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‘I’m not even 30, and I’m flying my own jet’ — Silicon Beach elites take a seat in the cockpit

Tech entrepreneur Jessica Mah at Santa Monica Airport
Jessica Mah, a tech entrepreneur in Venice, prepares to fly a Cirrus propeller plane from Santa Monica Airport to San Francisco for a business conference last month. Mah says she uses flying as a way to take her mind off the pressures of work.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)

By the time her Tesla screeched to a stop outside the terminal, Jessica Mah was already 20 minutes late for her flight to San Francisco.

The 29-year-old tech entrepreneur breezed past the check-in desk and out onto the tarmac with the confidence of an air marshal, a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses perched on her nose.

Twenty minutes later, she gunned the engine, tugged her hair into a low ponytail and radioed the tower to clear her for takeoff.

“I have a community of friends who fly out of Santa Monica, other entrepreneurs and CEO folks who needed a hobby,” said Mah, who heads the accounting software firm inDinero. “We’re so stressed out, there’s so much going on — on the golf course I’m still thinking about work, whereas in the cockpit I’m thinking about how to not kill myself.”

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Planes have long been a passion of the rich, particularly in Los Angeles, which boasts more than a dozen general aviation airports and near perfect year-round weather for flying. But among Silicon Beach elites like Mah, who moved from San Francisco to Venice last fall, having a pilot’s license is less about leisure than it is a program of self-improvement. For engineers, flying is fun with applied math. It’s intellectual exercise in the guise of a sport.

“Flying is a weird combination of art and science, but there’s a lot more science to it than art,” said Charath Ranganathan, vice president of the Aero Assn. of Caltech, a flying club dominated by engineers. “There’s a certain precision that comes in with flying that a lot of the tech people understand and enjoy.”

For L.A. entrepreneurs, it’s also a novel way to commute.

“I would say 50% of the people learning to fly with us are in some way in the tech sector down here,” where five years ago there were none, said Rymann Winter, president of Proteus Air Service, a flight school and aircraft rental company at Santa Monica Airport. “About half want to fly because they’re regularly up in the Bay Area and they need an easy way to jump back and forth.”

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The trend reflects rising fortunes in Silicon Beach. In the last year alone, Google, Apple and Facebook have each gobbled up hundreds of thousands of square feet of Westside office space. The startup scene got a boost from Snap’s 2017 initial public offering, yet venture capital remains concentrated in the Bay Area, meaning L.A. founders still have to schlep.

“Weekly, I get calls from people who say, ‘I’m so tired of traveling on the airlines, I want to learn to fly,’” said Ken Goble, regional director of Cirrus Aircraft, whose planes are something of a status symbol among tech elite. “Flying your own airplane completely changes your life.”

The sales pitch may ring truer for SoCal’s tech entrepreneurs.

Los Angeles International and San Francisco International are among the busiest airports in the U.S., but engineer-pilots are free to fly from Santa Monica to San Carlos or from Hawthorne to Hayward without having to unzip their hoodies to go through a metal detector.

“The nice thing about flying [general aviation] is there’s no security — you just go to the airport, get in and go,” said Sandya Narayanswami, a member of the Caltech club and chair of the General Aviation Awards. “You don’t have the whole LAX nightmare.”

Jet-setting techies can also squeeze trips to Palm Springs, Big Bear or Catalina Island into an afternoon instead of a weekend. Many take dates — though rarely first dates, as calculating a flight plan requires the passenger to tell the pilot their weight.

“A lot of them don’t really do people,” said Seosamh Somers, president of Angel City Flyers Inc., a flight school and aircraft rental company in Long Beach. “Some are a little socially inept, so the idea of going to an airliner and being herded through by TSA — it’s like, no way.”

Like Proteus, Angel City Flyers now offers a Zipcar-style rental program for its aircraft. Both companies specialize in Space Age avionics — including “glass cockpit” planes like the Cirrus — that appeal to digital natives with money to burn.

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Increasingly, they also rent private jets.

“We saw an opportunity to provide seamless progression from smaller aircraft straight into jets,” a path so appealing to tech clients that it’s reshaped his business, Somers said. “We have people who fly our jets and they don’t own a car.”

Goble, the Cirrus representative, said the company’s instrument systems were built to be virtually identical across all its aircraft, so that well-heeled pilots can glide from its $630,000 SR22 prop plane into its $2-million Vision Jet.

“Jets are on the younger side, in terms of people who are flying them,” said Jim Yoder, a Sun Valley-based jet instructor who helped Somers establish his program. “There’s just a lot more people who are able to afford it.”

The rental market has also made flying more attractive to millennials, who shy from ownership, Somers said. But at $2,000 an hour, rental jets are far from affordable.

“Vegas might be $10,000 round trip in a jet, whereas in a propeller plane, I could do that for $1,500,” Mah said. “I did three jet trips to Vegas back-to-back last month — that was crazy.”

The first step for a single-engine pilot looking to move into jets is to earn her instrument rating, which is what aerospace engineer Anita Sengupta was training for on a recent Sunday.

She plugged the flight plan from her iPad into the Cessna 172’s GPS system, adjusted her headset, and strapped on an IFR hood — a visor that tech-pilots compare to the helmet Obi-Wan Kenobi used to teach Luke Skywalker how to “see” with the Force — so she could fly using instruments only.

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“We get a lot of traffic in L.A.,” Sengupta said as she sailed from El Monte to Long Beach, radio chatter from John Wayne, Zamperini and Santa Monica airports filling her headset.

As the plane crossed the 5 Freeway near Disneyland, she began plotting her approach, zipping so low her passengers could see children splashing in kidney-shaped swimming pools. “It’s probably the busiest general aviation space in the world,” she said.

The tower radioed with instructions for Sengupta to cruise along the beach while a Jet Blue flight landed ahead of her. Once on the tarmac, she had to wait for a Southwest jet to taxi, her wings shaking as an F-18 roared into the sky at her back.

L.A.'s crowded airspace can intimidate some pilots. For many in tech, the crowd is the draw. As soon as she had stripped off her hood back in El Monte, Sengupta was spotted by satellite engineer Manuel Martinez, who’d flown machine-learning expert Kiri Wagstaff back from Santa Monica after fog threatened to strand her.

“It helped me build so many of my relationships,” Mah said of her time in the air. It’s also made her more efficient, by combining business with pleasure. “I get to live the richest life possible because I’m doing all of this together.”

The lure of Los Angeles has long been its quality of life. But for the denizens of Silicon Beach, aircraft represent the ultimate hack — a philosopher’s stone that makes rest out of work.

“When you’re in the cockpit flying a plane all by yourself, it’s like, I made this happen,” Mah said. “I’m not even 30, and I’m flying my own jet. It makes me realize that I’m not a failure.”

Tech entrepreneur Jessica Mah checks a Cirrus propeller plane before flying it to San Francisco from Santa Monica Airport.
Tech entrepreneur Jessica Mah checks a Cirrus propeller plane before flying it to San Francisco from Santa Monica Airport.
(Nick Agro / For The Times )


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