Making minute corrections on their yokes, the pilots watch their attitude indicators, Kindle-sized screens on the instrument panel in front of them. On them, icons show the $11 million Cessna Citation Excel flying straight and level toward what pilots call an artificial horizon, brown for the earth below, blue above. Central Florida lies below in a gray haze.
Normally, Tomas Bueno, certified to pilot more than a half-dozen kinds of corporate jets, would be up here in the cockpit. But today the chief executive officer of SkyBlue Jet Aviation sinks in a leather seat in the cabin. On laptops and smartphones, he chats with staff members on the ground near Port St. Lucie as if in the office next door. Bueno's company trains corporate pilots and helps companies manage their fleets.
"We make a joke that corporate aviation is a time machine," Bueno says. "Now, if you can put that time to work like this with a viable, quick, usable internet connection up here in the plane, it's tremendous. It's the real deal."
The jet cruises at more than 400 miles per hour, and its modest markings--the words SmartSky Networks and a blue globe--give no indication of the stakes for the Charlotte-based company.
With a bankroll that exceeds $250 million, SmartSky by the middle of 2018 plans to blanket the nation with ground-to-air connectivity that will bring 4G--fourth-generation--wireless internet and phone links to executives and the flight centers and pilots that whisk them around. Big money signals a big market, namely the nation's 12,000 corporate-plane operators. By the end of 2018, the technology Bueno is testing also will be available to airlines that fly more than 800 million passengers in the U.S. annually, says SmartSky President Ryan Stone.
"It's a game-changer," says Stone, a Navy submariner who left the service in 2001, just as the dot-com sector crashed. Laid off by a Hickory communications-cable maker, he worked at Duke Energy Corp. and obtained an MBA from Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. Since then, he has founded or helped start several aviation-related companies, including SmartSky in 2011. Its goal is to provide all of the "connectivity you expect all the time on the ground."
Sounds simple, perhaps, but it's a big deal, says John Croft, a former NASA engineer, pilot and now a Washington, D.C.-based senior editor of Aviation Week magazine. "SmartSky attacks a fundamental issue," he says. "The connectivity people experience in their everyday lives--smartphones and so forth--typically, when you get in an airplane, that all goes away."
"You can do this now, but it's so slow, it's like being on dial-up," Croft says, referencing outdated internet connections. He says SmartSky, using unlicensed broadband spectrum and proprietary equipment and technology, can transmit huge amounts of data in real time. It helps create what SmartSky Chairman and CEO Haynes Griffin calls "offices in the sky," including videoconferencing.
SmartSky faces a high-altitude dogfight to lead the industry. While Griffin says his technology is superior, SmartSky is well behind in marketing and finances compared with Gogo Inc., a Chicago-based in-flight connectivity company founded in...