A day in the life of an always-moving Doug Kalitta

It’s quarter past eight on a Thursday morning in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Doug Kalitta is making the rounds.

Kalitta Turbines is the first stop, the aircraft engine maintenance and repair shop. As he explains the operations of each room or shows off one engine after another, Kalitta interacts with employees. It might be a simple greeting, or an inquiry into how their current task is progressing.

Before returning to the front of the building, where you’ll find an engine turned into a glass-top coffee table, Kalitta takes a quick trip outside to show off how the expansion is going. Having more room is much needed. Business, as they say, is booming.


With everything in order, Kalitta heads to the next location. The administration building is a stone’s throw away and it, too, is operating as usual. On the days when Kalitta does make an appearance, it’s usually pretty quick for invoicing or signing checks.

“But the engine shop always has something going on,” Kalitta says. “The guy I have running things likes to have somebody to vent on. A lot of the time, some of the managers just want to have someone to explain what’s going on and actually understand what they’re talking about. A lot of it is moral support and making sure everyone has what they need.”

Kalitta Turbines and the administration offices are located on Tyler Road, less than five minutes from Willow Run Airport. It is there where the Kalitta family has quite a presence. Kalitta Charters, which Doug Kalitta owns and Kalitta Air, founded by Connie Kalitta, are based here.

There are multiple buildings to handle all the operations, which Doug navigates easily as he continues his daily check-ins. Kalitta not only runs the business but is a pilot himself. And as of November, he’s also the reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion.

Around here, however, he’s just Doug.

At least that’s how Kalitta carries himself. While employees are well aware of his stature and, in between talking airplanes, might offer congratulations on a recent victory or ask where the next race is, Kalitta is focused on business. It’s almost as if his two worlds aren’t co-existing, and the only thing Kalitta needs to be concerned about is attending the 10 a.m. daily meetings.

“My nightmare,” Kalitta says as he looks over one of the cargo planes, “is worrying about pilots.” It’s a competitive business and like race car drivers, pilots come and go for various reasons.

Connie Kalitta, who is putting his signature on various items in his office, gets a greeting from Doug on the way by. There’s a bit of NFL draft talk in another office. A closed-door visit with the family lawyer in a section of the building where his business has set up shop to be nearby.

Kalitta Charters offers various services, and there are planes littering the map. One of the most rewarding jobs, Kalitta admits, is medical transport. It’s a collaboration with AirMed, and the planes are customized to serve as an air ambulance for an individual in need or a medical professional traveling with a transplant.

Kalitta is fifth on the NHRA’s all-time Top Fuel wins list, but when he’s on the clock with his assorted companies, he’s all business. Image via NHRA

At any time, Kalitta can check one of the many screens and see where the planes are (there are 60 planes and 400 people in the company). Or those of the competition.

Medical. Cargo. Passenger. Live animals (yes, like for Sea World). Hazmat. U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Energy. All can be handled by the Kalitta Charters business. Elton John band members have also traveled by Kalitta plane.

One of the most important contracts — for about 15 years now — Kalitta has with the military is bringing home fallen military members. He takes great pride in ensuring a personal and intimate experience for grieving families and that everything is handled and represented well.

Kalitta grew up within a few miles of a Mount Clemens, the Michigan military base. Having jets fly above the house every day was normal, and it’s where his fascination with airplanes began. After graduating high school, Kalitta went to work for Connie’s race team but became even more intrigued by airplanes (since his uncle now owned them) and realized he wanted to be at the airport during the week.

“It’s just cool,” Doug says of flying.

Kalitta doesn’t take the bait about which of his two passions — the airline and racing — is the hobby and which is the job. But he admits that racing has forced him to understand that he can’t do everything, and it’s critical to any successful venture to hire the right people and build the right teams.

Kalitta likes being busy, though. On this day, his navy L.L. Bean jacket over a button-up shirt with black khaki pants and dress shoes never comes off. He’s constantly on the move.

“I don’t know how he does it,” one employee says in passing as Kalitta is off, they think, with the sales folks.

Fortunately for Kalitta, being on the move today doesn’t include having to make any trips to the company’s other locations in Ohio or California. There are multiple Kalitta brands: Kalitta Turbines, Kalitta Air, Kalitta Charters, Kalitta Charters II, DK Turbines, AirNet II and Kalitta Accessories.

When Kalitta does return from meeting with sales, it’s not to sit down. We’re off again, now well past 4pm, seeing more of the all-encompassing operation on the Kalitta campus that no matter where you turn, there are model airplanes. One large room has a setup for emergency exits, rafts and life vest training.

There is a building that houses training rooms and multiple state-of-the-art simulators. Kalitta asks its operators which one is currently available and then puts RACER in the pilot’s seat as he sits as co-pilot. The scene, which is realistic to the point of feeling all too real if something were to go wrong, is downtown Los Angeles.

It is smooth and natural as Kalitta points out switches and gives instructions. He even suggests buzzing the buildings.

Whether flying a plane or driving a Top Fuel dragster, Kalitta says he’s “super-comfortable.”. Image via NHRA

“I’m super comfortable doing both,” says Kalitta of whether driving the dragster or flying the plane is more stressful. “It’s no problem; fly (in) and hop in the car.”

Before leaving the simulator building, Kalitta pops into one of the training rooms where there is a meeting happening. “Hey, boss,” is the greeting. Once the business talk is done, the conversation shifts to the upcoming race weekend, Kalitta’s outlook, and when everyone is flying out.

“Good luck,” rings out through the room as Kalitta leaves.

A typical day might end around 6:30pm or so. Kalitta can then be found at the race shop if he doesn’t go home. There are times when Kalitta slips in and out without notice. But if he’s sitting in the cockpit and working the practice tree (which is precisely the length away it would be at the track), the noise through the ceiling alerts employees that Kalitta is there.

“The changes we made over the winter, it’s really fun to see how it’s all coming together with the performance of all three of our cars,” says Kalitta, who is now sitting in his office where he still has to get caught up on paperwork from the day.

The room only has a hint of racing, with a few hats and a small Champagne bottle on one of the bookcase shelves. On the door, however, a mini pinata in the shape of a No. 1 that was taped on the glass after his championship feat is still there.

Kalitta’s thoughts about the season continue, “Everybody has a little extra skip in their step. Hopefully, all the other teams see us coming and are intimidated. Whatever it takes to win these rounds.”

Usually, as race weekend gets closer and when Kalitta leaves Michigan, things slow down. His focus shifts to driving, and very rarely does something so important come up with the airline that it needs his attention.

With the next day being the start of race weekend, in this case for the 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway, Kalitta plans on leaving before noon since he has media obligations before qualifying begins. On the plane, which Kalitta will pilot, will be Connie, his son Mitch, and a handful of others.

Just like in the simulator, Kalitta seamlessly goes through the motions when in the cockpit. It’s a clear day without noticeable turbulence.

Halfway through the flight, Kalitta pulls out his iPad and starts doing math. He then turns over his right shoulder to me, observing from the jump seat and shows 547.2 on the calculator.

“Does it feel that fast?” Kalitta asks.

Undoubtedly, it doesn’t to Kalitta. A man who, no matter where or what he’s doing, is always at full speed.

Story originally appeared on Racer