Project Flight School: The test subject

The process of business optimization is underway at Cirrus Aviation in Sarasota, Florida. Various best-practice tactics will be tried and their outcomes will be updated here on a regular basis.

Below is a short note from Nayda Cattin of Cirrus Aviation talking about how she sees her business and how she sees this opportunity to share her experiences through Project Flight School.

–Shannon Yeager, vice president, strategic initiatives of AOPA’s Center to Advance the Pilot Community


I would like to give everyone some insight as to where I stand currently, where I’ve been, and where I’d like to go.

Where I stand: I am on a teetering point on a daily basis of drowning in my business. I have many ideas I’d like to see come to fruition, and I have zero time to do so. I run a small business, and I wear almost every hat there is, except turning wrenches and flying planes. I am ultra-stressed, extremely spread thin, and heavily burdened by regulation. I know that fellow flight school owners feel the same pressure and stress. I know that fellow flight school owners are scared that their livelihoods can be dissolved in the split second of a grumpy inspector’s decision. I know that fellow flight school owners would love to implement marketing ideas if only they have the time and money. So I think represent this group well, in many ways.

Where I’ve been: We’ve been profitable–once. Once. We’ve been broke sometimes. We barely make it all of the time. We have seen the ups and downs of volume and had to change staffing to keep costs under control. We are seeing an increase in business now, and with a skeleton crew it is tough. We are trying to be true to our words and to our honor, and to give excellent service with half the resources that we need. We are scared to hire more because of the ups and downs. We just hired three more people. It is not enough.

We have had business consultants come into our business when we were profitable and we could afford it. We paid stupid amounts of money to have them tell us nothing. They wasted my time, crunching numbers over weeks, only to find the result that my mathematically genius husband spouted off the top of his head in the beginning. We had them give us Powerpoints, tell how great they were, tell us how great we were, teach us procedures for keeping track of our business financially, etc.

Where I’d like to go: I have several items on my mind that I would like to see come into practice. I need the expertise of someone outside of my realm to help me make these things happen. I am looking to the consultants for help on this. As we have begun this process they have given me so many things that I am honesty feeling overwhelmed. I also have some major items around the corner that I would like to market. They are extremely exciting and will really change some of our marketing strategies and some of our appeal as a flight school in the state, as well as the Southeast region.

So I will prioritize, get the business in the door, make sure I am compliant with the feds, make my customers smile, and implement some of these new ideas. While I am a swan gliding above water, my feet are kicking crazily underneath.

I think there are some valuable things that can come out of this project. I would like to see this work so that my entire industry can benefit! I am willing to put my time into it. I am the first person to be disgruntled and jaded by AOPA, Civil Air Patrol, and EAA. However, times are changing and I recognize they are changing. They are finally realizing what needs to happen in this industry for it to survive and I am honored to be a part of this project.

Project Flight School: An introduction and perspective

The Center to Advance the Pilot Community would like to introduce Project Flight School. The Center has arranged to have business consultants work directly with a flight school. Our goal is to discover if applied business principles can make a difference in the success of a flight school, and we are putting that concept to the test in the real world. No matter the outcome we will gain actionable insight through the process.. So look for video, blogs and articles about Project Flight School in Flight School Business, the Flight School Business Facebook page, and the FSB Learning Curve blog. We invite members of the flight school community to follow, weigh in, and make suggestions during this project as it unfolds over the next eight months. In other words, there will be plenty of opportunity to become a part of the dialogue.

The main players for our first Project Flight School will be Mike Dempsey, Rod Beck, and Nayda Cattin. Mike and Rob are businessmen who have seen success both outside and inside aviation and believe that flight schools can be profitable. They will be introducing themselves through blog posts during this project. Additionally you can look at their company’s blog to get a feel of their perspective. Nayda Cattin is the co-owner and business manager of Cirrus Aviation flight school in Sarasota Florida. She has been in business for 18 years and we will be posting a video introduction to her flight school, maintenance, and pilot shop operations.

Why is the Center to Advance the Pilot Community involved with the business of flight schools? Here is my perspective sitting in the copilot’s seat next to Adam Smith as we line up on the centerline and push in the throttle. I am feeling both humble before the complexity of the flight in front of us and confident that we will be successful on this mission. We have goals to assist all along the pilot continuum from reengaging certificate holders to bolstering the number of pilots in training. I agree with many who have said the CFI is at the center of the largest opportunity we have to make an impact on sustaining the pilot community. We will be contributing directly to CFIs in a number of ways. What my background in business, education, and instructing lifestyle pursuits SCUBA Diving and Skydiving has also shown me is that the experience of customers is often impacted by other things in the overall training environment. So to this end it is in the best interest of the current and future pilot community that we have both successful CFIs and successful flight schools.

In talking to flight schools, some define success a little differently than  I always had in business. Many told me they were successful because they were still in business. While that sentiment seems to be widespread among aviation businesses, to those of us  from other industries success is being profitable. People have shown there is money to be made in aviation. From the Center’s perspective, if your business is in a better financial situation you will be in a position to offer a better value experience to aviation’s newest pilots and keep the current pilots engaged through improved facilities, selectivity/matching of instructors, aircraft, and more attention available to devote to customer and flying community experiences. The value of the pilot experience is what will get pilots to complete training and stay active, especially as we compete with other value experiences such as riding motorcycles and boating. Just because we love aviation doesn’t mean we can’t show the value in our environment and services, which can make our businesses profitable.

–Shannon Yeager, vice president of strategic initiatives

Energize the base – Part 2

This is part 2 of a two-part series from Bob Hepp, the owner of Aviation Adventures, winner of a 2012 Flight Training Excellence Award, and the 2012 Student’s Choice Award.

The flight training industry is starting to catch on to a concept the recreational Scuba diving industry has known for years–organizing and executing group fly-outs can be big for business, both in terms of immediate and long-term business. These are all trips we have done in the past, and continue to do now:

Hudson River Excursion – We depart our Washington, D.C., Metro airports to meet at Monmouth Executive Airport (KBLM) for a pilot prebrief. We depart Monmouth in single file, 1100’, and 110 KIAS for Apple intersection. No matter how many times you make this trip, it never fails to amaze all on board. Sights include Flushing Bay, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governor’s Island, the East River, the USS Intrepid with the Concorde and the Space Shuttle, the incomparable Manhattan skyline now complete with the Freedom Tower, Central Park, LaGuardia Airport, Newark Airport, and the George Washington Bridge…all from 1,100 feet! Some recommendations: Be sure all pilots complete the NYC Exclusion Zone course at, check NOTAMs for sporting events and other events that establish TFRs in the Exclusion Zone, ensure there is a New York Terminal Area chart in each aircraft, as instructions and reporting points for the Hudson River trip are on the back side.

Oshkosh – The mecca of general aviation. This is the eighth year we have made the pilgrimage. The past four years we have joined with a group of Israeli pilots who rent our airplanes and hire our instructors for the trip. The trip departs the Washington, D.C., area on Sunday morning and proceeds to Dayton, Ohio, where the group tours the Air Force Museum. Monday morning we depart early, stop for fuel, then fly up the Chicago shoreline beneath the Bravo airspace to rendezvous at Dodge County Airport (KUNU). There we check the OSH ATIS and do a final brief before departing in line for the Oshkosh arrival procedure. The remainder of Mon, Tues and Wed are spent experiencing the greatest aviation event on earth. Thursday morning brings an early launch, back down the Chicago shoreline, then across the southern shore of Lake Erie to a few turns around Niagara Falls and an overnight in Niagara, New York. Friday morning we head south and do the Hudson River Tour on the way back home.

Tangier Island – One of the local gems in the Washington, D.C., area is Tangier Island (KTGI). Tangier is the southernmost Virginia island in the Chesapeake Bay. From spring through fall it has a population of about 900 and is an active crabbing island. Early inhabitants of the island were British sailors wounded in the attack on Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. Tangier Island is the only place on earth that Elizabethan English is still spoken, and most of the island residents still bear one of the four last names from the wounded sailors. Hilda Crocket’s Chesapeake House will serve you a memorable family-style meal of local fare. Tangier is small enough that you can walk the entire island in about 45 minutes. A trip to Tangier Island is like leaving the country without needing your passport.

Ski Trips – Once a year, usually in January, we do a fly-out trip to a local ski area with a nearby airport. The Wisp Ski Resort and the Garrett County Airport (4G4) in western Maryland have been our choices for the past several years. An early morning departure and a mid-afternoon return give us about four to five hours on the slopes. The Garrett County Transit system will shuttle your group to and from the slopes in a 15-passenger van for a few dollars a rider. Every inauguration day most government employees are off, so we depart Washington before the airspace closure, ski all day, and return after the airspace re-opens.

Fly and Float – The summer-time flying adventure is flying to an airport close to a canoe livery. We use the Front Royal Airport (KFRR) and the Shenandoah Canoe Company gladly picks us up, outfits us with canoes, kayaks, or rafts and drops us upriver into the beautifully placid Shenandoah River. After a lunch stop at the Shenandoah Canoe company snack trailer, we are back on the river for a few more hours of relaxation before being met at a takeout point and returned to the airport.

Amusement Park Trip – It is no small secret that most pilots are adrenalin junkies. No better way to feed that craving than a visit to Cedar Point, Ohio, the roller-coaster capital of the world. The Sandusky Airport is unfortunately scheduled to close this winter, but the Port Clinton Airport (KPCW) is about the same distance from the park. Be sure to experience the Top Fuel Dragster–zero to your hair straight back in milliseconds, then straight up, straight down with a 270 degree twist and done in less than 18 seconds.

Motorcycle Ride – We discovered that a great number of pilots are also bikers. We have heard that is because there are two types of people, those that enjoy operating in three dimensions and those that don’t. An organized ride to a good restaurant along a good route is always fun. We have done these rides together with a fly-out to a restaurant near an airfield.

Does your school do similar trips? Share them in the comments section.

Energize the base – Part 1

This is part 1 of a two-part series from Bob Hepp, the owner of Aviation Adventures, winner of a 2012 Flight Training Excellence Award, and the 2012 Student’s Choice Award.

All flight school and flying club operators are interested in increasing the flying activity at their organization. There are many ways to do that. The most difficult and expensive way is to spend precious marketing dollars on advertising, or spend time and dollars to participate in local open houses and airshows. The easiest and most effective way is to energize your base.

During every election cycle we hear we hear more and more about the political parties energizing their bases in support of their slate of candidates. That is the process of reaching out to their established supporters – the base – to contribute money and time to effectively influence the undecided voters. Every flight school and club has a similar base of pilots and students flying with them. Students are usually singularly focused on completing their next rating. Most of the other pilots are looking for something to do with their pilot certificate, or are in search of the next aviation challenge. Offering classes, seminars and fly-out trips fills that need for your base. It costs a school next to nothing to reach out to their base via e-mail to promote these activities. Classes are pure profit for the school and the instructor. Below is a list of classes, seminars and trips that have proven very popular at our school.

Rusty Pilot Seminar – Our first Rusty Pilot Seminar quickly filled to capacity. The 4-hour session focuses on weather, FARs, airspace, and aeromedical subjects. Attendees are given credit for the oral portion of a flight review. They are also encouraged to schedule the flight portion of their flight review that afternoon or soon after. Attendees include pilots who have been away from flying for a while, flying pilots looking to brush up on certain areas or prep for a flight review, and private students preparing for an upcoming checkride. We are discussing bringing in a medical examiner to conduct on-site medical exams to make it truly one stop shopping for rusty pilots getting back in the air.

Meet the Examiners Seminar – This idea came from AOPA’s study into the ideal flight training experience and has been off-the-scale popular. We bring in all of the local designated pilot examiners to offer pilots with upcoming checkrides the opportunity to meet all of the local examiners and ask them any question in a non-pressure environment. The examiners take about 10 minutes each to give a small presentation on a relevant topic of their choice, then field questions from the audience. The last half of the evening is a wide open forum for questions from the audience. This gives pilot applicants the opportunity to interview the available examiners and come away with tips and recommendations for a successful checkride.  It also gives the examiners the opportunity to distribute their contact information. Our examiners have arranged for Wings credit through the FAAST program. Attendees include pilots preparing for checkrides, pilots interested in pursuing professional development and Wings credit, and even examiners from other districts interested in establishing a similar program. There is no fee for this seminar and some of the local flight schools have provided light refreshments.

Right Seat Class – This class is for the non-flying significant other. There are three objectives to this class: 1. Present sufficient aerodynamic theory, system redundancy information, and ATC communication information to calm the nervous passenger, 2.Provide an overview of what the pilot is doing during different phases of flight and what the right seater could do to help out, and 3. Emergency action training so the non-pilot can get the airplane safely on the ground in the case of pilot medical incapacitation. Attendees with a particular interested in further emergency training are encouraged to schedule time with an instructor to practice tuning radios, making a specialized Mayday call, and guiding the plane to a safe approach and landing.

High Altitude Class – This class covers the topics identified in FAR 61.31(g)(1) and a few more. Attendees receive an endorsement for the ground portion of the high altitude endorsement. If your school has access to an aircraft certified for a flight above FL250, a quick out and back hop to altitude with a discussion of normal and emergency pressurization operations will complete the entire endorsement. If you have an altitude chamber locally, you may be able to arrange a “ride” in the chamber.

Specialty Aircraft Classes – These classes provide your base with an option to get up to speed on a new aircraft or system and are less expensive than one-on-one instruction. Examples include Garmin G1000, complex and high performance, multiengine, tailwheel, or any of the high flying single engine aircraft. Each aircraft manufacturer has a training program for flight instructors that provide them with excellent training materials. We encourage pilots to have some fun on their next flight review and get a tailwheel, high performance or complex endorsement, a Cessna Corvalis TT checkout, or add a multiengine rating.

Knowledge Exam Prep Seminar – From time to time we have a cluster of students who have completed the computer-based instruction course for the Private, Instrument or Commercial Knowledge Exam and need a little polish and a confidence boost to take the test. This is a lower cost option for them than one-on-one instruction and is the push they need to get the knowledge exam behind them.

Next time I’ll cover the absolute best thing you can do to show your students the joy of flying – fly-out trips.

-Bob Hepp, owner of Aviation Adventures

Where are the instructors?

No matter where in aviation you look, it seems the hot topic is making new pilots. Or that the pilot population is aging. We, as pilots, need to hurry up and make more before our airports all disappear.

I own a small flight school in Massachusetts called FCA Flight Center operating out of Fitchburg (KFIT). For us, the problem surely isn’t new students, it’s getting CFIs to train them. There seems to be a larger hole in CFI ranks than in students. I’ve searched high and low all over the Internet with no luck, including a website designated for CFIs to job search. We currently have six part-time instructors. Nonetheless, we do not have any working three days per week. The planes sit on the ground on beautiful flying days.

As far as I’ve researched, we’re the highest paying flight school in the area for CFIs. The camaraderie here is great. The competition is friendly. When the instructors aren’t flying with students, they fly together out for dinner or currency.

We also have a thriving active pilot’s association on the field with more than 120 members. The Fitchburg Pilots Association EAA chapter 1415 has monthly meetings with anywhere from 50 to 200 attendees. CFIs and pilots here have no trouble making friends.

Once the CFI issue has been solved and flight training is being provided properly, we have two items left I can see to bring GA over the top. First would be to provide help to all airports to have a thriving pilot’s association. We need leaders to bring them together. That’s when pilots fly more and fly safe. Next would be marketing. General aviation fails tremendously in this area. Just try telling someone not in aviation you’re going to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for a week in July and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the best kept secret in the world. Boats, motorcycles, and even gun clubs market themselves better than we do. It’s about time we ask our friends like Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman to help us market GA to the general public.

Charley Valera, owner FCA Flight Center

Schools must innovate to survive

Redstone College, which has become known for its airframe and powerplant and advanced electronics technology (avionics) programs, is currently working hard to make significant improvements to its course content, instructional tools, equipment and methodologies in order to better prepare students for the complexities of the field in the 21st century. The school is constantly working with the FAA to make sure the education students are receiving in the airframe and powerplant degree program is in compliance with the latest technology and regulations.

One of the major areas in which Redstone has strived for improvement is its class and curriculum organization. One of the problems they have faced is that the teaching of turbine engines and their systems had become fractured, with a basic class on turbine engine theory followed by multiple classes on a variety of systems. Redstone asked the FAA to approve a reorganization of the material so the theory class was more comprehensive and cohesive, while the study of various systems was combined and taught as a single follow-up class. The FAA approved the change, which ensured a firm foundation in theory and made the connection between various turbine systems clearer. The result has been that students have shown a dramatic increase in their understanding of the complexity of turbine systems.

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Four tips to increase student retention

Ever since I began flight training in 2008, the same question regularly comes up around the airport. “Why aren’t more people coming out to learn to fly?” Given that I was still early in my lessons when first confronted with this industry-wide dilemma, I was baffled–learning to fly was simply the greatest life experience (and investment) possible. I was living my dream for what amounted to the cost of a short-term car payment (more on that later). So, why didn’t others feel the same way?

I started digging into this issue when soon enough my own “plight of flight” set in. Weather started hampering my schedule, and with a three-hour round-trip drive to the airport only to find upon arrival that crosswinds now exceeded the Thorpedo’s limitations, the process quickly grew old. If it were not for the great relationship with my CFI and genuine enjoyment drawn from every lesson (even those on the ground), Mother Nature combined with what soon became one mechanical obstacle after another surely would have shooed me away.

Now, five years later with close to 100 aviation lectures under my belt, I realize that cost itself is not the barrier, but rather, value determines commitment. “How much am I willing to pay to live my dream?” In other words, if it costs me $6,000 to get my sport pilot certificate (and that is what I paid), it is only expensive if I am having a lousy time. If the experience is great, it’s a bargain.

So, what are some things the flight training industry (and pilot community in general) can do to stop losing eight of every 10 students? Here are four ideas:

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A new approach to FIRCs

Flying self-selects fabulous people. It is easy to become fond of them. They are competent, committed and persistent. You already know this because you work with these folks all the time. My wife, Martha, and I became especially aware of how wonderful pilots are, and fond of them, during the decade or so that we traveled around the country teaching ground schools. It was also during that decade that we learned how vulnerable these special people are to the risks associated with flying.

We taught relatively large numbers, and it was not uncommon for us to return to a city in two months and learn that someone we had just taught was already dead from an airplane crash. I can name dozens. These were not foolhardy people. They just didn’t understand the risks they were taking. In each case the death was considered a local tragedy. These people make fabulous obituaries.

It points out there is such a strong need to help pilots gain insights that will save their lives. This is why I have come to so be deeply saddened by the lost opportunity represented by Flight Instructor Refresher Courses that cover all over again the same things we instructors all learned when we were training to become private pilots. Covering things like thrust, drag, lift, and weight has little or no effect on our ability to teach pilots things that will determine whether they and their passengers live or die.

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Help your students live their dream

As research shows, one of the top reasons given by students for not enrolling in flight training is cost. While we can debate whether this reasoning is monetary or perceived value, at the end of the day the fact remains that whether or not one has the money, training seems expensive if the experience falls short of expectations.


I participate in many discussions on this issue and believe the long-term solution to this problem is for the training industry to learn to consistently create value for students–a return on investment in the form of a great experience. Only then will living the dream be worth it, irrespective of price. However, this is not an overnight solution, so it is necessary to find immediate ways to combat the perceived price barrier.


Sennheiser S1 Aviation Headsets has just launched a scholarship program called “Live Your Dream.” Any flight student has a chance to win $1,500 towards training. Essentially, both the flight school and student register at Then, each student submits his story via text or video entry, telling why he wants to become a pilot (there are previous entries posted on the site to offer inspiration). Each month, a panel will select one entry and award the scholarship, which is payable directly to the flight school to help fund the winning student’s tuition. This really is a great program, and the reasons are plentiful.


First, the money. While $1,500 doesn’t cover all the training, Sennheiser and its partners are enabling courtships between students and flight schools. The largest barrier to entry is eliminated, and if the flight school creates a great experience, the student will find the remaining tuition to continue–as we know, people generally find the money for what they really want (the annual Hawaii golf trip or spring break in Cancun pales in comparison to living a dream!).


Second, Sennheiser has partnered with a number of companies such as iFlight Planner, Saitek, and others to add even more value to the program. These partners offer additional prizes and product support to the winning students and their schools. More and more companies are jumping on board as the program gains awareness.


Third, the benefits go further because in addition to enabling a new student, Sennheiser sends a “Live Your Dream” ambassador (such as myself or the phenomenal aerobatic act, The Aerostars) to your school to host an award ceremony as well as give a motivational presentation to your students and potential students from the local community. Moreover, the ambassadors come armed with solid marketing expertise to help flight schools grow their bottom line.


“Live Your Dream” positively impacts your students, local community, and business.  Moreover, it helps grow aviation–one of humanity’s greatest achievements upon which modern day society depends. I hope many students and flights schools will take advantage of this program, and I also hope that a multitude of aviation companies will support it. It’s in everyone’s interest to grow the pilot population, from the kid who dreams of flight, to the business man who relies on the airlines, to the impoverished family in need of medical attention, and of course all the businesses that contribute to and benefit from these aspects. No one is immune to aviation, so check out and help turn dreams into reality while also having a positive impact on your business and the aviation industry as a whole.

–Ravi, Sennheiser ambassador, musician, and aviation motivational speaker

Using an old concept with new twists to increase rentals

We’ve been working on a way to help pilots fly more, help flight schools and FBOs that rent aircraft book more revenue, and get more great rental customers. OpenAirplane will make it easy to find, book, fly, and pay for aircraft rental online or with a mobile device. Last week we started giving the world a peek at what our team has been quietly working on for eight months.

The team behind OpenAirplane started with the hypothesis that if together we reduced the hassle in renting airplanes, all our pilot certificates would become much more valuable. We imagined flying on the airlines from Chicago to Miami, easily booking the same make / model we fly at home, learning about local procedures on our own time, and then showing up to be handed the keys and clipboard to fly down to The Keys for lunch. We imagined renting an airplane like we rent cars. We imagined doing a checkout locally, then using that credential around the country without having to invest half a day and hundreds of dollars in checking out, yet again, every time.

Ninety-six percent of pilots we surveyed told us they would fly more when away from home, if the process was simpler. Fifty-one percent said it was the complicated checkout that kept them away. Twenty-eight percent said it was just too hard to find an airplane. How often would we rent cars if we were required to take the kid from behind the car rental counter around the parking lot three times before we got the keys? We see the hassle in renting airplanes today eroding everybody’s business.

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