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The corporate jet set takes off… in more ways than one

He holds his nose high, yet drags his tail along the ground. It’s Con Agra CEO Charles M. “Mike” Harper, strongman of the corporate takeover, swaying precariously down the runway in a propeller-driven 1942 Stearman. “The plane can take off again if you land it too fast,” Harper says. Under its tail is a small landing wheel like the one on the DC-3. When the tail touches down, the nose points skyward-so if you’re moving too fast, the plane will be poised to take off. “Anything can happen when you’re landing-or, for that matter, when you’re climbing to 30,000 feet; you’re always vulnerable,” muses Continental Health Affiliates’ Jack Rosen, another CEO who pilots his own King Air turboprop. “I enjoy the fear of the unknown.”

Others do not, and go to great lengths to avoid it. Argus’s CEO, Conrad Black, can pretend he’s never left the ground as he climbs aboard a Gulfstream G-II resembling the interior of the Toronto Men’s Club. “It’s terribly ritzy, with oak walls and gold-plated this and that,” says James MacIntyre, formerly with Innotech Aviation, a Canadian builder of airplane interiors.

On National Distillers’ DC-8, the window blinds were covered with decorative illustrations, so when CEO John Bierwirth turned to gaze out the window, he unexpectedly found himself staring at pictures of the company’s gene splicing experiments. These attempts at recreating the work environment are often scorned by those who pilot their own planes.

“Jazzy stuff’ has no place on S.C. Johnson & Sons’ Cessna Citation. It would spoil the fun for chairman Samuel C. Johnson, who says, “I’ve flown from New York to our base in Wisconsin so many times that I can get on the plane and suddenly become a pilot and no longer the director of a corporation.” Nevertheless, the 60-year-old Johnson acknowledges, “I’m not getting any younger, so it’s good to have a competent co-pilot sitting next to me.”

Flying the corporate jet can be a challenge for pilots and passengers alike, therefore, experts offer CEOs the following suggestions:

Be the first to board the plane. There was so much jockeying for position on Clairol’s corporate jet that former president Bruce Gelb found himself forced onto commercial flights. A clever solution-try to reserve more than one seat. The Falcon Jet 900 has three suitable for a CEO: one overlooking a boardroom table, and two that recline and rotate at opposite ends of the cabin.

Use the plane to show off the company’s products whenever possible. Visiting CEOs were delighted to see aluminum fixtures on former Alcoa president Fredrick “Fritz” Close’s plane. ‘They were less thrilled when they found they would have to sit on aluminum thread,” says Dave Ellies of Dave Ellies Industrial Design.

A plane’s exterior should be easy to maintain, unlike the all-white Faberge corporate jet -“a complete pain in the neck,” recalls Maclntyre, “that stayed about as white as a white carpet with a three-year-old child eating chocolate over it.” Planes flying the company color also pose a problem, such as a ketchup-red Heinz jet-“the gaudiest thing I ever saw,” says Maclntyre.

Limited space inside a plane dictates that the superfluous double as the utilitarian-hence, a Renoir painting on Conrad Black’s jet flips over to reveal a television set. Although FAA approval is needed for many on-board gadgets, the agency has been reasonably tolerant as even fuselage-mounted surveillance cameras have been approved. The committee did, however, tell Adnon Kashoggi, ‘We don’t do hot tubs,’ when he petitioned for the right to splash around on a DC-8.

Running an airline doesn’t necessarily guarantee an easy ride. Virgin Atlantic Airways CEO Richard Branson made the first transatlantic hot air balloon crossing in a cramped gondola (though he did bring along a fully first-class reclining seat from his 747). Branson, who wore a blue pilot’s uniform adorned with silver braid, has been outdone by Carl Icahn, who reportedly ran around his office dressed in a pilot’s uniform shouting, “We’ve got ourselves an airline!”, the day he took over TWA. Since Icahn wants everyone to fly TWA, he doesn’t own corporate jets, though he does reportedly charter them.

While some jets are merely a perk for a CEO, others are treated as a management tool. “Time is why we use this aircraft,” says Frank Stronach, chairman, Magna International Inc., who shares his Canadian Challenger 601 with close to 30 middle managers. Stronach doesn’t want a valuable asset sitting idly in the hangar. Neither does John Petrehn, CEO of Portable Power & Light, who convinced the U.S. government that circling the globe in a balloon at 92 miles an hour is in the national interest.

Petrehn suggested sampling the atmosphere for radiation from Chernobyl. The Air Force agreed to transport his 13,000 pound helium tank to a site in Argentina, where wind conditions favor launching the two hot air and helium balloons that he will attempt to fly simultaneously around the world nonstop this December. “This is certainly a worthwhile adventure-not just the lark of an eccentric businessman,” claims Petrehn, who also won the sponsorhip of Luis Escarmona, the president of IMPSA, Argentina‘s largest metallurgical company.

Petrehn, whose Kansas-based company sells floodlights and generators for heavy construction, has wooed many a CEO to his balloons. When he first bought a recreational balloon, he found that “CEOs were coming in on their learjets just to take a ride with us, and using the excuse that they were coming to buy floodlights.” So he installed floodlights on the balloon for nighttime use, and nicknamed it the Flying Lightbulb.

Not to be outdone, Jacques Soukup, CEO of Hidden Manor real estate in Spring Town, Pennsylvania, took to the air in a balloon shaped like Carmen Miranda, while shopping center developer Leo Isenberg, of the Leo Isenberg Company in Kansas City, went up in one resembling a gumball machine.

But Eisenberg is really a down-to-earth guy: when he lands, his crew picks him up in a Rolls Royce!

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