Feb. 16, 2021

Not everyone has flown more than 7,000 hours in 75 different kinds of aircraft. Then again, not everyone soloed on their 16th birthday. And most business aviation pilots, after flying for their “day” job, don’t use their free time to compete in aerobatic competitions or the Reno Air Races.

Tommy Suell, CEO and director of operations for Las Vegas, NV-based charter operator Steelman Aviation/AirSmart, has done all the above and more, making him a well-known and highly respected member of the aviation community at North Las Vegas Airport, where AirSmart is based and where he bases his three personal aircraft. Suell has worked at the Part 135 operator for the past five years, and now manages the 16 pilots who fly the company’s Pilatus PC-12 and PC-24 aircraft. He is also the company’s designated FAA check airman.

“My Dad was my role model and taught me how to fly,” said Suell, who grew up in Japan. “We were part of a military flying club at the Kadena Air Base.” Suell, who speaks fluent Japanese, said he “was oblivious to discrimination as a Black foreigner” while in Japan, and feels that his accomplishments and actions since coming to the U.S. as a young man have earned him respect. He has also adopted the Japanese ethic of superlative customer service, which has served him well in his career.

Steelman Aviation/AirSmart

To pay for his ratings, Suell worked refueling aircraft and even as a flight attendant. Subsequent flying jobs with regional carriers American Eagle, GoJet Airlines and Vision Airlines – where he flew sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon – got him additional type ratings, including in the Boeing 737.

Although he had originally planned a career as an airline pilot, Suell – married with four young daughters – likes the lifestyle that AirSmart affords. “We are a home-based operation,” noted Suell. “[Most] of my pilots get to come home at night.”

Suell likes to demonstrate to students of color that training for a career in aviation is affordable and attainable. He has participated in an OBAP Aerospace Career Education Academy and gives students tours of his aircraft in his hangar.

Suell’s oldest daughter, Amelia, 8, may soon be eclipsing her dad, however. An aspiring fighter pilot, she is already handling the controls and doing aerobatic maneuvers in the family’s Pitts and has appeared on the Kelly Clarkson Show, where she was introduced to her hero, USAF Thunderbird pilot Major Michelle Curran.