The National Business Aviation Association presents Pilot Flying Safety Awards each year to the member company pilots who have exemplary safety records. To be eligible for an award, a pilot must have flown corporate aircraft 1,500 hours without an accident, but the actual number of safe hours flown by many of the 2008 top pilots is around 25,000 hours, and the top recipient, George Thomsen, has logged 31,002.
Some of this year’s top five have appeared in these pages before. We talked with the top pilots–George Thomsen, Aviation Management Systems; James Watson, Executive Flight; Gordon Czelusta, Rich Products; J. Paul Boening, Keller Companies; and Larry Eldridge, Steelcase–to learn their safe-flying secrets. Together, the top five have flown 128,048 safe corporate flight hours
Aviation Management Systems
George Thomsen, the top-ranked safe pilot again this year, reported that Aviation Management Systems (AMS) has added a Dassault Falcon 50 and 900 to its Gulfstream 100/Astra SPX and said most of his flying for the past year has been out of the country. He had just returned from Istanbul in a Gulfstream 550 when we spoke to him and had also made flights to Spain, Italy and Greece. Domestic flights are mostly from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta. AMS was based at Orange County Airport, Santa Ana, Calif., before it moved to Naples.
Thomsen had his own charter service at Orange County, flying for Frank Tallman of Tallmantz Aviation before he joined AMS. Tallman did a lot of movie aviation work with partner Paul Mantz, and Thomsen recalls flying for some 30 movies with Tallman. “I have a list because there are so many I just don’t remember them all,” he told NBAA Convention News. One that stands out, he said, is Catch-22, Mike Nichols’s 1970 adaptation of Joseph Heller’s World War II novel, for which Thomsen flew a B-25.
Before his movie career, he flew as a corporate pilot, mostly in the timber and mining industries. He served three tours in Vietnam, he reported, flying AC-130s and KC-135s. He credited the U.S. Air Force for his flying career. “Before I went in the Air Force, I flew as a hobby–I grew up near Fullerton [Calif.] Airport,” he said, “and had no intention of flying professionally. But it turned into a career because of the Air Force; they made my choice for me. I had all the ratings and had done flight instruction at Orange County. When I went into the Air Force, they said, ‘You will fly.’”
Last year, Thomsen told us that he had also started a new company, Creative Technology Solutions of Naples, which is in the computer management business, handling Web sites, computer security and business systems for aviation and general businesses.
James Watson always had a fascination with airplanes and was always interested in flying. He finally got the opportunity to learn with Columbia Skyways at Pangborn Field in Wenatchee. The company was also rebuilding an agricultural application airplane at the time, so he said he also “learned a bit about how an airplane is put together.”
After learning to fly, Watson “worked into the business” with Columbia part-time, then full-time. He was employed there for 16 years when Executive Flight bought Columbia and Watson continued to work for the company until he retired this summer. He still does flight training, part-time. “I paid my dues for a lot of years,” he said. “I’m always on call when there are organs to fly or critical patients to transport.”
Executive Flight employs 58 pilots and 107 people, providing corporate flying, on-demand charter, air ambulance and organ transfer. Most of the flights are domestic, Watson said, with many to Alaska where Executive Flight has operations in Ketchikan and Juno. He said one of his most interesting flights was from Anchorage to Shemya, at the westernmost tip of the Aleutian Islands. He noted that the distance from Wenatchee to Anchorage is the same as from Anchorage to Shemya.
Flying in Alaska is very interesting, he said, and because a lot of his flights were at night, he saw the northern lights often.
Executive operates a Bombardier Learjet 35A, two 31As and one 60, a Challenger 600 and an Aero Commander 840 and Hawker Beechcraft King Air 90. “My favorite,” he said, “was the Commander 840; you can fly that single-pilot and it flies really well.”
A whole bunch of things kept him safe over the years, he said. “Paying attention to details, the little things, and I don’t allow circumstances to rush me.”
Director of flight operations, retired
Gordon Czelusta started out in corporate aviation with Robert Miller Construction, flying a Cessna 182 all over the U.S., the Bahamas and Puerto Rico. In 1971, he switched to flying a Cessna 411 for WER Industrial, Grand Island, N.Y., then the company graduated to a Lear 23. Moving to Carborundum Co. of Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 1973, he flew its Lear 24D. In the next seven years, the flight department expanded to two Learjet 35s and two Hawkers.
In 1981, Rich Products, Buffalo, N.Y., asked Czelusta to start a new flight department for the company. The food corporation had about $2 million in sales then. “We started with a Citation 500,” Czelusta told NBAA Convention News, “and we expected to fly around 250 hours a year, mostly between Buffalo and West Palm Beach. The Citation 500 was upgraded to a 550 and by the end of 1982 we were flying 700 hours a year and starting to fly to Europe. By 1985, we acquired an HS-125 retrofit and expanded into worldwide operations, including Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.”
In 1988, the company bought a Falcon 50 and expanded even further into worldwide operations. Today, Rich Products is a $2.5 billion company with a Falcon 900 and two Learjet 45s, each flying about 700 hours per year. Rich Products has sales offices in 90 countries.
Because of Rich’s age-65 retirement policy, Czelusta said, “I was forced to retire in November 2008.”
Czelusta was enthusiastic about his career at Rich Products and said he especially enjoyed the company’s flights to Russia. He credits his enthusiasm for his long accident-free record. “Number one is enthusiasm; there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. I have my hobbies and my J-3 Cub,” he said, but corporate flying was the best.
“A lot of knowledge has been gained over the last 40 years that I have been in corporate aviation,” he added. “In the early years, we had jet engines that were not fuel efficient, had no thrust reversers, drag chutes or modern braking systems. Training has progressed from on-the-job training to simulator-based training. Aircraft reliability has made great strides. Airports are more frequently served with precision approaches and runways are grooved and have VASIs.”
In January, Czelusta started flying a Falcon 900 for a management company in Florida, but after it reduced its fleet size, he was furloughed. “It is my desire,” he said, “to continue in corporate aviation and give back to the next generation some of the knowledge that I have gained through my experience.”
J. Paul Boening
J. Paul Boening has flown for The Keller Companies since 1977, with a brief absence in the 1980s. Based in Manchester, N.H., Keller is a family-run manufacturing business whose main product is the Kelwall translucent panel.
“The Kellers are very good to work for,” Boening told NBAA Convention News. “There’s little turnover and they are very supportive of the flight department.”
Keller operates two Mitsubishi MU-2s, “which we’ve always had,” said Boening, and a Dassault Falcon 10, which the company has operated for more than 15 years. He added that the flight department had become experts on MU-2 modifications over the years and the company is the highest time MU-2 operator. “We did production test flights when we installed new engines,” he said.
The flight department includes three full-time pilots, three part-time pilots and three full-time mechanics. Most of its flights, Boening said, are domestic or to Canada and the Caribbean. The company flies about 1,400 hours a year, and Boening had logged a total of 24,045 hours at the end of 2008, which is the number on which the NBAA award is based. He said that his total time this fall is more than 25,000 hours, with 20,000 in the MU-2.
Boening said that his parents swear that he announced at the age of two that he was going to be a pilot, “and now I are one!” he joked. He learned to fly while attending New England Aeronautical Institute, now Daniel Webster College, and finished his training at a flight school run by Bill White, now chief pilot at Keller, who is active in NBAA affairs.
When asked about his safe flying record, Boening replied, “We are strong believers in recurrent training and we fly professionally. We do it the way it should be done. We do trip sheets for each trip. We have good maintenance. Nothing is ever let go. If we don’t like the weather, the company backs us up. We maintain a professional attitude.”
Standards captain, retired
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Larry Eldridge retired in August 2008 from Steelcase–after 23 years with the company–as standards captain, a position he held for about 12 years. When he started working for Steelcase in 1986, it operated two Cessna Citation IIIs and now it flies a Dassault Falcon 2000EX and a Falcon 900EX. Along the way, he flew Hawker 800s and Falcon 2000s as well. He told NBAA Convention News, “I enjoyed flying all the Falcon aircraft, but my favorite was the 2000EX because of new technology and the options that crews have for information on the flight deck.”
Steelcase’s flight department has eight pilots, four mechanics, one full-time scheduler and a part-time scheduler/coordinator.
Eldridge told NBAA Convention News that he had always been interested in flying and while in the U.S. Navy tried to get into the flying program. That didn’t work out so when he left the military he got all his ratings at the local airport, Ionia County Airport in Michigan, and ended up running the airport for four years before switching to corporate flying in 1976.
He was chief pilot for Guardsman Chemical for five years, until it closed its flight department, and flew for Amway for a short time before joining Steelcase, a manufacturer of furniture for offices, hospitals and colleges Grand Rapids-based. The company does business all over the world, he said, with international operations mostly in Europe and Asia.