The flight deck of the U.S.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier measures a little more than 2.5 hectares. That may seem like a vast area to a person standing on the deck, but from the vantage point of a fighter aircraft, approaching at about 135 knots, the landing strip can look like a mere speck on an endless sea. Also, because the ship is likely under way and heaving on ocean swells, the tiny target is constantly moving unpredictably in every direction.
Now imagine the same scenario in pitch-black, moonless conditions.
“I wanted to serve my country, and I thought that the most difficult thing to do would be landing on ships at night,” said Sarah Rhoads, former fighter pilot and current director of Amazon Air. “And I had the privilege of doing that.”
Ever since she was seven years old, growing up in her home state of Montana, Rhoads wanted nothing more than to fly fast. Her parents had taken Sarah and her sister to see an air show, and she was instantly smitten by the rush of precision flying. “I don’t know what it was, but I just wanted to feel what it was like to break the sound barrier and go fast and fly upside down,” said the former daredevil.
Today, after a successful career as a pilot and flight instructor for the U.S. Navy’s carrier-based F/A-18 aircraft, Rhoads is no longer busting sound barriers, but she is still breaking things – like the conventions of the e-commerce air markets.
At Amazon Air, Rhoads is now responsible for providing the leadership and vision for Amazon’s expanding airhaul network, which grew from zero freighters in March 2016 to 40 freighters today.
It’s easy to forget that Amazon Air, which has commanded the attention of the logistics world for most of the last two years, didn’t even exist before 2016. In 2015, Amazon worked with Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) to experiment with operating an own-controlled fleet of freighters to complement its reliance on the U.S. Postal Service and integrators such as FedEx and UPS.
After announcing it would launch its own air network, Amazon made an initial order to lease 20 converted 767 freighters to be operated by ATSG’s subsidiaries, ABX Air and Air Transport International. Later, another 20 converted 767Fs were ordered, to be operated by Atlas Air Worldwide.
By the start of 2017, Amazon revealed that it would base most of its expanding fleet at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) and share the ramp space and large sorting facility built years earlier by DHL Express.
Since September 2017, Rhoads has been in charge of all of this explosive growth. Amazon Air is now embarking on its latest phase – the construction of its own cargo facility at CVG, apart from the existing DHL hub. Eventually, the new cargo center could employ 15,000 workers and handle up to 200 flights per day.
All told in 2018, Amazon Air has added eight 767 freighters to its fleet and seven new “gateway” destinations, in Denver; Hartford; Miami; Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; Honolulu; and the latest addition, Riverside, Calif., bringing the total to 21 gateways, nationwide. A 22nd gateway, in Wilmington, Ohio, is scheduled to open in 2019. While 20 of the freighters operate out of the CVG hub, many of the rest fly point-to-point routes to these gateways, as demand needs change.
“2018 has certainly been a year of growth for the Amazon Air program,” Rhoads said. “I’m certainly proud of all the work my team has done to get to this point.”
The main goal, this year and every year, is to ensure that the carrier has the capacity necessary to fulfill Amazon’s customer promise, Rhoads said. “And I think we’ve been very methodical with our planning, so, fortunately, I wouldn’t say we’ve been particularly surprised by anything,” she added. “We’ve been able to maintain stability in a year with still some fairly rapid growth.”
For maintaining control of the stick at Amazon Air during this year of intense activity, for service to her country, and for her role in helping reinvent air cargo logistics, Air Cargo World’s readers and editors recognize Sarah Rhoads as Air Cargo Executive of the Year for 2018.
“Sarah is an excellent choice” for Executive of the Year, said John Dietrich, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Atlas Air Worldwide. “She has taken on enormous responsibility with an aggressive business plan – all of which she and her team have managed to execute on time.”
“She is passionate about aviation and that passion along with relentless execution has earned her this very prestigious honor,” said Dave Bozeman, vice president of Amazon Transportation Services. “I am extremely proud but not surprised at Sarah being chosen as Air Cargo Executive of the Year.”
More on Sarah Rhoads’ career: