Features  / 02.14 /

Dream maker

Why Conor Dancy is Flight Instructor of the Year

conor dancy

Photography by Chris Rose

So here’s the set-up: Take a “challenging” student and hook her up with the best flight instructor of 2013. Have her be at her most challenging, and then have her rate this 23-year-old phenom on the criteria the Flight Training Excellence Poll sought from its 3,375 respondents. How would the winner do? And would our heroine even make it through a lesson (see “Flying with Conor,” page 42)?

Conor Dancy of Aviation Adventures in Leesburg, Virginia, is the recipient of the first AOPA Flight Training Excellence Award for Best Flight Instructor. His fans scored him higher than some 950 other instructors from across the nation. The individual instructors were rated on 31 criteria ranging from professionalism to personality, safety issues to financial concerns.

Four key elements concerned our challenging student, however. First was “first impression.” This was especially important to our student as she’s 55 years old and obstinate. Dancy is 23 and is younger than her sons. Second was “why him?” Why choose this instructor if she could have anyone in the nation? Third, how could he help her become a part of the aviation community, feel welcome, and assimilated as one of the gang?—a desire expressed by many new students in the Flight Training Experience research AOPA conducted in 2010 (see “The Flight Training Experience: Making It Work,” March 2011 Flight Training). Finally, what characteristics of our phenom should be emulated by other instructors? The research also revealed that CFIs can have the most positive impact on training—and a student’s success rate.

First impression.

“Wow, young kid!” That was one of the respondents to the poll’s first impression of Dancy. And it’s the truth. Not only is he just 23, but he’s a young-looking 23. Like 12 maybe.

conor dancyBut never judge a book by its cover. There’s a lot of substance under that baby face. And knowledge. And experience. And confidence. And intelligence. And poise. He knows his stuff. He’s also not bashful about letting it be known that he knows his stuff. Yet there's no sense of arrogance here. No sense of entitlement. He’s been flying since he was 12 and grew up in an aviation world (his father, Chris, is the director of communications and public relations at Helicopter Association International and former director of communications for AOPA). The younger Dancy holds a bachelor’s degree in geology from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and graduated with a 3.4 GPA. He has 2,000 flight hours and is a commercial pilot ASEL and AMEL, Gold Seal CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, IGI—and he’s working on his multiengine ATP. He is newly married and expects his wife, Sam, to get her private pilot certificate. “Anyone married to me better learn how to fly,” he quips.

“He walked up to me with a smile and put out his hand, introduced himself, and said let’s talk about flying,” said one respondent. “He is very personable and professional.” Dancy has been instructing since he was 19 and has trained 14 students from start to finish, 12 of whom passed their private pilot checkride on the first try, which is why he is a Gold Seal instructor (the FAA bestows this honor on instructors who have recommended at least 10 students in a two-year period, eight of which must pass on the first attempt). He also teaches pilots how to be CFIs. He’s taught one multiengine student so far and is currently working with one initial CFI student and one CFII applicant. He is now the chief flight instructor at Aviation Adventures in Leesburg (the school operates three locations)—a job he took November 1, 2013.

He exudes confidence, and he has a great sense of humor about his age and looks. “You mean I look like a baby,” he said.

Why him? A lot of instructors can boast the same credentials as Dancy—many, probably even more impressive. Why him? This respondent said it well: “I chose Conor for two reasons: The first was that I noticed that many of the other—and more experienced—instructors came to him for guidance and advice on aviation matters. That made it obvious to me that he was knowledgeable in the aviation field and since I had no flying experience, I wanted the top guy in the organization to train me. The second reason I chose Conor was that I noticed that his schedule was more busy compared to the schedules of his peers, and that indicated to me that the students were satisfied with him as well.”

Dancy brings something to his instruction that is palpable—he truly loves to teach. He’s an evangelist for flying in that he can’t imagine why anyone would not want to take to the skies. And while he acknowledges that his upbringing in aviation is different from 99.9 percent of the population, he believes in spreading the gospel of his chosen avocation. He’s said that he would be happy being a flight instructor for the rest of his life.

“He is a great teacher and made the whole experience fun. Conor has a great way of instructing that really helped me grasp all of the concepts. Also, I obviously didn’t want to die during flight training so I clearly trusted Conor and was very comfortable with his safety skills.” Amen.

One of the gang.

Being part of the aviation community was cited as one of the key components to successful flight training in AOPA’s industry study. The camaraderie, friendships, and the feeling of being part of a group are high on the list of reasons why students seek out aviation—and then choose to stay. “Conor ensured that I was invited to many planned trips, classes, and seminars. He has also introduced me to many other members at the school (senior aviators, FAA instructors) who have included me in various trips, seminars, and other events in the aviation community,” said a respondent.

Instructing is more than a paycheck to Dancy. The airport is his home. Although he has no ownership interest in Aviation Adventures, the flight school he helps run, he speaks of it as if it is his own. He and the owners, Bob and Ronnie Hepp, are “we” in his conversation, and any plans or changes at the school are equally his responsibility.

“He has included me in activities that he does with other pilots and members of the community. He wants me to meet more pilots and network. He has done so many positive things for me,” said another survey respondent.

More like him.

conor dancyWhen asked what it is about Dancy that makes him stand out, one word came to many: passion. It is very clear that Dancy is passionate about aviation. It makes one wonder how his wife feels about her husband’s avocation. After all, he flew off to Texas to accept his award just two days before their wedding. “She said she was OK with it as long as I got back on time,” Dancy smiles. “I did. It was quite a month for me.”

“Conor has invested a significant amount of time in my success as a flight student. He absolutely cares about each and every one of his students. Conor is very approachable and personable and he is the type of individual who provides unmatched value to the aviation community, because of his passion for teaching and the manner with which he carries himself,” said a respondent.

Dancy says he has been working with a student who turned out to be very frightened when he got in the air—a surprise to both the student and Dancy (the student flies in helicopters regularly because of his job but has no fear there). It’s become Dancy’s personal mission to help him. So far the student is spending a lot of time in the simulator, a place where Dancy says one can experience all those things a student fears, work them out, and see the consequences and the solutions. “Simulator training has so much promise; it’s a great addition to instruction,” he says. His student is coming along.

As a respondent said of Dancy, “He wants me to accomplish my dreams.”

Julie Summers Walker is managing editor of Flight Training magazine.

Flying with Conor

I’m the “challenging” student. Unlike many of my colleagues at AOPA, it wasn’t a love of aviation that brought me here; it was a love of magazines. But I soon realized that key to being a member of this group was a passion for flying—a fear of flying wasn’t going to cut it. So I gave it the old college try. I sweated out 65 hours of training with various instructors—who sweated out hours of my shrieking, panicking, manipulation, lying, crying, and obstinacy—only to get felled by an illness that put the brakes on my student days. But somewhere along this turbulent path, I fell in love with flying—the sitting in the right seat part. The getting there in half the time part. The look at what you can see from up here part. Kinda like Flying Miss Daisy.

What we wondered about Conor Dancy was whether he knows some magic that could help a freaky flier like me want to try out the left seat again. I’ve flown right seat or “baggage compartment” for so many years now that when I took the left seat with Dancy, I felt it should be his seat. And I didn’t do very well, at least in my estimation. I grew antsy during the preflight, agitated in the left seat, danced on the rudder pedals and brakes so we jerkily tangoed up the taxiway, and plotzed at the run-up area.

Dancy stayed calm. “I’ve sat in the right seat so much more; you’re safer with me here.” “I’m not going to let anything happen; I’m in here too.” “You’re fine. You know what you’re doing.” “Stay on the centerline, slowly on the throttle, pull on the yoke…look, we’re airborne! That was perfect.”

But then I lost it. I said “Your airplane!” and for the next 45 minutes whined about never being able to do this. Finally Dancy said, “You can do this if you want to. You just have to want to. Do you?”

Flying with the nation’s number one flight instructor was pretty great. There was a difference in instruction—I’ve been through my share of flight instructors—but for me what sets Dancy apart is one thing. It may seem like a small thing, but for me it is not: honesty. We all don’t have to be Top Gun, or Amelia Earhart, or Buzz Aldrin. We just have to try, and we just have to know our limitations. Dancy is a dream maker for many people, but he’s not a dream killer, and that’s important too. —JSW