Houston native and Air Force veteran goes global with private jet company Jet It

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Saturday, December 5, 2020
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Glenn Gonzales defended the country as a fighter pilot. Now, the Eisenhower High School grad is using his business savvy to help other veterans, give back to his community and create a space in the private jet industry.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Glenn Gonzales always knew he wanted to fly.

"In my case, I don't know if it was Superman, Star Wars. I don't know what it was. It could have been the numerous field trips out to Johnson Space Center, and going out to NASA," Gonzales said. "But the bug bit me at a very young age. As far as I can remember back, I've always wanted to fly. And so that passion has been part of me from the beginning."

Gonzales, who grew up in northwest Houston and attended Eisenhower High School and St. Monica's Catholic Church, near Acres Homes, didn't know at the time as a child that his passion for take-off would later lead to his becoming the CEO and co-founder of a company that would allow him to live his dream every day, taking customers soaring 43,000 feet in the air.

Gonzales runs Jet It, a company that gives customers fractional ownership of HondaJet Elite aircraft, meaning that they have more flexibility when they travel. Jet It's ownership model is based on days rather than hours. For example, under the day-use model, one can travel to multiple destinations at $1,600 per flight hour, which the company says is far below that of its nearest competitors, where a traditional share program might be priced at $7,600 or more.

In 2021, Jet It is poised to expand into Canada as well as India, southeast Asia, Singapore and Vietnam. European operations are starting this year. Though a young company, Jet It has also attracted the attention of the Ivy League. This year, Jet It's business model was featured in a Harvard case study used twice at the university and a third time at the University of North Carolina.

Jet It is currently headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, but Gonzales credits his life in Houston for planting the seeds of what would become an international venture. And before he glided in the sky as a pilot, he leapt in the air, and perhaps most important, as a leader on the basketball team at Eisenhower. That athletic career would open to the door to the Air Force Academy, where he was a point guard and naturally, the captain of the team.

"Well, the Air Force Academy provided the opportunity to have the best of both worlds. It was a function of, I wanted to fly airplanes, one, but two, I really wanted to play Division I basketball and basketball at the Air Force Academy gave me the chance to do both," Gonzales said.

When you think of fighter pilots full of charisma, "Top Gun" and its star Tom Cruise might come to mind. And while the 80s flick may have introduced the world to Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses, bomber jackets and "Take My Breath Away," Gonzales lived it, training U.S. Air Force fighter pilots and flying F-15 jets.

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Gonzales' kindergarten graduation in Houston, Texas.

Gonzales' service to the country included a five-month deployment to Kyrgyzstan during Operation Enduring Freedom. He aided in the movement of aircrafts into and out of Afghanistan, while also supporting the embassy and working on the ambassador's country team.

While Gonzales says he is fortunate it wasn't a years-long deployment, the time away from family still took a toll. Gonzales and wife Tanika, an Air Force Academy graduate, met in college and have been married 19 years. They had two young daughters at the time, Kearston and Kendall, who are now 14 and 16.

"At the time, having a 3-year old and 1-year-old turn four and two, my wife's birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, missed every major holiday. It was a trying time, but you always keep in the back of your mind, your family's there and they love you, they support you and you're doing this for an incredible cause, that being the defense of our country," Gonzales said.

Veterans Serving Veterans

When Gonzales left active duty, he transitioned into a sales support role as an international demonstration captain for Gulfstream Aerospace, a company that manufactures a fleet including G550 and G650 aircraft.

"Definitely a unique experience traveling the world and doing some unique missions and flying anywhere and everywhere in the world from Palau to Shanghai," Gonzales said.

Gonzales would soon find that his career with Gulfstream, coupled with his military experience, the understanding of operating costs of aircraft maintenance, the ability to communicate, connect and relate with people of all cultures and helping them to achieve their goals would form the foundation he needed to launch his own endeavor.

Gonzales recalls he saw an opportunity to uniquely meet a need that wasn't being served by airlines or other companies at the time, especially if clients only had minimal regional travel needs.

"'Glenn, I don't want to buy a whole airplane. I don't want to spend $6 million on the jet, even though it's perfect for my needs. What can we do to bring that cost down?' After hearing that 80% of the time, we quickly evolved into 'Gosh, there's an opportunity here,'" he said.

Gonzales said he took the better part of two years to build a business model with future co-founder and longtime friend Vishal Hiremath, who had also worked with him at Gulfstream and recognized the same opportunity.

They would acquire their first airplane on Dec. 23, 2018. Fast forward to 2020, and by the end of the year, they expect to have 11 airplanes in operation, and have upwards of 55 employees, of whom 18 are veterans. And they're not done growing their workforce yet. With offer letters still out, Gonzales said they could have between 60 and 65 employees total by year's end.

That job creation is a key pillar of Jet It's DNA, especially when it comes to hiring veterans and ensuring they have the guidance, support and benefits they need.

"When we have team members who are giving their time to Jet It, it's my responsibility to make sure that they are safe, to support their lifestyle that they're after, and get to where they want to be in life," he said.

Decorated veterans also help make up the backbone of Jet It's executive team. Houston native and Chief Operating Officer, Chris Crawford, a graduate of West Point and a Harvard Business School graduate, served in the U.S. Army.

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Glenn Gonzales with Tuskegee Airman Gen Charles McGee on his 99th Birthday in 2018.

As far as positions, Jet It's immediate need is highly-qualified, great decision-making pilots as the company continues to grow, but Gonzales says he won't rule out finding other opportunities for great talent.

"We want people that fit our culture. People that are courageous, great competency, but also incredible communication skills. So, if there's talent out there, there's an interest, if we can find an opportunity for them within our organization, we'll do it," Gonzales said.

A Tuskegee airman connection

Just as Gonzales recognizes being raised in Houston as playing a role in where he is today, he also gives a nod to the Tuskegee airmen who charted a pathway for him in aviation.

In December 2018, the first big event amid Jet It's launch occurred when Gonzales honored World War II hero Brigadier General Charles McGee with a flight for his 99th birthday.

McGee received the royal treatment, with Jet It arranging for a Rolls Royce to pick him up and take him home.

"(I) put him in the cockpit with me. And it was a tear-jerking event for me to share this experience with a man, to have him in the cockpit whose shoulders I stand upon, and to have the opportunity to help him into the airplane, to help him into the cockpit," Gonzales described.

"The cockpit that I'm only in because of his sacrifice, his efforts and his determination to be a pilot to demonstrate and teach aviation," he continues. "Jet It exists because of him."

Gonzales offers he'd love to do the same for McGee's 101st birthday.

Culture of Community

Be excellent. Be visible.

Gonzales emphasizes those two characteristics help make up the culture of Jet It, which is dedicated to being involved in the community.

"One of the things that also makes us different is we started as servant leaders, as community leaders," he begins. "We offer our services as charitable efforts to provide resources for children... to get involved and to support them financially through that."

Jet It will offer their services as auction items to raise funds for youth. But the company also prides itself on having a widely diverse team who isn't afraid to go out into the local community.

"It's something that I did as a young person in Houston. It's something that I did as a basketball team captain, taking our team to the children's cancer ward when we played against Rice University there in Houston, and it's something that we do now," Gonzales said. "It's something that I did in the military and that's part of our goal as a company is to make sure that we are in a company that our communities want to exist and they want us to be there."

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Glenn Gonzales and his executive leadership team at Jet It.

Flying into the future

Despite being in a pandemic, Jet It hasn't slowed down, with Gonzales explaining that if anything, the company has received more awareness. Jet It had ordered planes ahead of the pandemic and had a delivery schedule that was already in place.

"The pandemic has accelerated a lot of the discussion around our services," Gonzales said, harkening back to his military service for the wisdom to "plan for the things you know, the things that you're aware of that you don't know, and then, you also have to plan for the unknown unknowns."

All the while, like the captain that he is and has always been, Gonzales gives the hat tip to his team for their success and adaptation in a year full of seemingly never-ending plot twists.

Aside from the company headquarters in North Carolina, Jet It has airplanes based in South Florida, Virginia, Southern California and Illinois as well as jet owners in Corpus Christi, Houston and Louisiana.

But the next step in their expansion domestically is planting a base in Texas by the end of the year.

"I won't say where it is yet, but obviously Houston is near and dear to me," Gonzales explained. "I'd love to have an airplane base there and be able to engage with the community there."

"I think my time in the military taught me, there really aren't any limits that you don't place on yourself," Gonzales said. "If you have an open mind and you recognize that everything exists within the realm of the possible, it doesn't matter what someone else might say."