Plane & Pilot
Friday, October 1, 2004

A Sharper Bonanza

The image of success for a multi-million-dollar company

A Sharper BonanzaGnoss Field is one of Northern California’s most idyllic small airports. Nestled on the floodplain of San Francisco Bay, which lies only 30 miles north of the state’s most famous city, the airport’s single 3,300-foot runway parallels the coastal hills. Predictably, Gnoss Field is quite a popular base for hundreds of personal and business airplanes owned by Bay-area pilots.
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When The Sharper Image CEO returned to California, he started working on his pilot’s license and attempted to train to Arthur Jones’ informal schedule. “I kept that envelope for several years and actually tried to follow Arthur’s suggestions. After a few years, I had a private ticket with an instrument rating, had purchased a 1972 V-tail Bonanza, and I was irrevocably hooked on aviation.”

For Thalheimer and The Sharper Image, a company airplane has been an ideal investment. “We simply couldn’t have expanded as quickly as we have without our succession of corporate airplanes,” says the executive. “I used that Bonanza for several years, but our first real company airplane was a Citation ISP, a great little jet that I actually got to fly once in a while. I also had a Piper Malibu and a Westwind that we used extensively in the late ’80s.

“The Westwind was a wonderful airplane that actually helped hold the company together during some tough times. In those days, everyone was copying The Sharper Image, buying high-tech products from overseas and selling them here in the States. We had our only losing year in 1990, and I used the Westwind extensively, flying all over the country and acting as a cheerleader at our stores. We finally solved the problem by engineering our own line of products,” continues Thalheimer, “so no one else could sell them. We came up with everything from a nose-hair trimmer and a hair-dryer that conditions as it dries to a motorized tie rack and a totally silent air purifier. Today, 80% of our products are exclusive to The Sharper Image, and several have become dramatic successes. For example, we’re now America’s largest seller of air purifiers.”

All this success hasn’t come without a significant amount of travel. Since 2000, the unofficial company airplane has been a Beech A36 Bonanza, one of the closest things in the sky to a personal limousine. When there’s a need for even more speed, The Sharper Image participates in the Marquis Jet charter system that offers a variety of aircraft, from Citation Vs to Falcon 900s. “Marquis requires that you buy a credit card for $100,000. Then you simply charge your flights against your available credit,” Thalheimer explains. “In our case, we use a Citation V quite often and that allows us 25 hours for a fully funded credit card. If we need to carry more people or fly farther and elect to charter a bigger airplane, such as a Falcon 900, Marquis simply debits our account at a higher rate.”

For flights within the local 1,000-nm radius, however, The Sharper Image executives often utilize what has to be one of the world’s most highly modified A36 Bonanzas. Thalheimer bought the airplane new four years ago and has progressively improved it with virtually every aftermarket product imaginable. Fellow pilots Joe Williams, The Sharper Image’s director of loss prevention, and corporate pilot Alan Rockie share flying duties, and all three aviators have participated in the build-up of the company’s Super Bonanza.

“We’ve installed a little of everything to bring the airplane to its current level,” comments Thalheimer. Everything, in this case, includes turbo-normalizing, air conditioning, speed brakes, Beryl D’Shannon fiberglass tip tanks, Bendix/King Skywatch, dual Garmin 530s and a panel full of other goodies. Tip tanks and the turbo-normalizer go hand in hand, as additional cooling requirements for the turbo demand fairly high fuel burns, typically 22 gph at max cruise. With only the standard 74 gallons available, the airplane would be limited to 2.5 hours plus reserve. The extra 30 gallons of tip fuel boosts endurance back up to nearly four hours.

Thalheimer says perhaps the most significant operational add-on (and the only one that actually subtracts performance) may be air conditioning. “It’s amazing how few airplanes have a good environmental control system for cooling the cabin,” marvels Thalheimer, “but this system is remarkable. It cools the entire cockpit right now, and you just can’t place a price on that kind of comfort when you’re flying out of Phoenix, Las Vegas or Palm Springs in summer.”

Labels: Piston Singles


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