UTFlight celebrating its diamond anniversary

 - October 8, 2007, 9:34 AM

To associate the jet-set image of a corporate flight department with S-38 flying boats and Ford Trimotors might seem a bit of a stretch to those who fly in the plush expanses of a gold-trimmed, leather-upholstered Global Express or GIV. But for UTFlight, the East Granby, Conn.-based flight department of United Technologies, the connection to aviation’s past runs deeper than most. Celebrating its 75th year of continuous operation in August, UTFlight took a rare opportunity to reflect on its rich history, spanning from August 1928, when its first full-time corporate pilot, Benny Whelan, flew the company’s newly delivered Ford Trimotor using skills imparted by his flight instructor, Orville Wright.

Today, UTFlight owns a fleet of three Hawker 1000s, a Gulfstream IV, a Global Express and a pair of Sikorsky S-76 helicopters–a B model and a C+. The flight department employs 48, including 22 pilots, assembled to fly a select group of 21 executives to global destinations ranging from the exotic to the mundane. Of course, places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Perm, Russia, didn’t appear on the itinerary in 1928, when Pratt & Whitney Aircraft president Fred Rentschler and William Boeing formed United Technologies’ forebear, the giant United Aircraft & Transport Corp. In those days a Sikorsky S-38 plied a route between Hartford and New York, where the flying boat would execute water landings in the Hudson River. Often, the early pilots used the airplanes to flight-test propellers and engines on the same airplanes used to transport the company’s executives.

Only five years after Rentschler and Boeing created their conglomerate, antitrust legislators forced its break-up, sending United Aircraft, Boeing and United Airlines on their separate paths. Of course, while Boeing and United Airlines went on to forge their own legacies, United Aircraft played the acquisition field, absorbing Sikorsky and Hamilton Standard, among many others, all with the help of the flight department now known as UTFlight.

From the early 1930s through the dawning of the commercial jet age in the 1960s, the company flew a range of piston-powered aircraft, from the world’s first airliner–the Boeing 247– to the Lockheed Lodestar, Fairchild F-24G, Douglas DC-3 and Convair 340. It took delivery of its first helicopter–a Sikorsky S-51–in 1952 and later, in 1961, its first S-62 and Lockheed JetStar. Other airplanes purchased in the 1960s included King Airs and Sabreliners. The Convair, bought new in 1953, served United Aircraft’s flight department for some 25 years, finally leaving the fleet in the late 1970s.

The 1970s brought yet another wave of company acquisitions, and, with it, more airplanes, including six from Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Essex Wire and another three from Carrier. The decade also marked a name change– to United Technologies–and a need for regular shuttle flights to support a NATO contract for F100 engines and to fly employees between the various company divisions. At its peak in the early 1980s, the company operated 22 aircraft, until consolidation and divestitures prompted it to move the entire operation from a series of bases to company-owned Rentschler Field in Connecticut, where it stayed until 1994.

Now flying out of Bradley Field and the shuttle operation a distant memory, UTFlight plans to support about 50 international trips this year. The department reports directly to company chairman and CEO George David, who, according to chief pilot Ken Kuhrt, stresses accountability and a no-nonsense ethic regarding the use of the airplanes. Only the top 21 executives are authorized to use the airplanes, the top portion of whom are exempt from chargebacks.

Kuhrt said UTFlight keeps the fleet “fairly busy,” and projects that the two helicopters will fly about 700 hours this year, while the long-range jets each log between 700 and 750 hours and the Hawkers each clock about 550 hours. The helicopters fly mainly between Hartford, Boston, New York and several plant locations throughout Connecticut; the midsize Hawkers typically fly domestic missions, although they do fly transatlantic missions when prior commitments render the GIV and Global Express unavailable. For supplemental capacity, the company also owns a one-eighth fractional share in a Hawker 1000 through NetJets and books roughly 100 hours worth of charter time annually.

Given the relatively select group of “authorizers” with access to the airplanes, there appears little need for a formal scheduling procedure. When one of the company’s division presidents needs an airplane, he or she need only call dispatch, said Kuhrt.
“We really run a 24/7 operation,” said the chief pilot. “Somebody is always available. After hours, there’s someone on call–and we’re frequently called in the middle of the night.”

Minimum hiring requirements for captains specify an ATP certificate, 3,500 hours TT, 500 hours of turbine time, 200 hours PIC and a minimum age of 23. First officers need 2,500 hours TT. Kuhrt also emphasized the need for a four-year college degree. The standards represent general guidelines, however, and he said sometimes special circumstances warrant exceptions. “I hired a guy right out of Perdue University with 500 hours,” said Kuhrt. “He was an intern with us for about three months and had a wonderful attitude. We identified someone that we liked, and it worked out extremely well.”

UTC offers full tuition reimbursement throughout the company. At UTFlight, one of the helicopter pilots earned her degree while on the job, as did the department’s quality-assurance manager. As an extra incentive, the company gives $10,000 in UTC stock to any employee who earns a bachelor’s degree, and another $10,000 worth of equity for a master’s degree.

The first corporate flight department to gain ISO 9002 registration, UTFlight performs much of its own maintenance on its airplanes, although it typically sends them to factory service centers for heavy checks. “A lot depends on availability,” said Kuhrt. “If we can send the airplane out and get it back more quickly, we’ll do that.”

At UTFlight, the “time is money” cliché certainly applies. So on the occasion of his flight department’s 75th anniversary, reflections on days past lasted as long as the September 25 reception in honor of the achievement. For Kuhrt, the future holds more interesting challenges, such as preparing for a new Falcon 2000EX scheduled to arrive next September and a Hawker Horizon in 2006.

The arrival of the Falcon will mark the start of a plan to replace the Hawker 1000s, and open yet another new chapter in UTFlight’s rich history. Perhaps in another 75 years, they’ll reflect on the Hawker 1000s at UTFlight’s 150th anniversary gala. But instead of feeling nostalgia for the Trimotor’s reciprocating engines, maybe they’ll wonder how we ever made do with those slow, noisy, gas-guzzling turbofans.