GREENSBORO — Flying in a HondaJet Elite is like strapping into a comfortable SUV and gliding across the Triad at several thousand feet.
It's fast, nimble and quiet. And like any Honda car, rock solid in its construction. A Boeing 737 feels like a rattly bus by comparison.
At $5.25 million, the HondaJet Elite is one of the least expensive private jets you can own and the smallest. Still, the price is a little too rich for some.
But a former F-15 pilot and Honda Aircraft Co. sales manager named Glenn Gonzales believes he's found a way for "people of means" to get their piece of paradise in the sky.
His company is called Jet It. And for a fee, you can own a substantial share of a HondaJet — the company isn’t affiliated with Honda, although it does buy the company's aircraft — to use at your disposal. Business? Pleasure? Both?
Jet It is selling to companies that may want to fly their executives on important business trips or families with the means to pay for private travel without the budget to own a plane.
"Until we can teleport," Gonzales said, "you won't get to a destination any faster than a jet."
• • •
It's 5:14 p.m. on a bright summer day as a red and white HondaJet taxis down the short runway at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
Pilot Ridge Ivory and four passengers sit in the small but spacious cabin on tan leather seats, practically elbow-to-elbow, but with plenty of leg and headroom — as long as you don't stand up too straight. The HondaJet will carry six passengers and two pilots — that is, if one of those passengers is willing to use the seatbelt on top of the toilet seat.
This jet was built at Honda Aircraft Co.'s world headquarters at PTI. From armrests to cup holders, HondaJets continue the Honda design aesthetic that would be at home in any Acura. Jet It executives liken the plane to a "Ferrari in the sky."
At 5:20 p.m., it's wheels up. That flying sports car takes off with more G-force than your average airliner, pushing passengers into their seats with a solid feeling of acceleration that doesn't abate until you're cruising within seconds over familiar highways and buildings at 5,000 feet.
For this short flight, Ivory never comes close to the plane's 43,000-foot maximum altitude or top speed of 486 mph. But on the 150-mile flight, Ivory puts the HondaJet through a series of banks and turns that show off not only the plane's precise handling, but also its comfort and quiet operation.
While harried commuters sit jammed in rush-hour traffic below, a flight in the HondaJet shows off the Triad.
In the cockpit, Ivory surveys the array of glass screens, lightly turning a jewel-like control wheel.
Look out the panoramic windows. There's Market Street and the Lincoln Financial building in Greensboro.
Within minutes, Winston-Salem's bright white Wells Fargo Center comes into view. There's Hanes Mall below. Even familiar neighborhoods and medical centers.
What a view.
• • •
Unless they ask for it, Jet It customers aren't likely to want to fly over their hometown. They'll be too eager to head to their favorite destinations: New York, Chicago, the Cayman Islands.
To the average person, Jet It's minimum buy-in price of $600,000 may seem exorbitant. But Gonzales points out that it costs much more for a business or individual to buy a share — called "fractional ownership" — of a Gulfstream or other ultra-luxury jet. And that $600,000 buys you the right to use the HondaJet and a Jet It pilot for a set number of full days. Competitors, like NetJets, sell customers use of a jet by the hour only.
Under one plan, for example, a Jet It buyer can use the plane for 55 days a year. A similar plan with competitor NetJets may allow for only 100 hours of flying during a year.
According to Gonzales, a full day allows the well-scheduled executive or family to make several stops as far as 1,600 miles apart. Think of a business trip from Greensboro to Dallas, then a stop in Nashville before taking the family down to the Bahamas for a vacation.
"We are by far the least expensive service in the industry," Gonzales said.
• • •
Gonzales' career has been about aviation. He believes he was born to build this company.
As a child in Houston, Gonzales dreamed of flight, whether it was as Superman or an astronaut.
In high school, he received an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.
He felt closer to his dream of flying fighter jets as graduation approached. That was until a flight doctor told him he'd never fly because his vision was less than 20/20.
Shortly before his 1999 graduation, however, the Air Force started recruiting pilots with slightly less than perfect vision and Gonzales knew he had to apply.
"I literally ran down the hall and was in the office six seconds after getting notice," he said.
As a trainee at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., he mastered F-15 fighter jets with the 71st Fighter Squadron. He was also the "Top Gun" in his class with the best scores in aerial combat maneuvering.
After 10 years in the Air Force, he chose to leave the service and join the Air Force Reserves where he now serves as a lieutenant colonel.
Then he made the move into private aviation. It was the worst possible time for an economy that was in rapid decline and posing a serious threat to the private aviation industry. He signed up to join Gulfstream Aerospace as a pilot in March 2009, the depths of this century's worst recession.
Within three months, he was one of six pilots who were furloughed. When the company recovered enough to begin hiring, Gonzales was the only pilot called back.
He said he learned a lesson while out of work — that he needed to develop other skills so he could expand his opportunities beyond flying.
As a Gulfstream demonstration pilot, he was part of the sales process, helping to convince customers that buying that jet would be a sound decision. And he found that "salesmanship is nothing more than leadership."
In 2014, Gonzales made the move to an innovative new company whose jet wasn't even certified to fly yet: Honda Aviation.
"I first flew the airplane in August 2014," Gonzales said. "I knew this aircraft was special."
• • •
It was while selling the popular HondaJet that he discovered a market — people who wanted access to a jet, but weren't quite ready to invest $5.25 million. Gonzales found that many customers weren't able to buy the airplane on their own and were interested in finding a partner. But often such arrangements fall through or become too complicated.
So for two years, he began developing a business plan. With an MBA from the University of South Carolina and a potential partner in Vishal Hiremath, another Honda Aircraft sales manager, Gonzales began talking to potential investors for his company.
He also found support from a well-known local businessman, Jeff Harris, a co-owner of Furnitureland South. Harris agreed to become the lead investor and Gonzales was able to recruit a diverse team to help him start the company.
Just a year after launching on Labor Day 2018, Jet It has five HondaJets in its stable — owning three and leasing the other two — and a staff of 19 employees.
The majority of interest is in the Mid-Atlantic states, but Jet It has customers in Ohio and Arkansas as well. And soon it will go international with a division called Jet Club in Singapore managed by Hiremath.
• • •
From a passenger seat in the HondaJet, Gonzales surveys Greensboro, the city he calls home, and talks excitedly about the plane and his plans for his company.
About 25 minutes after takeoff, the pilot has made a gentle landing back at PTI.
It's an exhilarating experience to fly in a small jet with just a few people. Maybe not as exciting as flying an F-15, but just as meaningful for Gonzales.
He believes he and his team have found a way for more people to get into aviation.
"We keep it as basic and simple as possible," he said.
Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.
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