Operator flies customers using 4 Pilatus PC-12s and a PC-24.
By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot
AS350, AW119, Cessna 210/182/172
Countless aircraft owners were forced to sell their assets, and droves of corporate operators shuttered their flight departments. However, where others saw adversity, Steelman saw opportunity.
Not only did he keep his beloved plane – he also found a way to capitalize on it. That was the foundation of Steelman Aviation. One plane and a plan would evolve into a multi-faceted operation and become AirSmart.
The business plan
Paul Steelman has always been enamored with aircraft design, starting with his airplane models hanging from the ceiling of his home in Longport NJ. However, his passion for aviation design was redirected after the first moon landings, and he decided to become an architect.
Steelman is a product of the east coast gambling and entertainment scene, where he worked for the Golden Nugget Atlantic City and Resorts International. By the late 1980s, he had set out on his own and formed his architectural firm, eventually known as Steelman Partners.
He would soon move to the mecca of his industry, 2200 miles west, in Las Vegas NV. It wasn’t long until he found himself working on the iconic Mirage Hotel and Casino, for developer Steve Wynn.
This project was followed by a succession of high-profile undertakings. Now in its 33rd year, Steelman Partners’ style quickly became sought after, and its portfolio of casino, resort, and entertainment projects expanded worldwide.
Following in his appreciation of aviation, he maintains a philosophy that his buildings need to appear “in motion,” like his latest venture, CIRCA, in downtown Las Vegas.
Preferring to travel commercially for his long-distant destinations, Steelman recognized a need to own an aircraft for frequently-visited locales in the US Southwest.
Like many aspiring plane shoppers with similar needs, he acquired an example of the well-established Pilatus PC-12 in 2005. With a range of over 1800 nm, 270 KTAS cruise speed, short landing distance, and the ability to carry up to 9 pax, the Swiss gem was the perfect selection.
Only 3 years later, the economic crash of 2008 struck. As the use of his plane decreased, Steelman implemented his plan to potentially monetize this asset.
Allowing others to use his aircraft turned out to be a viable option and, in 2010, he obtained a Part 91 certificate under Steelman Aviation. And in 2016, he took the business to the next level, with a Part 135 certificate.
The single-plane operation ran successfully for several years out of VGT (North Las Vegas NV).
This allowed Steelman to keep his aircraft and recoup some of the cost of ownership, while providing the potential for profit. After early success, in 2014 he added a managed PC-12 to the fleet. His first Pilatus was a legacy model, but this new addition was an NG variant.
The NG upgrades included an improved and more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engine with increased MTOW, better climb-out, and higher top speed. For the pilots, the inclusion of the Honeywell Apex avionics suite with its 4 glass panel screens was a game-changer.
The company experienced significant changes in 2018. With the 2 PC-12s keeping busy, they added another legacy model, this one equipped with glass-panel Garmin G600 TXi avionics. The company also moved into a new base at VGT – a large facility that also allowed for the expansion that was coming soon.
A year after the third Pilatus was added, things took an even more impressive turn with the addition of the company’s first managed bizjet. Steelman had been so pleased with the performance of the PC-12 that, when it came time to up the ante, he tapped into Pilatus for a PC-24 twinjet in 2018.
The company received the 15th jet off the assembly line. Managing this aircraft filled a need for the business, with the PC-24’s dual Williams FJ44A-4A engines powering it to a 440 KTAS max cruise speed, in addition to its range of 2000 nm, and its ability to operate from unpaved surfaces.
The single-pilot operations, luxurious appointments for 8 passengers, onboard lavatory, and in-flight-accessible baggage compartment add to its appeal.
For the pilots, Pilatus’ Advanced Cockpit Environment and its similarity to that of the PC-12 make for an easy transition.
With the fleet growing, management decided that a change in company branding was needed. In 2019, Steelman Aviation was renamed AirSmart, while retaining the same Part 135 certificate. A year later, Steelman added fractional ownership to his offerings.
Finally, a fourth PC-12 was brought on, this time a brand-new NG model equipped with the latest (2015) upgrades, including increased top speed, 5-bladed propeller, and BMW-designed interior.
AirSmart found the right people to fulfill its clients’ demands. Leading the lineup is Director of Operations Tommy Suell. Raised in Japan with a father who was a designated pilot examiner, Suell describes himself as “born into aviation.”
He explains, “My dad taught me to fly, I soloed at 16 years old, and got my private pilot license (PPL) at 17.” In 2002, Suell had moved to Las Vegas and stepped away from flying.
He was in college when his father died tragically in an airplane crash. “That caused me to refocus my life.
What I realized is that aviation was a part of me,” he recalls. So he left school and was hired by Allegiant Air at LAS (McCarran, Las Vegas NV).
Initially working the ramp, he would make his way to inflight services as a flight attendant for the next 6 years.
Suell soon earned his commercial license and began conducting tour flights to the Grand Canyon in a Dornier Do 228 for Vision Tours. This lasted a year before he joined American Eagle, flying CRJ700s and Embraer 145/140/135s.
In 2012, Suell was at GoJet Airlines in Chicago, again in CRJ700s. A mere 18 months later, Vision called him back to Las Vegas to fly a Boeing 737, chartering sports teams and repatriation flights to Central America. Vision Tours closed its doors in 2015, and Suell headed to California to take a position with Surf Air, which gave him his first exposure to the Pilatus PC-12.
Although he was working in California, he still lived in Las Vegas. In 2016, Steelman called in offering him a job flying a PC-12. When he joined the company, there were only 2 PC-12s and 3 pilots.
Soon after his arrival, the chief pilot departed and Suell was awarded the position. At the time, most of Steelman operations were Part 91 flights. Suell realized that they were missing out on opportunities by not fully utilizing the Part 135 certificate, so he pushed the company to take advantage of this potential.
His wishes were granted, and soon they added the third PC-12 and the PC-24, and also hired more pilots. This growth settled into a split of approximately 80% charter and 20% Part 91 flights.
It also led to Suell being promoted to director of operations in August 2020, and adding the title of chief executive officer in November 2020. From being a 3-person department when Suell joined, AirSmart has grown to include 15 pilots, 4 administrative personnel, 3 ramp workers, and 2 mx technicians.
Overseeing the cadre of pilots is Chief Pilot Chris Honea. His introduction to aviation came in a glider flight when he was 8 years old in Santa Barbara CA.
He started his flight training in 1993, but life priorities pushed it to the back burner until 2003, when he earned his PPL.
After several years working as a car and motorcycle mechanic and racing instructor, he eventually made aviation a career, flying skydivers, and later charter ops, in a King Air around the Las Vegas area.
By the time he earned his commercial certificate, he had already known Suell for a decade through a mutual adoration of racing cars. Suell had tried to recruit Honea to join him at Vision and Surf Air. The third time was the charm when he enticed Honea to sign on at Steelman in 2016.
Hiring more pilots
Honea got in on the ground floor as expansion was gaining steam. As more pilots joined and aircraft were added, Suell moved up to dir of ops, and Honea took over as chief pilot.
In his current role, his flying has decreased, but he and Suell still handle all the PC-24 flights. As AirSmart’s growth continues, Honea plays a big role in hiring and training new pilots. With a fleet of such popular and pilot-loved aircraft, there’s a lot of interest.
“We receive a lot of résumés from regional airline pilots as well as pilots trying to build time, but we look for more than just someone’s number of hours in the cockpit. We need the right personality to fit into our family atmosphere,” he explains.
Once hired, nearly all training is done in-house, with a final phase of training conducted at SIMCOM. Suell explains, “I like to have my pilots really fly the plane, learn from experience. That’s how they get comfortable in the cockpit.”
Both Honea and Suell are check airmen, so they will provide the final check ride. Their pilots will then work a schedule with 9 days off per month, bid for by seniority. “It works well for our team,” says Honea.
Part of that team is First Officer Samantha Fata. As another child of a pilot, Fata was exposed to aviation from an early age.
“My father is an airline pilot, and was a US Air Force and Air National Guard pilot in Hawaii, where I grew up,” she remembers.
Her interest in flying waned as she progressed through high school and college, but tugged at her again before her planned start of grad school.
Her family moved to Las Vegas, where, after an introductory flight in 2017, she determined that a career as a pilot was for her.
By April 2019, Fata had earned her flight instructor rating and was instructing at VGT. Seven months later, with 800 hours in her logbook, she was hired by AirSmart.
In the year since, she has attained her multi-instrument rating, learned Part 135 operations, nearly doubled her flight hours, become a second in command in the PC-24, and is soon to be a pilot in command in the PC-12.
“The on-the-job training here is great. And the family atmosphere is one of the best things about working at AirSmart,” she says. Fata is fortunate to be part of an organization that actively promotes women in aviation.
Currently, 4 of AirSmart’s 15 pilots are female, and, at one point, half of the aviators were women. “I know there is adversity for female pilots out there in this industry, but everyone at AirSmart has treated me as an equal,” Fata states. “I love my job here. It has everything I want, and I don’t see myself going anywhere else.”
No aviation team is complete without an experienced maintenance contingent. AirSmart fills that requirement with a 2-man crew, led by Director of Maintenance Clinton “CJ” Campbell.
The southern California native initially wanted to be a pilot, but changed directions and acquired his A&P certification in Oakland CA in 2007.
He then headed back south to CNO (Chino CA), where he worked on various general aviation planes. A year later, he found himself back in the north, working on a NetJets account in San Jose.
The arduous schedule burned him out, so he moved to Las Vegas in 2011 to work for helicopter tour companies Sundance and Papillon. Campbell eventually made his way to VGT, where he ended up working on Steelman Aviation planes.
That turned out to be fortuitous when, in August 2019, AirSmart offered him his current position. In the AirSmart tradition, Campbell has advanced a great deal in just over a year. “I’ve been to PC-12 school and earned my inspection authorization (IA),” he relates.
As for Pilatus aircraft, he says, “They truly are workhorses. They can take just about anything you throw at them.” With all 5 of his planes requiring annual inspections between August and November, his team is quite busy.
Most work is completed by Campbell’s team, with the remainder sent out, usually to Western Aircraft in BOI (Boise ID).
As AirSmart continues to expand, there will certainly be a need for additional mechanics to maintain the high level of service demanded by its customers. “I’m here for the pilots,” says Campbell, “and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep them and our customers safe.”
The success of AirSmart relies heavily on bringing in the right customers for the type of services it offers.
Heading up this aspect of the business is Director of Landside Operations & Coordinator Marlee Malamut. Hailing from New Jersey, Malamut came to Las Vegas with a degree in finance, to accept a month-long internship.
She discovered quickly that she did not enjoy working in finance, but loved the city. “A month and a half later, I was hired by AirSmart, with zero aviation experience,” recalls Malamut. What she lacked in experience, she made up for in motivation.
Brought on as the sales and marketing coordinator, her aptitude for organization and management soon became evident.
In little more than a year, Malamut has become heavily involved in the numerous expansion projects that AirSmart has opened already, and in others that will be commencing soon.
“My job is to pick up all the pieces and make sure they go in the right place,” she says. In true AirSmart fashion, she has also finished her MBA and has started flight training. “AirSmart has pushed me outside my comfort zone, and that is where I thrive.”
Rounding out the crew is Charter Manager Robyn Langland. After a career in broadcast radio and TV, Langland made the jump to aviation.
She says, “I didn’t choose aviation – it chose me! I needed something new, but I wasn’t sure what industry. I joined the company when it was small, handling a lot of different things.
As they grew, so did my responsibilities.” Her experience in radio and TV transitioned well to aviation, as they are both overseen by strict government entities – FCC and FAA.
Joining the company when it was small and actively building relationships with charter brokers, Langland excelled quickly in sales.
She has contributed immensely to company growth, increasing sales well over $1 million annually.
In her current position, she handles charter and fractional sales, along with scheduling and monitoring all flights. “I’m looking forward to our fleet expansion and the vision we have for AirSmart.”
The evolution that AirSmart has gone through in the past few years pales in comparison to its plans for the future. It is more than an average business offering charter flights and fractional sales. It is a team that considers the organization a family.
The goal for the AirSmart brand is to be a 1-stop shop for its customers, whether those customers are pilots, passengers, or aircraft owners.
Steelman’s future plans include AirSmart Aviation Academy, an in-house flight school starting any day; GoldStrike Aircraft Services, a Part 145 maintenance and repair station; and Prestige Jets, a broker company to accommodate all national and international flight requests.
Paul Steelman is a man of designs. He fell in love quickly with the Pilatus PC-12 and its vast capabilities, and he wants to share that passion.
That has been his driving force, to give more people access to the advantages of private aircraft ownership. Just as he has laid out the strategy for his portfolio of projects across the world, he has entered the aviation trade with a solid business plan, which involves assembling a team with the right people, the right planes, and the right vision.
With these pieces firmly in place, AirSmart is conquering its segment of the market, and there is little doubt of its continuing success in future endeavors.
Brent Bundy has been a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 29 years. He has served in the PHX Air Support Unit for 19 years and is a helicopter rescue pilot with nearly 4000 hours of flight time. Bundy currently flies Airbus AS350B3s for the helicopter side of Phoenix PD’s air unit and Cessna 172, 182s and 210s for the fixed-wing side.