““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
A Few Words With: Madeleine Gilad, co-owner/chief pilot, ProJet Aviation
Madeleine “Maddy” Gilad is the lead pilot for cable TV pioneer and resorts owner Sheila Johnson. Johnson told me that Gilad is her “hero” and that she “really feels the difference” when Maddy is on the flight deck. They travel all over the world together, typically flying about 300 hours a year.
Gilad is also Johnson’s business partner. They co-own ProJet Aviation, the Leesburg, Virginia aviation-services company Gilad cofounded in 2007 with her husband Shye Gilad. The business currently has 10 pilots and manages four aircraft, including Johnson’s Gulfstream GIV-SP and Piaggio Avanti II as well as a Gulfstream GIII and a Hawker 800XP. ProJet operates a full-service FBO and MRO at Leesburg Executive Airport, in addition to providing aircraft management, worldwide charter, consulting and acquisition services.
A graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, Gilad worked for a regional airline and sold light aircraft before launching ProJet.
When did you meet Sheila Johnson?
In 2007. At that time, she was chartering quite a bit and was interested in getting her own airplane. She really liked the idea of our company. Our desire was to have a hospitality company within the aviation business, so it seemed like a great fit [with her business]. We partnered, and now [Johnson’s company] Salamander owns half of ProJet and my husband and I own the other half.
Did you help her acquire the Gulfstream?
Yes. We helped her find the right airplane after figuring out what her mission was, then helped acquire it. We did all the pre-buy inspections, the maintenance. [Since then] we have taken Ms. Johnson on philanthropic trips all over the world, including Africa, as well as on her business trips to Europe and a vacation in Fiji.
How did you become interested in flying?
I have wanted to fly ever since I can remember. My dad got me my first flight lesson on my 16th birthday. I flew from south of San Francisco out to the foothills of Sierra Nevada, to this little airport right by a lake. I met a bunch of friends there. It took them four hours to drive there and it took me 45 minutes to fly. So I thought, this is awesome. And from there I got my license but I I thought I was doing it just for fun. Then somebody told me in my senior year of high school that I could be a pilot for a career. I started looking into it and saw there were schools that offered aviation degrees.
It’s still not an industry that a lot of women go into.
When I get to Embry-Riddle I knew what I was getting into. Only about 13 percent of the industry was female pilots. You were lucky to have three girls in class.
Do people sometimes assume that you aren’t the pilot because you are a woman?
Definitely. I try to not let it bother me, but there have been times where I go to talk to our handling agent or the ramp service or whatever and they just walk right by me and ask the guys that I am flying with a question. And the guys I’m flying with always tell them: “I don’t know—ask her!” There have been times when people treated me as if there is no way I am the pilot.
Do you have any advice for the first-time charter customer or for someone who’s a guest on someone else’s aircraft?
If you are chartering, know that you are still going to have to show your ID or your passport. And if you are a guest of someone, always be on time.
What are the main reasons that your clients fly privately?
A lot of it is for business. It is great to be able to go to meetings and get everything done in one day. We take some groups to Europe and we can hit five cities in four days and they can be back to spend the weekend with their families. You would never be able to do that [flying commercially].
Once we were flying board members for a publicly traded company and they asked us if the crew could stay up front for half an hour because they wanted to have the board meeting and wanted to make sure the information would not get out. They had the meeting in the air and didn’t have to worry about it. Even if somebody is just working on a laptop, they don’t have to [worry about] somebody looking over their shoulder.