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Flight of fancy: A HondaJet can be all yours — if you're willing to share

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. executive 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 senior Honda Aircraft executive, 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.

An interesting article in today's newspaper

About face: Spas posted a record $18.3 billion in revenue last year. Some of the best clients were men. Page B5

As the budget stalemate drags on, GOP lawmakers tout planned improvements to Greensboro’s two state universities

GREENSBORO On a hot and humid August morning, several state legislators wound their way through some agriculture labs at N.C. A&T on Tuesday and ended up in a lecture hall.

Except for the video projector hanging from the ceiling, the 250-seat auditorium inside Carver Hall looked like something straight out of 1955, when the building opened. The wood seats are hard and narrow. The foldaway desktops aren’t big enough to hold a laptop computer.

And, oh, yeah: The room has no air conditioning.

“It’s hard to learn when it’s hot,” said Antoine Alston, an associate dean and professor at A&T’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. “When students aren’t comfortable, they’re not going to learn.”

A delegation of state legislator led by N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore toured both A&T and UNCG on Tuesday. Moore said he is visiting state universities and other state facilities “where we’re making a significant investment. We want to bring attention to it. … We want to let (chancellors) know that we’ve got their backs.”

The stated purpose of Tuesday’s tour was to see two universities where the legislature plans to spend $120 million in new money over the next two years. Left unsaid is that money for two big projects — $84 million to renovate UNCG’s library and $18.5 million to overhaul Carver Hall — remains in Raleigh because Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the GOP-drafted state budget in late June.

As the state budget stalemate closes in on 50 days, Moore has already taken similar messages to UNC-Charlotte, East Carolina University and Elizabeth City State University. Other stops have included a community college and the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, which will get $5 million for repairs in the state budget plan. Moore said projects like these are crucial to state and regional economic and cultural development.

A&T and UNCG were the fourth and fifth university stops on Moore’s statewide swing. N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden joined Moore on the A&T leg of Tuesday’s tour. Four other legislators came along for one or both stops: Rep. Jon Hardister of Whitsett, Reps. Cecil Brockman and John Faircloth of High Point, and Sen. Rick Gunn of Burlington, whose district includes the eastern half of Guilford County.

Brockman was the only Democrat in the group. He’s also the target of a billboard campaign by a liberal group that suspects Brockman and some other Democrats might side with Republicans to override Cooper’s veto.

At A&T, legislators peeked into Carver’s labs and auditorium. A&T officials hope to modernize the 64-year-old building. Carver, they said, needs new heating and air conditioning and new wiring. The labs and bathrooms need upgrades. The building also doesn’t comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

The state budget proposal has even more for the university: $7.5 million a year for the next two years to expand its doctoral programs, and another $1.6 million annually so its Cooperative Extension program can get federal grants.

AT UNCG, there was just one stop: Jackson Library, which the university hopes to renovate and expand. The library opened in 1950 and a nine-story tower added in 1973. Since then, UNCG’s enrollment has tripled.

UNCG officials said the library gets about 1.25 million visitors a year, making it the busiest building on campus. On peak days, 10,000 students, professors and others use it. The problem is, UNCG leaders say, it can seat only about 1,000 people. The library tower doesn’t have a fire-suppression system. The entire building lacks enough group study spaces, modern technology and conveniences, such as enough electrical outlets for all of the laptops and cellphones students have.

The deadlock in Raleigh has the A&T and UNCG projects on hold. The Republican-controlled legislature approved a budget plan June 27. Cooper, a Democrat, promptly vetoed it the next afternoon.

The governor countered with what he called a compromise proposal that, among other things, expands Medicaid coverage, gives teachers bigger raises than the legislature’s plan and cuts a proposed corporate tax break favored by the GOP.

Republicans, meanwhile, are holding fast to their plan. They’re seeking at least seven House Democrats and one Senate Democrat to help them override the governor’s veto.

The two sides have sniped at each other on social media and through news releases. Last week, 51 of the 55 Democrats in the House sent a letter to Moore and Berger saying that they’re “committed to sustaining” Cooper’s veto and called on the two GOP leaders to negotiate with the governor.

State government and the state university system continue to operate using last year’s spending levels. Proposed pay raises, campus construction projects and other new spending remain in limbo until the two sides can reach a budget deal.

UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam said he’ll remain patient until there’s a budget breakthrough.

“We understand (the budget is) a public process in North Carolina. Our job isn’t to worry about that,” Gilliam said. “Our job is to hope they can come up with something we can all live with.”