Mark Thompson was born in 1951 to Tommy and Margaret Thompson, both aviators themselves. He graduate from Northside High School in Atlanta’s Buckhead community in 1969 and after a year of college joined the U.S. Army as a Warrant Officer Candidate and trained to fly helicopters. Having never flown an aircraft before, it was clear he inherited some of his parent’s aviation genes. By 1972 the Army began offering early releases to helicopter pilots. Mark accepted an early release which included his GI Bill benefits which he used to transition from rotary wing to fixed wing. While a student at West Georgia College, Mark was approved to offer skydiving as a PE course credit, so he was both a student and a curriculum instructor offering Skydiving 101 and 102 to fellow students.
Mark stayed in the Atlanta area first flying a Cessna 180 carrying sky divers out of a dirt strip, to Chief Pilot of Modern Professional Air at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport to setting up Georgia Air Freight at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport. In addition to thousands of hours flying Beech-18’s full of cargo and the mail, Mark simultaneously started down a more dare-devil alternate career of skydiving and later race car driving. Mark was an early skydiving pioneer, participating in several world-record “Star Formations” some of which were photographically captured and displayed at the National Geographic Air & Space Museum. Still occasionally skydiving today, Mark has well over 2,000 aerial jumps in his logbook.
In the mid-1970’s Thompson founded Phoenix Airlines at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, operating De Havilland DH-114 Herons on scheduled routes between Atlanta, Brunswick and Jacksonville, FL. It was during his passenger airline days that he learned the adage of “boxes don’t argue” and moved out of the passenger airline business and into the air cargo business. Thus in 1978 was born Phoenix Air, an Atlanta-based Part 135 air carrier which later moved to the Cartersville-Bartow County Airport some 35-miles northwest of Atlanta. Mark was also transitioning out of recip engine aircraft like Beech 18’s and DC-3’s to a jet fleet. First up was to get type rated in the Learjet 23, followed by the Learjet 24, Falcon 20, Citations, and eventually various models of Gulfstream jets.
Today Mark has over 30,000 flight hours and holds an ATP license and type in a variety of aircraft and helicopters. He also continued his racing career and competed in over 100 ARCA and NASCAR races. Formally ended his racing career in February 2018 by qualifying and driving in the world’s most famous race – NASCAR’s Daytona 500, also entering NASCAR’s record books as the oldest driver to get the Pole at Daytona Speedway, and the oldest driver to complete the Dayton 500 finishing 22nd. NASCAR honoring Mark assigned him car number 66. The Georgia House of Representatives addressed this achievement by presenting a House Resolution to Mark Thompson on March 21, 2018 recognizing his lifetime achievements.
Mark’s racing career came close to ending his aviation career twice. His first wreck was at the Daytona Super Speedway in 1994 when his car was shown flipping 10 times across the in-field. Later, in a 1998 crash at Atlanta Motor Super Speedway, he came close to death from multiple injuries and spent months in recovery and rehabilitation. Mark bounced back after both crashes and got his FAA First Class Medical Certificate reinstated and he continued flying all manner of airplanes and helicopters.
As Phoenix Air grew the company changed and morphed over the last 20-years into primarily a contractor to various U.S. Government agencies and certain foreign militaries. The company became a prime contractor to the U.S. Defense Department providing electronic warfare training services, it became part of the development of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Shield program, it provides aircraft to U.S. Africa Command for operations across the continent of Africa, and provides extremely sophisticated air ambulance services worldwide with its in-house compliment of over 40 doctors, nurses and paramedics. Mark keeps his hand in the business by flying some missions himself. In early 2019, he flew a company Gulfstream jet into Caracas, Venezuela as part of a State Department effort to evacuate the U.S. Embassy staff as tensions with the Madura Government grew and fears of another Benghazi type attack on the U.S. Embassy were close to becoming a reality.
Phoenix Air’s largest contract to date is for the U.S. Department of State under which the company provides multiple dedicated Gulfstream jets with flight crews and medical teams based around the world as fast-response aircraft for regional incidents. At Mark’s direction, the company also began developing and certifying various modifications to its aircraft for special missions work including over-sized cargo-doors on its Gulfstream G-III jets. The company also worked with the CDC and DOD to develop the world’s first effective bio-containment transport system capable of moving highly infectious patients to treatment centers around the globe.
Always jokingly referred to as “the largest company you’ve never heard of” by its employees, Phoenix Air exploded into the world’s media spotlight in August 2014 when a highly modified Phoenix Air Gulfstream jet transported Dr. Kent Brantly who had contradicted Ebola Virus Disease in Liberia to Emory Hospital in Atlanta for lifesaving treatment. Within hours of landing at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, the jet was re-provisioned and returned to Liberia to pick up medical technician Nancy Writbol and bring her back to Emory Hospital. Overnight, Phoenix Air became the U.S. Government and World Health Organization’s sole provider of contagious disease transport services. This singular event transformed Phoenix Air from an air services contractor to a national asset with a wide range of capabilities.
Phoenix Air was again put under the media spotlight when in 2017 Mark and company executives were asked to volunteer for a mission to fly into Pyongyang, North Korea to medically evaluate and hopefully bring out college student Otto Warmbier who had been jailed there for 17-months and in a coma. At the time tensions were extremely high between the U.S. Government and North Korean Government and the student’s medical condition was unknown. The team agreed to the mission which was successful, returning Otto to his family where he subsequently died a week later from brain injuries sustained while in a North Korean prison.
Today Mark Thompson and Phoenix Air carry on its 40-year legacy of taking on the impossible and making it possible. Mark resides today on his 250-acre horse farm in rural Bartow County and his children both work for Phoenix Air. In keeping with three generations of pilots starting with Mark’s father Tommy to Mark, the torch has now been passed to his son Matthew who is a Gulfstream First Officer for Phoenix Air and taking on adventures around the world on his own.