Opening a New Flight Training Operation: Why Winter Haven, Why Now?

9:55 PM

The new SunState Aviation Flight School
is inside the beautiful terminal building at KGIF
By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

As 2012 comes to a close and 2013 begins our new march forward in time, the flight training industry continues to see very low retention rates and dramatically lower student starts.
"Since 2012 hasn’t wrapped up yet," says Ian Twombly, Editor of AOPA's Flight Training Magazine, "the latest data we have for student starts is 2011. According to the FAA, 55,298 people obtained a student pilot certificate in 2011, up from 54,064 in 2010. While this is an improvement, it’s still down from the more than 113,000 who did so in 2002. We continue to estimate between a 20- to 30-percent retention rate."

It is safe to say that opening a new flight instruction facility in that environment is at best, a courageous endeavor, and at worst, very risky business. In order to succeed, a new flight school would need to do everything right, and they'd need to have both good luck and a solid business plan to be profitable and successful long-term.

Jamie Beckett
Airplanista reader, CFII Jamie Beckett, V.P. of Operations for SunState Aviation's new Flight School at KGIF in Winter Haven, Florida, thinks the facility he'll be managing starting in January, 2013 has pulled together the winning elements to succeed.
Beckett came to flying relatively late in life, but after training at Comair Academy, now holds commercial single-engine land and sea, multi-engine land and instrument ratings, certified flight instructor, instrument instructor, multi-engine instructor and advanced instrument ground instructor tickets, along with an airframe and powerplant mechanic certificate. "I've spent time in C-150s and 152s, 172s, and 182s, Piper Cherokees, Warriors, Tomahawks, Senecas, Seminoles, and the Air Cam," Beckett said, "with the Air Cam being my preference. Sprinkle in a bit of Cub time (with floats and with wheels), some time at the stick in a Waco open cockpit biplane, a Vultee BT-13, and even a tad of right seat time in a King Air 200, and we're talking a lot of fun."
SunState came into Beckett's world because the flight school bid on and was awarded a contract to provide flight training services to Polk State College, which has just introduced a Professional Pilot Science degree program. Polk State's main campus is in Winter Haven, where Beckett happens to reside. "After SunState negotiated their lease with the city of Winter Haven," Beckett explained, "SunState's owner, Steve Graham, invited me to come sit down for a chat, and he offered me a position with the company, managing the new base at KGIF. I will be managing the operation, dealing with customers, overseeing the staff, marketing and promoting what we do, and in general getting the ball rolling as we get in gear and set our sights on growing the school and the Polk State College program in the process."
That Polk State College pilot science program is at the heart of this new flight training operation, and should keep a steady flow of new student pilots coming in the front door...a very good thing in this flight training market. The program will prepare graduates for careers as professional pilots and/or flight instructors. Upon completion of the program, the student has been prepared to earn a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Commercial Pilot Certificate, Single-engine and Multi-engine Land, with an Instrument Rating. This program also prepares students for additional optional certificates in Certified Flight Instructor Airplane, Certified Instrument Flight Instructor, and Certified Multi-engine Flight Instructor."
Beckett is excited to be part of the PSC program:
"Their pilot science program was developed as a clean sheet of paper curriculum. This program is entirely new with a heavy focus on human factors. It is noticeably different to many existing programs because every aspect of the course includes both theoretical and practical perspectives on the material. And because real aviation professionals will be teaching at the college, and the students will be spending time at the airport with instructors attached to a training provider like SunState Aviation, I anticipate they will find themselves on the receiving end of an outstanding educational program with real-world applications."
And when it comes to finding places for PSC graduates on the airline flight decks of tomorrow, Beckett is sure their future is bright. "The pilot shortage has been rumored or predicted for as long as I've been involved in aviation – and I believe it to be an absolute reality," he says. "In many respects aviation, and general aviation specifically, has either plateaued or is shrinking. That's a concern for many of us in the industry, and it's a valid concern. But as the general population of professional pilots shrinks through attrition and retirement, the percentage of active pilots needed in the transport category will only increase."
"I’m somewhat familiar with the new program at Polk State," added Twombly, "and I think any college or university that starts a flight training program leading to a degree is very progressive, especially given the enormous budget constraints many schools are under. The impending pilot shortage means graduates of these programs will have great job prospects. The best news for students is that they have myriad options when it comes to selecting a school. As we just noted in the special collegiate issue of Flight Training Magazine, students have the option of a major four-year private or public university, a two-year community college, or an aviation academy. Within those you’ll find a number of business models, many not unlike Polk State’s arrangement. The school’s focus on human factors could be unique, however, and we’re excited to watch the progress."

The secret to successfully training these new PSC students to give them a solid foundation for career building lies, says Beckett, in a diverse combination of collegiate studies, quality flight instruction, but also full immersion in the bliss that is our aviation family:
"I have always been in awe of any college program that produces a pilot that has both the certificates to be eligible for an airline interview but also a traditional degree, Beckett said. "The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to find employment in the segment of aviation you want to be involved in. That's a real benefit of the PSC program and Winter Haven operating base, too. The diversity of operations going on here at KGIF is really inspirational to anyone who wants to get into aviation. With two paved runways of roughly 4,000 and 5,000 feet, respectively, our base is home to open cockpit biplanes, a considerable number of taildraggers, a vibrant pilot's association, and even an airport community. People live right on the field here, with hangars standing right behind their houses. Winter Haven is the home of Jack Brown's Seaplane Base, the most successful seaplane training facility in the world. Yet the land planes and seaplanes have found a way to work together safely and coexist effectively for more than 45 years. All of this means the PSC student can clearly see the camaraderie of the aviation community first-hand, that's a mighty powerful motivation tool!"
PSC students as well as the public will train in a fleet of late model C-172s, both with legacy panels (steam gauges) and glass, as well as the C-162 Skycatcher for Light Sport training. And while the SunState business model has proven successful at keeping a training fleet flying, Beckett says there is one undeniable natural element that gives flight training operations in Florida a fighting chance at keeping the Hobbs turning:
"Central Florida has a long and proud flight training tradition because we have the advantage of exceptional weather. The reason so much pilot training was done here in WWII is because you can depend on more flying days than almost anywhere else in the world. That weather is still here and still has a positive effect on flight training operations. Students who can fly more frequently tend to develop proficiency more quickly. And quicker proficiency means lower overall training costs in the long run. When you having training days taken away by high winds, low ceilings, known icing, or any one of a number of other meteorological phenomenon can be frustrating and potentially costly."
So while 2013 might not seem like a great time to open a new flight school on paper, SunState and Beckett are sure that everything is pointed to a strong opening and years of success. "We're going to have a real adventure here and I can't even begin to tell you how excited I will be to see that first Polk State College class come through the doors in January 2013. For a flight school like SunState to have the opportunity to work with a college to develop a brand new program, while we continue to work with our traditional students and customers, it's a real thrill. General aviation is thriving here in central Florida, believe me."
Not long after that first class of PSC students begins training at the new facility, the entire GA world will descend on the area, which Beckett sees as a great marketing opportunity. "We're located only 15 miles from the Sun 'n Fun campus," he says, "so we'll be seeing plenty of curious people during the annual Fly-In and Expo who will want to come by and see the facility and the aircraft for themselves. I'm happy to be right here in the middle of everything, really excited to get to it and start growing the number of pilots who are looking toward a long and satisfying career in the air – whether they do it professionally or just as the greatest hobby mankind has ever known."

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