Bissell makes a clean sweep with Bombardier Challenger 350

From GRR, company execs travel to customer sales outlets across the US and overseas.

Training at Bombardier in Dallas

Samantha Somers is Bissell's corporate flight and executive travel coordinator. She uses FOS software to support the department's scheduling requirements.

Training is a major priority at Bissell. "We train, train, train," Sanders says. "If you can't afford to train your employees properly, you're just asking for trouble. I firmly believe that you get way more out of training than whatever you spend for it.

An investment in training also shows your employees you are really serious about safety. Frankly, I think that motivates employees."

Pilot recurrency training is accomplished at Bombardier in Dallas. International procedures training is done through Air Training International also in Dallas, although most of the classes are now available online.

"Last year at Bombardier we took an extra day for emergency procedures and dunker training," Sanders notes. "We've had high altitude training, firefighting, first aid, and we all just went to CPR training, which we do every 24 months. Last year we had an L-39 Albatros come over from Chicago so we could do upset training."

AirDocs based in Battle Creek MI provides Bissell's inflight medical training and support services. "They teach us how to use the onboard medical kit, which is updated annually and is now equipped with Epi pens," Sanders explains. AirDocs training includes how to administer the Epi pens, as well as dealing with non-CPR emergencies such as food poisoning or strokes. The company also provides all of Bissell's flight physicals.

In some cases, training brings added capability. The department will begin doing RNP arrivals in the fall. "We go to school in August and the 350's avionics are being updated by Rockwell Collins to support RNP," says Sanders. "Most of the airports we go to, including Chicago Midway, have RNP arrivals, so we're making the necessary changes to our manuals to accommodate that."

Bissell doesn't have a requirement for new pilots very often. But when it does, Sanders looks for candidates with upwards of 4000 hours who can be captain-qualified immediately – although that doesn't mean they'll start commanding trips right away. "As a new captain, the selected pilot will be riding with me for the first 90 days or so," Sanders says. "With corporate flight ops, the job is much more than just flying the airplane. That part is a given. You need someone who gets along with the passengers and is committed to all the additional duties and responsibilities that go along with being a corporate pilot."

The current complement of 3 pilots has served Bissell well for many years, but Sanders says changing conditions in the pilot labor market may prompt a change. In the past, he notes, Bissell has relied on a pool of contract pilots to cover any crew shortfalls such as sickness or an odd day requiring an early departure and an unusually late arrival. A year ago there were 4 contract pilots with Challenger type ratings who were current in the aircraft and available for an occasional backup trip. Now there are none.

"They all went to the airlines," Sanders says. So now he is considering hiring a 4th pilot who would serve strictly as an FO, with the expectation of upgrading to captain in a couple of years.
Like other Bissell flight department personnel, Ensink also attends recurrent training at least once a year, usually at the Bombardier training center in Dallas.

Bissell flight dept missions

Over the years the missions flown by the Bissell flight department have changed considerably. "When I first started with Bissell, we were flying almost every day, out at 7 and back at 6," Sanders says. "All our manufacturing at that time was in Grand Rapids and our suppliers were mostly in the Midwest. The company had some non-core businesses back then, including a chemical division with a plant near Pittsburgh and another in Columbia SC.

We had warehouses in upstate New York and New Jersey. The company sold off most of its non-core businesses in the mid-1990s and then moved production to McAllen TX. A critical factor in our decision to buy the Learjet 45 was its ability to take a full load of passengers non-stop from Grand Rapids to McAllen."

In the 2000s, Bissell moved most of its manufacturing to the Far East and the need to go to McAllen fell back to about once a month. Sanders adds, "We began doing a lot more customer support flying. Our best customers became K-Mart, Walmart, Target, Ace Hardware, Lowe's, Canadian Tire in Canada and other companies like that. We visit them at their headquarters a lot. In the fall we bring a lot of customers into Grand Rapids to see our latest products."

With its base at GRR, winter operations are a significant consideration for about half the year. "We're close to Lake Michigan and the cold air comes across 80 miles of warm water," Sanders observes. "When the wind is right we can get a lot of snow and ice."

The heaviest times for lake-effect snow are December through February. To deal with winter conditions, Sanders had a custom-built deicing rig installed in Bissell's hangar. The aircraft is deiced with Type 4 fluid in the hangar, and Sanders coordinates with the airport and county maintenance crews to ensure runway availability. "We load in the hangar, pull out and we're on our way," he explains.

A corporate flight dept saves time

Like many traditional flight departments, Bissell has been approached by fractional share companies looking to take over the flight operation. "A couple of years ago, one of the companies that specializes in selling quarter shares came by to talk to us," Sanders relates. "The Bissells weren't interested. It's too hard to control quality when you don't own the airplane yourself. We're a cleaning company, and part of maintaining that image means that our airplane has to be spotless all the time. I showed the man from the quarter-share company what our airplane looks like, and he had to agree that none of his airplanes look like ours."

Sanders also notes that the Bissell family want to have their own pilots and know who's flying them. "I certainly can't fault them for that," Sanders says.
Perhaps CEO and Chairman Mark Bissell best summed up the value of the Bissell flight department when he said, "The beauty of private aviation for me is the convenience it offers to go when you're ready to go.

It's so fantastic in America compared to other countries. We have so many airports where general aviation is accepted that you can get close to anywhere you are going on very short notice. I can't say it's indispensable but it sure makes our lives easier and is very much appreciated."

Mike Potts is senior editorial contributor for Professional Pilot. He was in corporate communications for Beech and Raytheon Aircraft between 1979 and 1997.


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