Features  / 03.11 /

Is this flightopia?

Sunshine, customer service, and fun are this school’s ingredients for success

Walk into the front door of Tailwheels Etc.’s flight school and wait. Someone will greet you within five seconds. That’s a rule—one of several at this busy and successful flight school at Winter Haven’s Gilbert Airport in Winter Haven, Florida.

Look around. You won’t find a lot of glass and mirrors, nor will you see flight instructors in epaulets. In the summertime, everybody wears shorts and T-shirts—instructors and students alike. That’s by design, and it’s part of the image that Tailwheels Etc. cultivates. This is a place to come to learn to fly, but it’s also a place to have fun.

“It has to be fun for the student,” says owner John Amundsen. “If it’s not fun for them they’re gonna quit.”

A recipe for success. At a point in time when the student pilot dropout rate is approaching 80 percent, Tailwheels Etc. is doing something right. Several things right, in fact.

Since opening its doors in 2004, Tailwheels Etc. has strived to provide high-quality flight training. It has done so by mentoring and training its flight instructors to be effective teachers.

It has done so by putting its customers’ needs first. The school’s fleet features a late-model glass-cockpit Cessna 172, but also a 172 with steam gauges, two Cessna 150s, and two Piper Warriors—because those are the types of airplanes that its clients are used to flying, and will fly after they earn their certificates.

And it has done so by keeping a sharp eye on the industry and conforming to meet clients’ changing needs—for example, by obtaining international approval so that it can attract customers from outside the United States.

The results are evident. The school charges higher rates than other schools in the area and pays its instructors a salary, rather than the more typical hourly wage based on hours spent flight instructing. “Everyone said that won’t work, you can’t do it,” Amundsen says. Even so, Tailwheels Etc. has all the business it can handle. Since opening in 2004, the school has turned out approximately 1,000 pilots. Repeat customers represent about 35 to 40 percent of the business—those who come back for more ratings.

Amundsen isn’t shy about sharing the secrets to his school’s success. He loves the flight training industry and wants everyone to succeed. “There are so many good flight schools out there and they’re going the wrong way,” he says, and estimates that about 40 to 45 percent of his primary students are refugees from other schools. “One guy walked in the door and starts asking all these questions. I asked him, ‘How many flight schools have you been to?’ He said, ‘Is it that obvious?’ Only somebody involved in the process would have asked those questions.” The man had logged 102 hours but had no certificate to show for it. “That’s why so many people drop out,” Amundsen says.

A healthy dose of sunshine. Tailwheels Etc.’s website notes that “We are a Florida flight school by design. The weather is just too good to be anywhere else.” Amundsen intended to retire in Florida after a career in aviation that included operating a flight school in Michigan and flying small cargo planes for UPS. Instead, he is helping to run the family business, which includes his son, Jonathan, the head of maintenance; daughter, Elizabeth, a mechanic and CFII; and instructors and office staff.

The consistent good weather enables Tailwheels Etc. to offer accelerated training. In two weeks, a student can obtain his or her private certificate—with no opportunity for burnout or frustration. “That’s one of the reasons we put together our two-week program,” Amundsen says. “They come in, they’re focused, we don’t let them get distracted. They go home with homework, they don’t have a chance to forget everything because we build on everything they learn.”

Any pilot who’s been through accelerated training will tell you that it’s like drinking from a fire hose; “fun” and “accelerated” don’t normally pop up in the same conversation. Yet Tailwheels Etc. strives to make it so. Fly-outs to the Florida Keys or the Bahamas are part of that strategy.

The sense of community that students crave? Tailwheels sponsors weekly cookouts, and there is a community room where students can socialize. When Tailwheels Etc. took over the former fixed-base operation building on the airport—a hangout for the airport’s pilots association—its members feared they would be evicted. “I wanted those guys in,” says Amundsen. “You know how much wealth of information they have?” He cites former military and airline pilots, former FBO managers, and private pilots. Their collective wisdom is a treasure trove for student pilots.

Looking to the future. Tailwheels Etc.’s track record might seem to be the anecdote to a struggling industry, but Amundsen has his concerns. He worries about the lack of financing for qualified students, and sees the ripple effect of a pilot shortage two years down the road when 65-year-old airline pilots begin to retire. In the last six months he’s lost three of his best flight instructors to the airlines. That means hiring new instructors and honing their teaching skills, which he says is the “toughest part” of the business. “We believe in what we do,” Amundsen says. “We’ve worked hard to perfect it."

Jill W. Tallman, associate editor of AOPA Pilot and Flight Training magazines, is a private pilot with an instrument rating.

A flight school’s rebirth

Once an instructor, now he’s the owner

The flight-training pilot light at Oswego County Airport in Fulton, New York, was nearly extinguished last year. The owner of the only flight school decided he’d had enough of central New York winters and was moving to Texas. He wanted to sell the school, but at first there were no takers.

“He started talking about parting it out, selling the hangar, selling the airplanes,” says Jeff Vandeyacht. “I just started thinking hard about it…I had this kind of epiphany that we couldn’t let flight training die at the airport. It had to have a flight school.”

Vandeyacht knew the owner and had been a part-time flight instructor there. (He is COO of a company that specializes in trade show and museum exhibits. “I do that so I can afford to teach,” he says.)

After some soul-searching and negotiations with his wife, the county (which owns the airport), and the owner, Vandeyacht took over the operation November 1, 2010. He renamed it True Course Flight School and put up a modest website that promotes its motto: “Expertise—Experience—Patience.”

To keep the transition simple for current students, he kept the same telephone number and uses the same two Cessna 172s for primary and instrument training, adding a Socata Trinidad for commercial and CFI training. “The flight school kind of looks the way it did in terms of the aircraft and building,” he says. He plans to add online scheduling and will accept credit-card payments, which he hopes will facilitate “impulse buys” of gift certificates. He uses Twitter and Facebook along with the website to build an online presence.

As Vandeyacht is new to the ownership experience, he hasn’t experienced a dropoff in students. But he has been thinking about how to retain them and help them to succeed. “The important thing is to keep them enthusiastic,” he says. “I always try to make sure before the end of every lesson that they go home feeling positive, that it was a good flight today…I always try to make it fun. I know a lot of other instructors say that, but I really focus on that to make sure they’re having a good time.” —JWT