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The New First Class

The New First Class

Corporate jets and helicopters have become the new first class, the new millennium’s version of the car-and-driver. Little wonder those fortunate to fly such luxurious machines often say they have the best job in the world. AVIATOR takes a ride to Melbourne with corporate pilots Jason Roberts and Bill Reynolds to see what all the fuss is about.

SYDNEY AIRPORT

0700

IT’S a glorious Sydney morning; the sun is shining and the skies are clear blue without a cloud in sight. Corporate jet pilots Jason Roberts and Bill Reynolds are discussing details for a flight between Sydney and Melbourne. The pair are employed by one of Australia’s wealthiest men and they earn a crust flying the boss, his executives and, on occasion, his family, to locations within the company’s worldwide empire.

Today’s flight to Melbourne is fairly routine; the boss and three senior executives need to be in the Victorian capital for urgent meetings that will take up most of the day.

After completing the flight plan via computer, the pilots check the NOTAMS and weather; Sydney’s weather is CAVOK, whereas the forecast for Melbourne is thunderstorms and heavy rain. Jason, 36 looks at his 55-year-old co-pilot with a grin and quips: “Bloody hell, mate, does the sun ever shine in that hometown of yours?” Bill just laughs and responds: “Mind on the job, mate, mind on the job.”

The cabin is immaculate – white leather seats surround a work table, where the executives will discuss the day’s business en route to Melbourne – and is equipped with refreshments, including tea, coffee and a variety of breakfast goodies.

Both pilots are command endorsed so they’ve agreed that Jason will be “Pilot in Command” on the leg to Melbourne and Bill will do the honours on the way home. Both have impressive CVs; a former RAAF C-130 pilot, Jason has been a corporate pilot for seven years; while Bill is a former helicopter pilot and airline captain boasting some 15,000 hours on a variety of aircraft.

“I’ve enjoyed my career in both rotary and airline flying; but this corporate gig is exciting because there’s no such thing as a normal day,” Bill says. “One day we could be doing a routine trip to Brisbane, the next we could be jetting off to Asia, New Zealand or the USA. And flying such a state-of-the art aircraft is a real pleasure.”

The Citation sits on the tarmac in the GA section of Sydney Airport and Jason makes sure the sleek jet is fuelled and ready to go. He completes the daily inspection and signs the maintenance release before adding the relevant information to the flight record sheet. “We’ve done everything that needs to be done before the passengers arrive in around 30 minutes,” Jason says. It’s just a matter of waiting now.”

SYDNEY TO MELBOURNE

0800

The passengers arrive and they’re deep in conversation; game hats on for their upcoming meeting. Each man acknowledges the pilots as they quickly climb into the cabin. Bill loads their luggage in accordance with weight and balance calculations and Jason settles into the left-hand seat and fires up the right engine. He then starts the left engine as Bill delivers a safety brief to the passengers. The pilots’ teamwork is impressive; they work together like a well-oiled machine, efficient and professional.

In next to no time, the Citation is hurtling down the runway. Jason eases back the control column and as the aircraft climbs off the ground, Air Traffic Control guides the crew to FL360 (36,000 feet). Once established in cruise Bill checks on the passengers, who have already helped themselves to coffee and are seated at the table, discussing business.

The flight to Melbourne is uneventful and the weather conditions are better than forecast – low cloud and a light drizzle. Thankfully the thunderstorms are nowhere to be seen.

After landing, Jason taxis to the hangar and shuts down the engines. Shutdown checks are completed and Bill descends from the aircraft to unload the passengers’ baggage. Jason remains in the cockpit and finishes the relevant paperwork before alighting from the aircraft.

A shiny black limousine arrives on the tarmac and within minutes whisks the four passengers away to the Melbourne CBD. Jason and Bill have been advised that the passengers will be back at the airport by 3pm so they’ve got a few hours to play with before trekking back to Tullamarine. A car has also been provided to take the pilots to a city hotel, where they can indulge in some rest and relaxation before the return flight to Sydney.

“We’ll probably just hang out, have a bite to eat, a bit of a rest and then head back,” Jason says. “Then again, there’s plenty to do in Melbourne, even if the weather today looks pretty ordinary.”

 

THE NEW FIRST CLASS

Corporate jets have become the new first class, the new millennium’s version of the car-and-driver. Passengers don’t need to mix with the general public; they don’t queue in lines waiting to check-in; and on international flights, there’s no need to be at the airport three hours before departure. These guys go when they want to go.

Indeed, two of Australia’s wealthy elite – Westfield’s Frank Lowy and Publishing and Broadcasting Limited’s James Packer are but two examples of high flyers who own multi-million dollar business jets. Both own luxury Global Express jets (worth around $61 million brand new) which are used to access their respective global business empires.

To some, spending $61 million on what is considered to be a luxury item, is insane. However, being stuck at airports and relying on airline schedules is deemed to be a waste of time and money for businessmen operating in the fast lane, where convenience and efficiency are critical to a company’s bottom line.

“Corporate jets are a business tool,” says the managing director of one of Australia’s largest corporations. “You can’t have a meeting flying business class or even first class on an airliner. We couldn’t have built our business without a plane because when we started out we were going to lots of regional areas where there were no regular flights. We still do, but now we’re a global company with interests in Asia, Europe and North America.”

 

THE CHARTER OPTION

Not every member of Australia’s wealthy elite owns their own aircraft. Indeed, in many instances it’s far more cost effective to charter a jet rather than own one.

Barry Graham, CEO at Sydney-based JetCorp Australia and JetCorp Global, says that unless businesses are using private aircraft constantly, the economy of scale doesn’t work out at all.

“If a business only needs to use an aircraft around six times a year then it’s definitely better to hire one when  needed because it’s a really substantial undertaking to have your own crews on constant standby,” Graham says. “Private ownership is only for those who would use the aircraft constantly.

But having said that, Graham says that, more than anything, chartering a corporate jet comes down to practicality.  “It’s the best and most efficient way for executives to travel: especially if there are groups of executives who need to get somewhere fast,” he explains. “It’s fairly obvious they’re going to cover a lot more territory and can be in a lot more places in the same day than if they fly regular airline services.”

Apart from that it’s an entirely appropriate way to travel. “From a business point of view it’s savvy, it’s comfortable and it’s a cut above even first class airline travel,” Graham explains. “Plus the clients can work – they have an entirely appropriate environment where they can do what they need to do en route to their destination. They just get up and go and do exactly what’s necessary very efficiently.”

Another reason why corporate aircraft are so popular is due to the limited number of airports that are serviced by RPT services. Indeed, the sheer necessity of following their own schedule, rather than that of an airline timetable is crucial.

“The people who use corporate jets are not enamoured by the fact that a lot of regional airports are serviced by turboprops,” Graham explains. “Mid-size jets can access hundreds of regional airports that aren’t serviced by turboprops, which are too slow for longer trips. However, they do come into their own in very marginal strips, gravel strips or out-of-the-way rural strips, et cetera. But if a client wants to go from Melbourne to Lightning Ridge for instance, he can do it in a business jet. If he wants to go from Perth to the Argyle Diamond Mines in WA, he can, he just gets up and goes and it’s functional and practical. It’s not a matter of sitting around trying to figure out how to get there. This is the way to circumvent all the angst that goes with regular airline services.”

While corporate flying is increasing in popularity in Australia, the numbers here are nothing compared to the USA, where it is so common that it’s considered just another means of transportation.

“Corporate flying will never become as popular in Australia as it is in the United States because of the population,” Graham says. “But having said that, thanks to the mining boom and the buoyancy of the corporate sector, corporate charter is certainly the preferred mode of travel for most. Given half a chance virtually every company would use private aircraft or private jets.

“Corporate flying in Australia is also very safe,” Graham adds. “There hasn’t been a crash in Australia in more than twenty years and no fatalities at all; whereas in the USA accidents are almost happening on a weekly basis.”

 

MELBOURNE CBD

1200

Meanwhile, back in Melbourne, Jason and Bill are enjoying a hearty lunch at a cafe’ in the CBD and they’re in their element shooting the breeze about their respective careers.

Both men have flown a variety of aircraft, including jets, turboprops and in Bill’s case, helicopters. “Not every private aircraft is a jet,” Jason explains. “I once ferried an executive TBM 850 across the United States for a client and I tell you what, for a single-engine turboprop, the aircraft was superb,” he says. “It had a high-tech Garmin G1000 integrated avionics system and a massive 15-inch multifunction display; top cruise of 320 knots and burned 65 gallons of fuel per hour. Not to mention a range of over 1,200 nautical miles. It really is an awesome single.”

The former RAAF man has also clocked up a few hours in the Piper Meridian, another single aimed at the corporate market.

“I used to fly for a retailer who had franchises all around the U.S.,” he says. “He couldn’t see the point in investing in a jet so he spent around $2 million on the Meridian. It suited his needs perfectly. It’s a good aircraft, the single Pratt and Whitney powerplant enables it to cruise at 213 knots; range is around 1,000 nautical miles and service ceiling is 30,000 feet. And as you’d expect from a private aircraft, the interior was immaculate: leather seats, nice trimmings, great air conditioning system; state-of-the-art G1000 avionics suite – the works. For a single in that class, the Meridian was a pleasure to fly.”

In the meantime, Bill, a former chopper pilot, explains that he has flown many sophisticated aircraft, including rotary and fixed wing types.

“I’m unusual for most fixed wing pilots because I love rotary flying,” he says. “I used to fly the Sikorsky S-76 as an offshore oil transport pilot and the machine was terrific. But Sikorsky has just introduced the D-model (S-76D), a luxurious executive transport helicopter. This machine is the rotary version of the luxury corporate jet. In fact, some would say it’s even better. The cabin is big, comfortable and quiet. It has customised satellite telephones, flight progress displays, entertainment systems, refreshment cabinets; and of course, leather interior. It has Pratt and Whitney 210S twin turbines, Thales TopDeck cockpit technology and motors along at 155 knots. It’s a class act.”

Bill has also had the pleasure of flying a brand new Eurocopter EC130 T2, an upgraded version of the EC130. “Through a mate of mine I was fortunate enough to have a play in a 130 T2,” he says. “It’s an awesome machine. Eurocopter has modified around seventy per cent of the aircraft’s airframe; the engine (Turbomeca Arriel 2D) is ten per cent more powerful than the old one; fuel consumption is ten per cent better in the late model version and there are so many updates and improvements on the old (EC130) version it’s incredible. It’s an awesome piece of machinery.”

Not only has Bill indulged in the latest rotary types, he has also piloted the Hawker 4000, an advanced carbon composite super midsize jet. “Imagine a top speed of Mach .84 or 555 miles per hour,” he says. “Imagine high efficiency ‘and’ quiet Pratt and Whitney Canada turbofans. Sixteen hundred pounds of available payload with maximum fuel and a flight deck that features a fully-integrated Honeywell Primus Epic system. A system built on the same advanced avionics as the Boeing 777. For a pilot, that’s some aeroplane. And for the passengers, a spacious stand-up cabin that caters for eight to ten people, custom-tailored to the client’s personal specifications. That’s what I call luxury.”

Bill then looks at his watch and suggests it’s time to head back to the hotel. The passengers are due at the airport at 3pm and time has slipped by.

As we walk, Jason can’t help himself and continues talking aircraft. His passion is obvious. “One of my favourite aircraft is the King Air 350i,” he says. “It’s environmentally friendly; has unmatched fuel efficiency and low operating costs. It’s perfect for the go-anywhere global business traveller and best of all, it can operate from runways shorter than three thousand feet.”

How’s its performance?

“Excellent,” comes the reply. “At maximum gross takeoff weight it can climb at 2,730 feet per minute and can fly nearly 1,500 nautical miles on full fuel. But what I really like about it is its capability on bush [unimproved] strips. I love flying the Citation (jet) but as you can see, I’m really into my turboprops! Comes from all those years flying the C-130.

“The beauty of corporate flying is the fact that you get to fly a range of aircraft in a variety of missions. I’ve flown jets and turboprops, my mate here has experience in jets and helos – its brilliant. In some ways we have the best job in the world.”

MELBOURNE AIRPORT

1400

A company driver collects Jason and Bill (and the author) from their hotel and drives back to the airport at 2pm. The pilots thank him and head for the plane.

The passengers arrive and they’re in high spirits; the meeting appears to have gone well. The pilots go through their routine and before long the engines are humming and it’s time to go.

Melbourne ATC clears the Citation for takeoff and as Pilot in Command, Bill pushes the throttles forward and eases the Citation into the sky. After takeoff, he commences a climb to FL370 (37,000 feet) and tracks northeast towards Albury and Canberra before commencing his descent just north of Goulburn.

On final approach into Sydney at 500 feet, Jason confirms the aircraft is in a safe position to land. At 30 feet Bill flares the Citation and reduces the thrust to idle. He greases the landing on Runway 34 Left, brings the aircraft under control and applies manual braking. Welcome to Sydney.

Bill taxis the plane to the hangar and shuts down the engines. Jason assists the passengers out of the jet and unloads their equipment into a sleek black limousine. The pilots farewell the boss and his three executives before getting busy with paperwork and cleaning the plane. By 7pm everything is done and Jason and Bill head to the carpark: it’s time to go home. The day has been a long one … be interesting to see what tomorrow brings.

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