Flight department operates single Gulfstream G550 to fly investment banking firm members around the world.
By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot
Fulfilling the corporate transportation needs of a high net worth individual holds the potential of sporadic schedules, bizarre requests, and unreliable aircraft.
However, one New York-based company’s flight department has found that, with the right people and the right equipment, this could also mean a dream job. That’s the case with Thorn Air.
Thorn Air takes flight
For many years, the members of a family-owned investment banking firm looked to charter operations for their air travel, and this solution worked adequately, as it does for many individuals and corporations.
However, as the firm’s flying became more frequent and included several international destinations, they began to seek other options.
Their search concluded in 2009 with the purchase of a new Gulfstream G550 and the foundation of their own flight department – Thorn Air. Once the decision was made to acquire an aircraft, they next needed to find someone to put together a team that could handle the international flight itinerary that was required.
Finding a leader
The first name to appear on the Thorn Air roster, and the architect of the team that was to follow, was Chief Pilot Tony Barros. Born and raised in Brazil, Barros’ love of flight started early. “As far back as I can remember, even as a little boy, I’ve always had a passion for aviation,” he states.
During high school, he began taking flight lessons and, on Feb 14, 1974, only weeks after earning his ratings, he flew his 1st paid flying job. “During the mid-1970s, there was an economic boom in Brazil, with many new ranches opening up across the countryside, and almost all of them wanted to buy airplanes.
This meant there was a need for pilots,” says Barros. “For the next 3 years, I flew as a bush pilot, but I always wanted to be an airline pilot.”
Barros’ bush pilot days were followed by a few years flying a Cessna 310 and a Piper Navajo for a packing plant. His airline dreams were fulfilled in 1982, when he was hired by Brazilian air carrier VASP. He flew Boeing 727s and Airbus 300s with VASP for the next 5 years.
Barros was then asked to start a grain and soybean company’s flight department with a new Cessna Citation II. Later the company would add a Citation S/II and a III.
With company headquarters in New York City and Citation training in Wichita KS, Barros would spend a lot of time in the US. “I really fell in love with the Midwest. It’s a lot like where I’m from in Brazil, with a lot of farming, good family values, good people. So, in 1992, I sold my ranch in Brazil and moved to Oklahoma. Over the next couple of years, my wife and I earned our US citizenship and we’re proud to be American citizens.”
In 1994, Barros accepted a position with TAG Aviation flying a managed Gulfstream IV, and later a G550, out of West Palm Beach FL. He stayed with TAG until 2007, when he was offered the chief pilot position with Embraer Executive Jets, where he was tasked with putting together the new flight department.
At Embraer, Barros organized demo flights around the world for new customers purchasing Legacy 600s. With a desire to get back to flying Gulfstreams and seeking a better schedule, he joined NetJets in 2008, and was assigned to the Middle East. This was short-lived, and Barros soon found himself back with Embraer by the end of the year.
While on an Embraer demo flight, Barros received a call from a friend at Gulfstream. A family who owned an investment banking firm from NY was purchasing a G550 and were debating between having the aircraft managed or having their own flight department. Once they met Barros, Thorn Air began.
“Our job is to support the family. They have financial interests all over the world, and they rely on us to get them where they need to be,” Barros explains. “We average around 750 hours per year, with 95% of our destinations being international, including South America and Europe, which involve a lot of North Atlantic crossings.”
With this much global travel, Thorn Air relies on Collins Aerospace’s ARINCDirect for flight planning and trip service needs. The company has tapped into Universal Weather & Aviation in the past, and still uses their services occasionally.
“We support the family’s flight needs, and they also support us,” adds Barros. “They never question our safety assessments, and they provide us with whatever we need.”
To ensure and impeccable record, Thorn Air has implemented a culture of adherence to procedures, including decision-making and change management. “We are a small department, but we fly just as we’ve written in our manuals, with a strict adherence to our CRM procedures. We even have a summarized SOP for contract pilots,” states Barros.
Regarding aircraft choice, Barros is partial to Gulfstream. “I like most all of the aircraft I’ve flown, but everybody has a favorite. For me, that is Gulfstream. It is the Ferrari of the jets. We often fly 10- to 12-hour legs, and the G550 is comfortable, safe and reliable, and it’s backed up with great customer support.”
Thorn Air’s home base is at SUA (Stuart FL), but with the amount of time they fly, the plane is rarely there. Barros points out, “Our schedule is planned out well in advance. That not only allows us to plan our personal lives, but also for maintenance.”
On the occasions when Thorn Air’s personnel aren’t available, the company will use contract pilots and/or flight attendants. “This aircraft is like an extension of the owners’ home. Our job is to make them feel at home, no matter where in the world they need to be.”
Thorn Air team
Captain Gustavo Lazarin has been with Thorn Air since 2013. The São Paulo native was drawn to aviation at a young age while watching gliders at an airport near his home.
At age 16, Lazarin began glider lessons and was soon in competitive flying. At 18, he knew he’d found his career of choice. Over the next 3 years, he earned all his ratings and found a position with a courier company piloting Cessna 402s.
He built hours there until earning his ATP and landing his first airline job. “In 1996, I was hired by VARIG, the largest airline in South America, and flew with them for 10 years. While there, I was privileged to help certify the 1st GPS approach in Brazil, in 1998,” Lazarin recalls. While with VARIG, he flew Boeing 737s and Embraer 145s.
Lazarin’s experience proved helpful when he was hired as Embraer’s chief pilot for the Phenom 100/300 program in 2006, and 3 years later he accepted a new position with Embraer in China as a client support manager, training pilots in the 190 platform.
He left Embraer and returned to Brazil in 2012, where he flew a Gulfstream G550 for a private owner after helping set up the flight department. When an economic downturn forced the company to sell the G550, a chance meeting of an old friend paved the way for Lazarin’s current position. “I had known Tony (Barros) from my time with Embraer.
After selling the G550, I ran into Tony during recurrent training in Savannah at the time he was starting Thorn Air. He needed a pilot and I needed a job!” Lazarin states.
Lazarin is 1 of 3 full-time pilots with Thorn Air. He also helped establish the company’s Safety Management System (SMS). “Baldwin Aviation created our SMS manuals, and then we modified them to fit our small operation,” Lazarin explains. “With the amount of experience we have between our pilots, we do things at an airline level.”
Thorn Air keeps its G550 under Cayman registration, which requires audits every 5 years. “We had attained IS-BAO Stage I. Although Stage II was not required by Cayman authorities, we adapted to meet what they require, which is similar to Stage II,” Lazarin explains. “We are a small operation and we like to keep things simple and safe. With that approach, we have never had an incident.”
Lazarin emphasizes the importance of having a close-knit team. “We have an incredible group here at Thorn Air,” he says. “The people we fly for are very good to us, and the relationship that we have as a team is wonderful. What we have is hard to find. I’ve worked other places, and this is the best, by far.”
Newest member in Thorn Air
Captain Daniel Poit came from Curitiba, in the southern region of Brazil. Unlike many aviators, he has no influence he can point to that pushed him towards this career. “I was just born wanting to be a pilot,” he states. When he completed high school, he looked to the United States for his flight training, due to lower costs.
He made his way to North Carolina in 2000, where he earned 2 separate aviation degrees – one in pilot career technology and one in aviation management. He attained his ratings while in school, tutoring to pay the bills before he had his CFI and could teach flying as well as ground school at the college.
He also competed in the National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s annual SAFECON, where he was awarded Top Pilot in 2003.
After school, Poit’s 1st pilot position was in a Mooney for a nursing home company. “I was doing any flying I could to build hours and make some money. I ferried airplanes, did contract work, and instructed around 1000 hours a year. I was able to get some SIC time in a Cessna Citation, and even paid for my ratings in King Airs and Citations,” Poit remembers.
His big break came in 2009 when he joined the flight department for a grocery store chain in Brazil, logging hours in a Dassault Falcon 7X and 900. He stayed there until 2015, when he began flying a Falcon 7X for a private family in São Paulo.
When Thorn Air was looking for a new pilot in late 2018, Barros tapped into a former colleague, who was the chief pilot at the flight department where Poit worked at the time. Poit was looking to move back to the States, so the timing was right, and he joined the Thorn Air team in Feb 2019.
He brought a great deal of experience with him from his previous positions. “While I was with the grocery chain, I was able to be involved in a lot of projects, including the development of the SMS and coordinating the IS-BAO Stage I implementation, and upgrade to Stage II.”
These skills have worked well for Thorn Air. “We’re like an orchestra, each with our own specialties but working together for the final result.
The company is very pleased with what we provide,” Poit points out. He goes on to say that even as a small department, they are focused on technology. “We are fully paperless, and recently participated in the ARINC Beta testing of electronic plotting charts. Also, we are the 1st Cayman-registered aircraft for RNP AR approaches.”
Poit also appreciates the benefits of working for a single family that recognizes their employee needs. “I joined Thorn Air because of Tony, but also because of the way we are treated,” he says. “Our schedules are very regular, we fly a great aircraft, and this job allowed me to move back to the US. This really is a great job.”
Flying for the same personnel requires the right person to understand and meet their specific needs. For Thorn Air, that is Lead Flight Attendant Inês Ribeiro. Hailing from Lisbon, Portugal, Ribeiro earned a degree in tourism and hospitality, but she yearned to travel. Some 20 years ago, she answered an ad in the newspaper for a flight attendant position.
For the next 7 years, Ribeiro worked for a Portuguese flight department before joining NetJets, where she stayed until 2012. She met Barros while at NetJets, and when he contacted her 8 years ago, she made the move.
Like the rest of her flightcrew, she is quick to point out the comradery they share. “We are like a family. There is very good interaction between the team and the owners. We deal directly with the boss, no secretary or assistant in between the line of communication,” Ribeiro states.
During her 2 decades of corporate flight attendant work, Ribeiro has seen the pros and cons. “Working for Thorn Air is definitely at the top. Our employer has very specific demands, but very few requests while inflight,” she conveys.
“We rarely have more than 6 guests on board, and we know well in advance where we are going, how long we will be gone, and what they need. They are very organized.”
Thorn Air only schedules 1 attendant per flight. If Ribeiro is not available, contract help is used from a list of regulars. She also handles all the catering worldwide, which is made easier considering the same destinations are visited often. Ribeiro attends training at FlightSafety International (FSI) every 2 years, including MedAire training and other safety courses.
“Our employer recognizes that having this aircraft is a privilege. She treats us extremely well. I have worked all variations of flight attending, and this is definitely my favorite.”
Thorn Air’s Gulfstream G550 can go nowhere without the proper attention on the ground. Turning wrenches for the company is Director of Maintenance Bill Lunsford. More than 20 years ago, Lunsford purchased a Cessna 150 that was badly in need of repair.
“I was friends with an air show pilot in high school, and I helped him work on aircraft. We restored the 150 and I got my private pilot license in it. Working on that plane made me realize that was a career I was interested in,” he recalls.
Lunsford then obtained his A&P at the Tulsa Technology Center near his hometown in Oklahoma, and soon found a job working for the owner of a few twin-engine piston aircraft. This was followed by time working with Bizjet in Tulsa.
He and Barros met at the airport where they both stored their airplanes and Barros contacted him and brought him on board when Thorn Air started up. “Bill is an incredible asset for our team. He not only keeps our aircraft flying safely, but he also finds ways to save us a lot of money every year,” Barros declares.
Once with Thorn Air, Lunsford attended initial training at FSI in Savannah GA and returns for regular recurrent training. His A&P is also validated by the Cayman authorities, where the aircraft is registered. Regarding the G550, Lunsford is very happy with the aircraft. “In my opinion, Gulfstream is the best in the business. Our plane is very reliable.”
The aircraft is stored At SUA, but it is rarely there with the flight department’s busy schedule. Lunsford conducts most maintenance at the home base, but will travel with the plane when necessary. If he is not able to complete the work himself, he only uses the Gulfstream FAST support team.
“The support we get from Gulfstream and our employers is unmatched,” he says. “Everybody at Thorn Air is great to work with. They are like my family away from home. I love it here. I hit the jackpot with this job!”
With regularly scheduled trips to worldwide locations, fractional or charter memberships are often the best option. But when the specific needs of this company were evaluated, ownership of an aircraft seemed a viable alternative. Once that decision was made, they’ve never looked back.
While the team at Thorn Air flies for a family, they are treated like family. That is why, for over a decade, they have been able to provide unrivaled services for domestic and international travel. And this family looks forward to many more years working together.
Brent Bundy has been a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 28 years. He has served in the PHX Air Support Unit for 18 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.