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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2003

Grand Aire owner faces turbulence

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Flanked by American flags and glittering confetti, George W. Bush stumped American ideas and Republican principles to 12,000 roaring area residents, and perhaps no one beamed more than Tahir Cheema.

The 48-year-old Pakistani native came to America in search of a better life, and he found it. Far removed from his days of having to hitchhike to work at McDonald's, he built his own air cargo firm into a $95 million operation.

He drove a Porsche. He lived in a $900,000 home.

And on that warm October evening in 2000, the presidential candidate's advisers chose Mr. Cheema's hangar to host what would become one of the area's biggest political rallies.

Cheema: He grounded his planes after the crashes. Cheema: He grounded his planes after the crashes.
DISTELHORST / BLADE Enlarge

The carefully choreographed event showcased not only Mr. Bush to area residents, but area residents to Mr. Cheema's firm.

Now, less than three years later, the spotlight is less flattering.

On Tuesday, three of his pilots died in a crash just about a mile west of his hangar at Toledo Express Airport. Less than six hours later, two of his pilots suffered serious injuries after crashing their plane into the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

On Wednesday, Mr. Cheema voluntarily grounded his air charter operation - Grand Aire Express.

Even before the crashes, the souring economy and harsh market conditions halved his revenue and payroll.

He had fought a bitter battle with Federal Aviation Administration regulators, calling them racists.

Federal investigators will spend months, and perhaps years, probing whether the latest two crashes were caused by pilot errors, equipment malfunctions, or a combination.

Already one national safety advocate, Mary Schiavo, former U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General, questions Grand Aire's safety record.

“If I was running the FAA,” said the Pioneer, Ohio, native, “I would yank their certificate. But it's not likely to happen.”

The FAA has said it's way too early to draw conclusions on crashes so fresh, and Mr. Cheema's supporters say it would be unfair to shut down a company that, until last summer, prided itself on never having a pilot killed.

For the man in the middle, Mr. Cheema, the struggle has brought a mix of sorrow for lives lost, prayers for spiritual guidance, anger for critics, and determination to rebuild a company with the same tenacity that propelled him into Toledo's business elite.

He hopes to be flying again sometime this week.

“I'm going to do it with God's help and my strength and my mom's prayers,” he said yesterday. “I'm going to succeed.”

With $40 in his pocket, Tahir Cheema arrived in Alabama to study engineering and got a job running a register at McDonald's. That fall in 1974, he didn't have a car or a bike, he said, so he'd walk or hitchhike the five miles from his apartment.

It was a change in lifestyle for a boy who grew up in privilege.

Born in Pakistan's second-biggest city - Lahore, with about 5 million people - his father was the city's police chief. One grandfather was a judge. The other grandfather was a senator. And Tahir wanted to be a fighter pilot.

But he had imperfect vision, so he made a bet with his grandfather, the judge. If he got good grades, his grandfather would pay for his first year of college. Tahir won the bet, and he was off to the United States.

He said he had to earn his own way after that, with odd jobs that included driving an ice cream truck. He said there were times he couldn't afford to eat anything other than bananas, at 9 or 10 cents a pound, and boiled eggs.

Within a decade, he had secured a master's degree in business and a middle-class lifestyle as an automotive engineer in suburban Detroit.

But he had bigger dreams.

“I had a flying bug,” said Mr. Cheema, a pilot himself.

He quit engineering in 1988 - a week before his third child was born - to plunge into the air cargo company he had been running for three years from his basement at night. A year later, Mr. Cheema and his then-wife, Katrina, moved it to Monroe's Custer Airport, and the firm took off.

Five years in a row, it was touted as one of the nation's 500-fastest-growing companies. The cargo jet firm wanted Monroe to expand its runway. Officials balked. Neighbors complained of jet noise all night long.

Toledo-area officials offered grants and a 60 percent tax abatement to lure the company to a $4.5 million headquarters at Toledo Express Airport.

However, not everybody was eager to welcome Mr. Cheema's firm.

That's because Grand Aire also wanted to sell gas and fix planes - services that would compete with two existing firms. The firms complained, but they only gained the support of the then-chairman of the port authority board's airport committee, John Robinson Block.

After the firm's 1999 move to Toledo Express, port board member Jerry Chabler suggested revoking the company's lease for having potentially unsafe fuel tanks. Mr. Cheema insisted they were safe.

In that case as well, Mr. Cheema had the support of most port board members and agency administrators, including agency President James Hartung, who was well-acquainted with the company. He had become friends with Mr. Cheema, and Mr. Hartung's daughter-in-law worked for Grand Aire, a job both men insist was given on merit.

Mr. Cheema argued that Mr. Block, The Blade's publisher and editor-in-chief, and Mr. Chabler were orchestrating a smear campaign. Mr. Block and Mr. Chabler countered that their criticism was based solely on the public's interest.

It wouldn't be Mr. Cheema's only conflict.

Someone had embezzled about $200,000 from one of his side companies, the Canadian-based Air America - a tough revelation after he had promised to give the company to his ex-wife to help settle their divorce. Mr. Cheema eventually agreed to pay her $194,000 to cover Air America's losses.

But none of it dampened Mr. Cheema's status as a rising star in the local business community. In 2000, Ernst & Young named him an Entrepreneur of the Year, following a similar honor he received in Michigan in 1997.

By the turn of the 21st century, he reported Grand Aire earnings of $95 million a year - flying everything from auto parts to donated organs on-demand across the nation.

His firm had 260 employees and boasted of 37 planes with hubs in Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Oakland, Louisville, and Columbia, S.C.

Mr. Cheema now had a platform to bring family and friends from Asia and the Middle East, and he hired a host of them as pilots and mechanics.

He had the money to build a five-bedroom, five-and-a-half bath, 4,800-square-foot house in Perrysburg, and the connections to attend the area's major society functions.

He could afford to donate his planes to fly gifts to needy children in Michigan and give thousands of dollars to mostly Republican campaigns. And during a tight race for president, Mr. Bush's advisers chose Mr. Cheema's place to make their pitch for votes.

“I cannot begin to tell you how proud and happy this makes me,” Mr. Cheema said at the time. “It's overwhelming to meet the man who could be the next president.”

But it was the future president's employees who would draw Mr. Cheema's ire.

Grand Aire pilots knew the drill well. Carry your pager at all times. If it goes off, report to the airport within 20 minutes - night or day. And then you'll find out what you're hauling and where.

It's a lifestyle that the pilots had to get used to in the niche business of chartered air cargo. Auto manufacturers and other companies need to get parts from here to there on demand and in a hurry. It's a lucrative operation - if you meet quick deadlines.

And it's a lifestyle that's open to most new commercial pilots. The pay isn't always great ($25,000 for beginning pilots), but it provides the cockpit hours needed to get certified to fly bigger and better planes.

Pilot Marco Branchi took advantage of his time at the charter operation before landing a job at another carrier.

“I thank Grand Aire. It was a great experience,” Mr. Branchi said. “[But] I wouldn't call it a place where you'd like to make it a career, unless you didn't expect much.”

Like several other pilots contacted by The Blade, he said he never flew a plane he thought was unsafe. Pilots could call off flights for any reason, and some did. But he said the firm also pushed its pilots and crews hard.

“I think you're pretty much always riding the line,” said Mr. Branchi of El Paso. “You are always on the edge.”

The FAA said Grand Aire crossed the line at least 12 times in the late 1990s, demanding as much as $1 million in fines for claims the firm did everything from using unqualified pilots to not doing required maintenance.

Mr. Cheema insisted it was solely paperwork errors, claiming the citations were like traffic tickets. And he blamed them on racism by FAA regulators who oversaw Toledo from their Cleveland field office.

The FAA didn't back down. On that agency's behalf, federal prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit against Grand Aire in 2001 seeking payment. Mr. Cheema eventually settled with the FAA for $150,000, saying the fight had cost him too much in legal fees.

He said he hired an extra person to oversee compliance records. But he had other things to worry about: The economy had taken a tumble, and many companies employed smarter tactics to avoid having to ship parts by expensive air cargo.

With 100 flights a day dwindling down to only a handful, Mr. Cheema downsized his operation to less than 100 employees locally - below the amount he was supposed to maintain under the terms of his tax abatement agreement.

While local officials haven't revoked the abatement, they discovered he had never paid the property taxes not covered by the abatement. The city of Toledo - the airport's official owner - had never forwarded the bills.

He had to begin paying back the $50,000 owed.

But that was nothing compared to what he's experienced this month.

Eight days ago in Monroe County, a sheriff's deputy stopped Mr. Cheema's 1999 Mercedes near Dundee. The deputy discovered his license was suspended by Ohio officials for not proving he had auto insurance.

Mr. Cheema was handcuffed and hauled to jail, where he spent an hour before paying $90 to bail himself out.

He later proved that Ohio officials were wrong - he did have insurance all along - but his week would only get worse.

On Tuesday, three pilots returning to Toledo from Traverse City, Mich., crashed one of the company's Dassault Falcon 20 cargo jets for unknown reasons in a wooded area of Oak Openings Preserve Metropark in Swanton Township shortly before 2 p.m.

Mr. Cheema saw them arriving on radar and expected them to land in 15 seconds. Then the radar went blank. He realized they crashed. He ran to a restroom and vomited.

“I was shaking. I didn't know what to do. I didn't believe it,” he said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “They're like my children, these people.”

He said he drove to the crash site, drove back to his office, and made three phone calls to tell families of the deaths of their loved ones: David Davenport, 40, a father of three who always dreamed of flying; Steven “Will” Forshay, 37, who overcame childhood cancer to become a nationally noted skydiver, and Wallis Bouldin, 32, a devout Baptist who had become Grand Aire's top pilot.

Mr. Forshay was training to fly a Dassault and was sitting in the right pilot's seat, Mr. Cheema said.

After offering his condolences, Mr. Cheema walked out of his office into a throng of TV cameras to read a brief statement expressing his sadness.

Shortly afterward came news from St. Louis that two Grand Aire pilots flying the same type of cargo jet apparently ran out of fuel and crashed into the Mississippi River.

Mr. Cheema said he asked God to wake him from the nightmare, and waited 20 minutes to hear if those pilots survived. He said it seemed like 20 years.

“I was numb,” he said. “Quite frankly, my brain stopped functioning at that time.”

For an airline, having a plane crash is relatively rare. Having two planes crash in the same day is unheard of in aviation circles, except for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The St. Louis crash was the ninth Grand Aire mishap serious enough to warrant an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board - six of them coming in the last three years.

That has raised concerns among safety advocates like Ms. Schiavo, who was the transportation department's inspector general from 1990 to 1996.

Now a lawyer in Los Angeles, she said the nine crashes are “an awful lot of accidents for a company this small.”

While Mr. Cheema didn't excuse the accidents, he said his crash rate is about the same as similar operations. He said the FAA has cleared him in past crashes of any problems. And supporters, like former company spokesman Matt Zaleski, said Mr. Cheema is passionate about safety.

Still, for a previous Grand Aire critic like Mr. Chabler, the latest crashes rekindled his unease.

He said he's waiting for federal investigators to better determine what happened in the two recent crashes before passing judgment on the firm.

“But their pattern and their history have not been exemplary,” said Mr. Chalber, the port authority's current airport committee chairman.

Mr. Cheema said he and other top executives have spent 20 hours a day trying to determine what went wrong. They won't offer their findings, deferring to the NTSB. But he said he expects to have his answers by tomorrow, and start flying sometime this week.

The former fast-food cashier said he'll persevere.

“Those days taught me something,” he said. “God gives you something and God takes it away. Frankly, I won't like it if he takes away what I have but, you know what, I have done it before and I'll do it again.”

Blade staff writers David Patch, Larry P. Vellequette, and Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.



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