J. George Mikelsons
The story begins in Latvia where George was born just before the onset of World War II. Fleeing the country with his family, he lived in Australia and Canada before landing in Indianapolis.
Fascinated by airplanes as a young man, it was a $7 air tour of Indianapolis that led George to vow that he would fly airplanes and to make a living at it.
But the dream of flying did not come easily. George worked two full-time jobs to pay for flying lessons. The commitment and hard work earned enough to buy a Piper Tri-Pacer in which he could build flight time.
After earning his commercial, multi-engine and instructor certificates, George labored as a flight instructor in Ohio and then Indianapolis to gain flight experience. After a short time, he landed a co-pilot job with the new Voyager-1000 air travel club. He loved flying the bigger planes and found inspiration in taking passengers to all sorts of destinations.
He blossomed in the Voyager job and eventually receiving captain’s wings and promotion to the left seat. He later served as the company’s chief pilot.
George saw flying the public as his future. In 1973, he gambled, mortgaging his home to launch Ambassadair, a travel club to serve Indianapolis. He goal was to offer top quality airline service to Hoosiers seeking fun, exciting, and exotic vacation destinations direct from Indianapolis. Ambassadair started with one Boeing 720 christened “Miss Indy.”
George was not an ordinary airline executive; he did not run the travel club from a cushy corner office while others did the work. Instead, Captain Mikelsons piloted “Miss Indy, hired the pilots, and often cleaned the cabin.
If that wasn’t enough, George would also drive the passengers plane side in a converted school bus and then help to load their luggage.
The hard work and gamble would pay off. Ambassadair grew to become an Indianapolis household name, adding members, planes, and employees in short order. The club expanded the horizons of many Hoosiers by offering trips to exotic destinations direct from Indianapolis including Australia, Hawaii, the Bahamas, London, and Kenya, to name a few.
But the travel club airline was not enough for George. He recognized opportunity with airline deregulation in 1978. In 1981, the man from Latvia launched his own commercial airline, American Trans Air, with a fleet of eight Boeing 707s. Within five years, ATA would become the largest charter airline in the United States with a fleet of Boeing 727, Douglas DC-10, Lockheed L1011, and Boeing 737 and 757 aircraft serving domestic and international destinations in scheduled and charter operations.
ATA was known as the ‘can-do’ airline. The Department of Defense took advantage of that corporate attitude and contracted the airline for troop movement flights for the U.S. military around the world. ATA soon became a major supplier of military personnel movement flights.
When the United States needed to move thousands of soldiers to the Middle East as part of the Gulf War, ATA answered the call and committed a large part of its fleet. The company would eventually fly hundreds of missions in support of the country’s military operations. In fact, ATA flew more flights to the Middle East during the Gulf War than any other airline.
And George piloted some of the military flights himself, proudly waving the American flag from the cockpit window after landing.
The dedication of the employees, an astounding safety record, competitive pricing, and the devotion of thousands of loyal passengers and employees could not spare the airline from the harsh economic realities of airline competition and the industry-battering effects of the September 11 attacks. American Trans Air ceased operations in April 2008.
The impact of a great airline and its pilot-founder are firmly entrenched in Indiana aviation history. George Mikelsons’ inspiring life story exemplifies the American dream. His legacy of creating an ‘airline family’ that impacted the lives of so many employees, military personnel, and travelers everywhere make him model of bold entrepreneurship and an inspiration to thousands which will endure for decades to come.
For his vision, inspiration, entrepreneurship, and his contribution to the history of aviation in Indiana, George Mikelsons is inducted into the Indiana Aviation Hall of Fame.