A Successful Flight School Understands Its Responsibility to Educate and Inspire Young People

11:56 AM

A possible future 'Girl With Wings' scans the ramp at KHIO
By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

Ask anyone in the flight training business and they'll talk at length about the need to reach out to children and young people as a means to "light fires" for aviation, as we often say. Kids are the next generation of pilots, and everyone in the aviation family knows the future health of GA depends on these "young people" growing up to eventually earn their Private Pilot's license and replace a senior aviator who has lost their medical, and thus their flying privileges. We need to keep the ratio of new tickets to lost medical certificates at 1-to-1, or do the math...GA's pilot population continues to shrink year after year.

But all the talk about "lighting fires" and "reaching out" can end at the front door when a flight school's management and instructor staff fails to truly understand their role in developing prospective students. Even while the kids are still in elementary school - or even earlier as you will see below - a trip to the airport should be a rewarding, happy experience for any child old enough to express even a passing interest in airplanes.

Recently, I was treated to a clear example of how Flight Training schools should operate when approached by non-pilots interested in our aviation world. It might also shine a light on the core philosophy of Hillsboro Aviation in Oregon, and explain why the school has grown into one of the country's largest combined fixed-wing and rotorcraft training facilities, with a fleet of over 80 airplanes and helicopters flying 63,000+ hours annually. The story starts here:
I was up in the Portland metro area visiting family, and was tasked with watching our 4-year-old granddaughter for a few hours. We were in the middle of the "what do you want to do today, Caitlin" discussion when she looked up and saw an Alaska Airlines Dash 8 coming over the houses on short final, inbound to KPDX. As a girl who has already expressed an interest in airplanes, it was no surprise when she immediately said she wanted to go "watch the planes land." But the very next thing she said was "are there any helicopters around here, DooDah? I've never seen a real helicopter before, they're SO cool!" So with an opening like that, you can be assured my mind went racing off to think of how we could satisfy her obvious appetite for flying machines. Because I can tell you this...when a future "Girl With Wings" wants to see airplanes, I was not about to take her to the Mall.
I knew we were only 30 minutes away from KHIO, where Hillsboro Aviation had a whole ramp full of helicopters. But would they let us just show up and waltz across their ramp? Would they allow a curious 4-year-old to get close to real rotorcraft...close enough to maybe touch one? It never hurts to ask...
I made a quick call to the school and was handed off to dispatch, where Zack Robinson, a friendly young pilot, was working that post. Zack is a helicopter student with 95 hours and a Private Pilot Certificate, and is working on his Commercial Pilot Certificate and Instrument Rating. I explained my situation as honestly as possible, that my granddaughter - who is curious about helicopters - wanted to come see one, for reals. I sort of expected a "sorry, they are all out," or "we are slammed with flights today, no can do," or some other lame excuse. But after meeting Zack, who is truly a born Airplanista, it was understandable how he warmly invited us out to KHIO, and offered to show Caitlin around, including maybe letting her sit in one of their 21 Robinson R-22s. And as I was giving her the news, you could see the smile forming even before the words had departed my head.
We made it to Hillsboro, and as promised, Zack walked us through their gigantic maintenance shop (remember, they have over 80 aircraft in the fleet) and out to the ramp. In seconds, Caitlin was next to a real chopper, and she was either stunned, or groggy from the nap on the drive over, we are not sure which. She got to sit in the left seat and feel the controls, all while watching a busy airport in action.

After her time learning about the Robinson, we spent 30 minutes in their upstairs Student Lounge which overlooks the very busy ramp and the TDZ of runway 31. As planes came and went below us on the ramp, Caitlin was non-stop asking questions, all which I was more that happy to try and answer. She was spotting little things, like "why did he do THAT?" when watching a low timer bounce a 152 an extra time down the runway. Or "what's HE doing?" when watching a student climb up to visually check fuel in a high wing plane.

As we left the airport, I think she said "that was SO cool" maybe 150 times. While only an hour in a young girl's life, I truly believe that if she grows up and becomes a pilot, the people at Hillsboro Aviation will get credit for at least lighting part of her fire.

I am not at all surprised by the treatment we received at this highly-successful flight school. Curious about how this facility has grown so big while some other schools limp along scraping for students, Airplanista took a closer look at Hillsboro Aviation, and spoke to the school's General Manager, Jon Hay.
"The company was founded in 1980 as Hillsboro Helicopters and began as a one-helicopter flight school in Hillsboro, Oregon," Hay said. "As the city of Hillsboro’s landscape changed with the introduction of several large technology companies, Hillsboro Helicopters steadily built its helicopter and airplane business. "In 1996, the company’s name was changed to Hillsboro Aviation, Inc. and today, we employ over 240 people and is made up of three core business groups which consist of 14 separate profit centers. Hillsboro Aviation has established its position as a U.S. leader in helicopter sales and one of the largest combined helicopter and airplane flight training schools in the U.S. Its charter division operates a fleet of Bell helicopters and Hawker Beechcraft King Airs throughout the U.S. Hillsboro Aviation is a dealer for Bell Helicopter, Cessna and the Robinson Helicopter Company and also provides aircraft maintenance and avionics services, FBO fueling, aircraft parts and pilot supplies.
Hillsboro Aviation's Rotorcraft fleet
When you step onto their ramp, it is heaven for anyone who loves watching air traffic come and go. The Hillsboro Aviation fleet includes several models of Bell 205 A1, Bell 407, Bell 206 B3, L3 and L4 LongRangers, Robinson R22 (both VFR and Instrument), Robinson R44 (Instrument), King Air C90, Piper Seminole, Cessna 172RG, Cessna 172SP, Cessna 172P, Cessna 162, Cessna 152 and even a Lockwood AirCam. The fleet has a total of 33 rotorcraft and 48 fixed wing airplanes used for both training and charter.

This school is a perfect example of how everyone in the flight training industry needs to stay true to the core responsibility of inspiration and education. "For those of us who fell in love with aviation at a young age," Hay explains, "we understand how crucial it is for people in the industry to reach out to the next generation of potential pilots and encourage their interest in aviation. Since we are in the business of education, we feel it’s extremely important to nurture an interest in aviation and provide learning opportunities to every individual regardless of age. This is why we participate in events where we can educate people about aviation, including air shows, school career days and offer tours of our facility. At Hillsboro Aviation, we believe it is our responsibility to share our passion for aviation, especially with young people." 

Trying an Robinson R22 on for size
It is not uncommon to see students from all over the world training in Hillsboro, including females. And, says Hay, the future is bright for these women. "The number of female pilots is growing every day and the job opportunities are great for a qualified pilot regardless of gender. Companies are simply looking for the most proficient and professional pilot with the necessary experience. We are seeing an increase in the enrollment of female students and have female CFIs and charter pilots who fly some of our most demanding missions, including aerial firefighting and search and rescue."

As someone who loves seeing a flight school be successful, it is a majestic thing to tour Hillsboro Aviation and see such incredible GA training action taking place. The school is filled with students who represent the future of aviation, and it is my hope that this culture of welcoming the non-flying public in to glimpse the aviation world we all embrace will continue to light fires, inspire kids, and build a solid future for aviation.

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