The Detroit Airlift

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

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.

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.

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.

“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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