World War II, B-24 Liberators once ruled. Between 1942 and 1945, Ford made 8,685 of the bombers here at a giant 3.8-million-square-foot factory across the field. The building is now occupied by General Motors’ Hydramatic plant. “It’s for the love of flying that we do this,” says Zantop. He looks out at a Lockheed Electra taxiing by a parked Airbus chocked perpendicular to one of his Falcons. When Charles Lindbergh visited Willow Run in 1943, he called it “the Colossus of American industry.”

It still is.


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