A Look at General Mills' Corporate Flight Department

Aug. 15, 2014
In operation for 64 years with 121,000 safe flying hours, it focuses on education and training, professional development, SMS, avionics upgrades, and more

The General Mills corporate flight department in Minneapolis operates three Cessna Citation X aircraft and currently has five technicians with more than 93 years of combined experience.

“The majority of our maintenance is accomplished in house with our maintenance team,” Neil Brackin, Director, Air Transportation, says, “but occasionally we will send inspections to a MRO facility when the tooling and/or time required to accomplish them is not cost effective or efficient for our flight department.”

General Mills has operated a flight department for 64 years and has accumulated 121,000 safe flying hours in that time. The current fleet of Citation X's are flown primarily to destinations in North America with occasional trips to Europe or South America as required for the business.

Aircraft Maintenance Technology spent time with the full General Mills corporate flight maintenance staff to discuss current trends and topics important to them and business aviation as a whole.

Q: What factors do you use when choosing an MRO/maintenance provider?

A: Some of the things we look at when deciding on a MRO facility is quality of work, reputation within the industry, our relationship with the provider, capabilities, and of course cost.

Q: How do you keep your technicians trained?

A: The majority of our formal training comes from FlightSafety International, and all of our technicians attend the aircraft specific initial course within the first couple months of employment. Also since General Mills is so education positive, our technicians are encouraged to attend all of the aircraft specific courses that FlightSafety offers so they can obtain the Master Technician Award. We also have a good amount of OJT within our facility. We are a certified repair station with an approved training manual and training program. Our OJT program revolves more around our processes and procedures within our CRS to keep our standards high.

Q: What are the most critical issues you face today? How are you tackling them?

A: To answer this question, it depends on what level of the General Mills aircraft maintenance department you look at. Looking from a high level, the most critical issue facing our industry is educating and training the next generation of skilled AMTs. With ever-changing technology, the young minds in A&P schools need to understand and troubleshoot complex avionics and satellite communication systems. The General Mills maintenance team is involved with our community and state high schools in keeping kids interested in aviation and pursuing aircraft maintenance as a career. 

Other levels of issues come in the form of operational, safety, and aircraft specific issues. The Citation 750 that the flight department utilizes is an extremely reliable aircraft and rarely does maintenance need to deal with an AOG situation. The dependability of the aircraft is a direct reflection of having an in-house maintenance staff, dedicated to keeping the aircraft in perfect order. However, just like any other machine, sometimes they malfunction. This is the time when our mechanics come together with their years of experience and resolve the issue in the most effective way possible. That might mean a simple MEL procedure or a short notice road trip. Either way, the aircraft gets back in the air with little or no interruption to our passengers. 

From an operational standpoint, I would say the most critical issues in the department are the changes happening in the repair station manual. The manual was functional for the repair station up to this point, however it is a living document that needs to change with the operation. There are some exciting and needed changes that will be occurring when the manual gets approved in the near future. It will then be everyone’s job to make sure that the transition to the new manual procedures are seamless and effective. 

Last (certainly not least), critical safety issues are handled by our SMS program that is in place for our technicians. Each safety or operational concern is documented with standardized procedures and resolved quickly with minimal “red tape” to cut.

Q: What are some of the critical issues you see the business aviation segment is faced with?

A: Having a shortage of properly trained skilled aircraft maintenance technicians (AMTs) to fulfill the industry requirements will probably be an issue. It seems that there are fewer young people making the career choice to become AMTs, which has resulted in A&P schools closing and this may eventually make the problem much harder to recover from. In addition, AMTs finding their way into the business aviation sector will need to develop special skills not normally included in A&P school curriculums. 

The A&P mechanic has taken on the role and responsibilities of being an aircraft maintenance manager, and as such, he/she will require special skills in the areas of maintenance planning/evaluating proposals/cost analyst and budgeting/aircraft upgrade decisions, and managing the safety program to name a few. These skills usually require a self-motivated person to take advantage of work experience and industry training in these areas to become successful. Developing these skills and being a professional in the business aviation maintenance industry will be one of the greatest challenges for business aviation.

There is not a clear path for upgrading older aircraft to comply with the latest avionics and navigation systems being installed in most current production aircraft. The upgrades I am referring to are those that comply with FANS, WAAS, as well as many cabin and cockpit “latest and greatest” features. In some cases, the current installed equipment may not be upgradable and will require a completely different system to be installed, which could be very costly and may also result in a great deal of downtime for the aircraft. Accomplishing these upgrades of the avionics and navigation systems will be a challenge for aircraft maintenance service centers, as the volume may potentially be overwhelming.

Q: How involved are you in making aircraft upgrades? Who makes aircraft decisions. How do you find out about aircraft and/or interior/avionics upgrades? 

A: The maintenance department is very involved in the decision-making process for aircraft upgrades.  We ensure awareness of possible upgrades through discussions with peer companies within the industry, local avionics shops (such as MSP Aero), maintenance/avionics sales personnel, trade publications, trade shows (like Minnesota Business Aviation Association's annual meeting and Cessna’s Customer Conference), and information via the internet. The possible upgrades are also discussed within the flight department to ensure decisions are made with all users.  

We have not had many requests from upper management to install specific systems, but find it important to be knowledgeable and ready to answer questions about our industry.   

Q: What best practices does your flight department employ?

A: Maintenance best practices within our department can be summed up with our certified repair station (CRS). The CRS is audited every year by the FAA, and forces us to follow well-defined procedures and processes for just about any maintenance event, big or small. Along with the CRS, our flight department’s IS-BAO registration is a great tool for identifying areas of improvement in operations and overall safety. Between these two tools, General Mills stays focused on delivering its mission statement to the organization: To operate in accordance with the highest safety standards while continually innovating to achieve time savings, excellent service, security, and flexibility..  

About the Author

Barb Zuehlke | Past Senior Editor | AMT