Feature: Air Command
Greg Farbolin fills a variety of roles for the Honey Baked Ham Co. He is the founder of the company. He pilots the corporate jets. And he serves as a baggage handler for passengers on those jets. In truth, the latter task he performed only once, and it is unlikely that it will happen again. A licensed jet pilot, Farbolin was scheduled to fly one of the company’s three Hawker jets—used by executives to visit existing stores and future retail„ ocations—from Atlanta, where Honey Baked Ham is based, to Boston for a meeting. As he approached the plane, a group of the company’s attorneys who were also going to attend the meeting, recognizing that he was the pilot and not realizing that he was the boss, presented their bags for him to load onto the aircraft. Farbolin obliged, without mentioning who he was, and then flew the Hawker to Boston. Needless to say, when the meeting commenced later that day and the attorneys entered the conference room, they were at first surprised and then sufficiently embarrassed to find their pilot seated at the head of the table.
While thousands of executives own jets—or own companies that own jets—and use the aircraft for business and recreational purposes, most of them turn right as they enter the cabin, grabbing drinks and newspapers before settling into their seats. But a few, including Farbolin and Bruce Erickson, are trained to pilot their own jets.
Erickson has been conquering the skies since he was 12 years old, when he first piloted an airplane. Later, in his position as the chairman and CEO of American Bank, Erickson regularly won over prospective clients by flying floatplanes and turboprops to meet with them and finance their real estate deals, arriving hours or even days before his competitors. He prided himself on flying more hours per year than some Delta Airlines pilots, yet Erickson had not yet made the leap to jets. In fact, initially, just the thought of piloting a jet made him sick to his stomach—although he had already placed a deposit on a Cessna Citation CJ1.
Just after Erickson had purchased the CJ1, he enrolled in flight training to become certified to fly the aircraft. However, two weeks of flight simulator sessions, in which he flew approach after approach and battled in-flight emergencies, turned his internal gyroscope upside down, prompting late-night bouts of nausea that forced him to crawl out of bed and into the bathroom, all the while questioning his decision to become the pilot and the owner of a jet.
Nevertheless, Erickson completed the training and now considers it the best business move he ever made. It also has benefited his personal life. During a recent trip with his wife, Carolyn, to Napa Valley from their home in Bozeman, Mont., the 54-year-old Erickson, flying the CJ2 that he now owns, added at the last minute to their itinerary a tour of real estate in Cabo San Lucas and a visit with their daughter in San Diego. “Jets change your life,” says Erickson, who has flown 22,000 hours in the 42 years that he has been a pilot.
Farbolin, who earned his pilot’s license when he was 19, lives in Spruce Creek Fly-In, a neighborhood in Daytona Beach, Fla., where the homes have hangars instead of garages and the main drag is a runway. Farbolin owns a Turbo Commander and has considered purchasing a jet, but most require two pilots, and he prefers to operate planes by himself. That sentiment is shared by Erickson, who had placed an order for a Citation X but recently canceled his purchase because of the jet’s two-pilot requirement. If either is in a plane, he wants to be the person piloting it at all times. “I’m the world’s worst passenger,” says Farbolin. “I’m not used to anything but a forward-facing window. My buddies get excited when they get upgraded from coach to first class. Anything behind the cockpit door is cargo as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care if they have better crackers.”
As the pilot, Farbolin is in control of when and where he travels. Recently, he, his wife, and another couple were planning to fly in his Turbo Commander from Atlanta to Aspen for a ski weekend. However, a solid bank of thunderstorms filled the skies from Nebraska to Texas, making an approach into Colorado from the east virtually impossible. “How about Key West?” Farbolin suggested to his wife and friends. They stowed their skis, packed their swimsuits, and flew to Florida instead.
For Erickson, owning and piloting his jet affords him the freedom to golf in Iceland. He flies there once a year to participate in the Arctic Open, an around-the-clock golf tournament played on the summer solstice; one year, Erickson teed off under the sunshine at 11:58 pm, and the rest of his foursome hit their first shots after midnight. “I have three dates on my calendar: Carolyn’s birthday, our anniversary, and the Arctic Open,” says Erickson.
Rare is the executive who pilots his jet strictly for recreational purposes; using them as business tools helps to justify the multimillion-dollar expenses that they represent. Erickson, who also flies his own Bell 407 helicopter, often visits prospective real estate development sites in his jet before making a go or no-go decision. He describes one instance in which a client contacted him regarding a business deal in Austin, Texas. Erickson, flying his Cessna from Bozeman, was in Austin by 10 am the following morning and struck a deal after touring the site. “I was there while the competition was haggling over the budget for airplane tickets,” says Erickson, who estimates that his company would be one-quarter of its current size if he did not fly his own plane. “I’m a tough guy to compete with.”
For Erickson and his executive pilot peers, business trips do not involve flight delays and layovers, nor do they require any advance notice with a fractional provider or charter operator. Steve Lockshin, chairman and CEO of Lydian Wealth Management, has not forgotten those inconveniences. Lockshin, who lives in Maryland, used to fly more than 100,000 miles commercially each year to visit clients, supplementing his air travel frequently with three-hour train trips to New York. After spending so many hours in airliners and airports, the last thing he wanted to do was herd his family into another airplane to take a vacation.
Lockshin’s perspective began to change four years ago, when he chartered an airplane for the first time. He hired a Pilatus PC-12 to fly him from Maryland to a meeting in Atlanta; had he flown commercially, the trip would have taken twice as long. A short time after the charter flight, Lockshin was riding down the runway at Virginia’s Manassas Regional Airport in a friend’s PC-12. The friend, piloting the plane, asked Lockshin if he wanted to handle the yoke. “Sure enough, the air speed indicator hit 80, and that was it,” Lockshin recalls. “I loved it. It was like a computer game.”
Soon after, Lockshin had his first flying lesson and was hooked. He would take a lesson at 6 every morning, drive to the office, and receive more instruction at night. As he drifted off to sleep, Lockshin replayed that day’s flight in his mind, recalling how he had nailed a landing or mastered a takeoff. Since then, he has owned six planes, beginning with a Piper Cheyenne II. In his CJ2, which he purchased in 2003, he averages 500 hours of flying per year.
Lockshin says that about 90 percent of his flight time is business-related, and that the CJ2 is especially useful for multistop trips. One day last year, he had breakfast in Washington, D.C., flew to a lunch meeting in Tampa, Fla., met clients for dinner in New York, and arrived home that night. The rest of those flight hours are spent transporting family and friends to vacations and outings. Every Christmas, he loads his wife, children, and sheepdog into the Cessna and flies to the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. He also visits the Bahamas, Montana, and Canada to fish, and Aspen to ski.
During the week, especially in winter, Lockshin will watch the Weather Channel to find out where it will be warm and sunny or which mountains will have the best powder before making his weekend plans. “In the winter, when the weather’s crappy, you’ll say, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ ” Lockshin says. “You’re sitting on the ground, and it’s snowy, rainy, wet, cold, and nasty. You take off, hit 3,000 feet, and there’s nothing but sunshine. Two hours later you’re in Florida. Or you’re coming from Seattle, and soon you’re in Sun Valley, skiing. You create your own weather.” You cannot ask for more power than that.
Although Jeremy Umland spends most days at his Ozumo sushi restaurant in San Francisco, when the 46-year-old entrepreneur and pilot flies back to his Santa Monica, Calif., home base for the weekend, the first thing he craves is sushi. “Landings are the most stressful part of a long flight,” says Umland. “When I land, I’m ready to go out and get a bite to eat and a beer, so I head upstairs to the Hump.”
Set on the top floor of the Santa Monica Airport’s administration building, the Hump has been a popular stop for pilots since former helicopter flight instructor Brian Vidor opened the Japanese restaurant in 1998. “Most airport restaurants serve hamburgers or Mexican food,” says Vidor, who pilots his own Cirrus SR22. “I don’t know of any other place like the Hump.”
Inside Vidor’s World War II–themed restaurant, ceiling fans spin like airplane propellers over the seven tables and 16-seat sushi bar. Light from the airport’s rotating beacon flashes through the dining area, while the evening’s freshest menu items swim in a glass tank beside the bar. Next to the tank, an etched-glass impression of the Himalayan Mountains alludes to the restaurant’s name.
Early in World War II, after Japanese troops cut off the Burma Road, U.S. pilots were forced to fly a harrowing route in order to continue delivering supplies to forces in China. The 500-mile path began in Dinjan, India, and ran directly over the Himalayan range, or, as the pilots called it, the Hump. From 1942 through 1945, U.S. pilots flew as many as 1,000 round-trip missions per day over the Hump, and during one six-month span in 1943, 155 planes crashed on the route, killing 168 pilots and crewmembers.
The Hump restaurant, at least in name and decor, honors these World War II pilots while catering to their modern-day comrades. The restaurant has five tie-down spaces on the tarmac and sushi-to-go specials designed to be enjoyed on board or taken to a pilot’s next destination. The Hump’s sushi covers the standards, as well as more exotic dishes such as ankimo (monkfish liver) and young yellowtail served sashimi style with Serrano pepper and garlic dai dai sauce. Vidor imports his ingredients from sources as far away as Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market and counts Miyosakae and Tamade among his eatery’s premium sakes.
Vidor claims that several pilots—including a Piper Malibu owner from Scottsdale, Ariz., and the owner of a 1950s-era T-28 based in Van Nuys, Calif.—fly to Santa Monica specifically to dine at the Hump, and then hop back in their planes to return home. Umland, however, prefers to visit the restaurant at the end of a journey. “If you have to fly back,” he explains, “you can’t drink the sake.” - Bruce Wallin