Weekend pilot is thriving on the 'mental ballet' of flying

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Mike Sheldon's engine rarely idles.

When he broke his leg motocross racing seven years ago, he was grounded for a month.

So the president of Deutsch, Los Angeles, occupied himself with a "How to Fly" DVD. As soon as his leg was better, he took flying lessons.

Today, at the Santa Monica, Calif., airport, along with the private jets of John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie is Mr. Sheldon's four-seat, single-engine Cirrus. "If it makes noise, burns fossil fuel ... I love it," said Mr. Sheldon, 46, who was reared in the Detroit suburbs with a love of classic muscle cars. His first job out of Michigan State's advertising program in 1982 was at Young & Rubicam, Los Angeles. "It was a big ad agency with a cool chrome reception area and paid $12,000 a year," he said. But what made Mr. Sheldon think "I died and went to heaven," he said, was his assignment: Suzuki Motorcycle.

A self-described "action addict," Mr. Sheldon sets out to try "conquering things," everything from learning how to play guitar to scuba diving and woodworking.

But flying is a favorite, with the allure of what he calls the "mental ballet" and the satisfaction of solving "a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle." Like advertising, flying has lots of moving parts and is fast-moving, he said. "Both can be hair-raising, which I love."

Mr. Sheldon's 9-year-old son Cameron's task as navigator is to help find airports or other destinations when weather or other issues emerge. "Every year, he takes on more and more," Mr. Sheldon said.

This summer, he took Cameron on what might have been the ultimate father-son bonding trip.

With few concrete plans, the pair set out from California on a meandering path to a Wisconsin lake house where they met up with Mr. Sheldon's wife and daughter, along the way stopping to see odd attractions such as the world's tallest hand-carved loon, in Mercer, Wis.

"Places we fly over are really fun to discover," Mr. Sheldon said. But one unanticipated stop due to poor flying conditions ("When it gets bad, stay on the ground") proved to be most meaningful for the executive. Father and son spent three hours playing dodgeball in a pool at the Beatrice, Neb., Holiday Inn.

One thing his son developed: a predilection for pricey hotel rooms. "Some nights we stay at [single story] motels where the 18 wheelers rattle along all night," Mr. Sheldon said, so his son has learned to prefer rooms costing $200 a night. "He's a complete hotel snob at age 9," he said.

Still, when the executive and his son are flying 8,000 feet above the ground, they pause for life's more meaningful conversations. "We talk about stuff that really matters," he said.

While his plane is not as fancy an aircraft as the full-size jets it shares space with at the airport, Mr. Sheldon has outfitted it with a couple of extras: a portable lavatory, a storm scope and an air-traffic collision-avoidance system.

Unlike his other activities where he has taken more chances, Mr. Sheldon said he has scaled back his risk-taking with flying. He quoted his wife as saying: "Do whatever you want to do-just get more life insurance and try to be careful."

To that end, while he might take the plane for a miniature-golf game on Catalina Island, to Lego Land or to Santa Barbara just for dinner, he doesn't, for example, fly to meetings where he has to arrive on time, in case bad weather or other circumstances delay his travel.

And his plane is one of the few on the market that comes equipped with a parachute. "It's a nice extra feature," he said.

What are the fashionistas in your office buying for the fall? How is your personal tech gizmo helping you manage your workload and home life? Seeing a social trend come to life in your office? Describe it in an e-mail to Mike Ryan at mryan@crain.com.

Mike Sheldon

President of Deutsch, Los Angeles

The firsts involved in becoming a pilot, according to Mike Sheldon:

* The first time you taxi-it's hard to keep the plane straight.

* The first time you talk with air-traffic control-it's nerve-racking.

* The first time you divert around a thunderstorm-it's hair-raising.
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