Last month, you met Chris Dillis, who took the "friendly clubhouse" atmosphere common to European VLA (very light aircraft) flying and brought it to his own LSA startup in Denver.
Of course, Dillis didn't reinvent the wheel. Many American flying centers do offer camaraderie and shared fun flying. But I see Dillis' singular achievement as his vision of making a fun, social flying experience the priority for Skyraider Aviation. It's the Cheers syndrome: He built that airplane place "where everybody knows your name."
Back to 2006, Skyraider had just opened its doors. "Things were going well," Dillis remembers. "We had one airplane and started in November with winter coming—probably not the best time, but we got our processes worked out."
He started up at nontowered Erie Municipal Airport (EIK) on the outskirts of the Mile High City. And despite the cold, the plane averaged 30 flying hours per month. "Not spectacular but, for winter, pretty good."
Spring came. Airplane number two was ordered. Then Dave Graham and Tim Baldwin formed Gobosh to import the Aero AT-4. Dillis became a dealer and brought a leaseback Gobosh online. Things were rolling along pretty well; then the sky fell in.
"We had an accident that destroyed our first airplane, and killed my instructor and his student. It was devastating. I almost shut the doors. But the very next day, students showed up for their flights. 'Really?' I asked. 'Yes,' they said." Only one student, a 15-year-old with anxious parents, dropped out.
What kept those students and renters coming back to Skyraider—now expanded to nearby Centennial Airport (APA)—was "the sense of belonging we created. Membership is the same as in a country club. There's no shared ownership, just a fee to belong.
"Members feel they belong to something," Dillis explains. "We foster that with monthly meetings, fly-outs, food and drinks at the clubhouse and safety topic discussions. Clubhouse time is ideal for students to informally talk with experienced pilots, and pick up tips and pointers. It helps the whole flight-training process and builds that sense of camaraderie."
The fly-outs are particularly popular. "Sometimes they're ambitious, like flying to Oshkosh." Other fly-outs are of the $100-hamburger variety, win-win affairs for students and Skyraider alike. The planes earn rental fees, but the $40/hour instructor rate is waived, so students get valuable cockpit time with their mentors at a lower cost.
Running any aviation business is never a 24/7 cakewalk. One ongoing challenge has been overcoming light-sport misconceptions.
"People still think we can't legally fly beyond 50 miles—the recreational-license limitation! Or they believe LSA aren't real airplanes or have lawn-mower engines or are dangerous to fly," Dillis says. "There's still lots of misinformation, and much comes from conventional flight schools. Whether it's intentional or honest mistakes, I don't know. Some flight schools who operate LSA try to get all their students to go for the private. The students come to us because they've been pushed into flying the bigger planes at a higher cost."
Another lesson: discounted discovery flights. "Initially, we did a lot but weren't making any money," says Dillis. "It looked good on the books—lots of good hours—but no profits."
He concluded people who really want to learn to fly will pay for it. "We were attracting the one-time airplane-ride folks," explains Dillis. "That's just not good for business. Maybe it spreads the word, but it doesn't really help us sell flight lessons or airplanes."
Now, Skyraider offers demo flights at the regular hourly rate. "We saw a bit of a decline," admits Dillis, "but we're making money on every flight. The chances of the 'ride' folks coming back are not that great, and it ends up wasting time and effort. People know when they want to learn to fly. We show them what we have to offer: friendship, a club environment, fun, and we say, 'Please come back!'"
And come back they do. Although student completion rates are close to the industry average, Dillis says, "We have plenty of students, and there are always lots of starts."
Skyraider's demographic? Males around 55 from higher-income brackets who took lessons years ago, then put flying aside to raise families and build careers. "Now they want to get back into it, but in a simpler way. They're not dodging medical exams, they just want to fly as quickly and easily as possible."
When students ask him "How long to get my license?" Dillis asks them their age. He has seen that older pilots take longer to learn. "So if they say 50, I say, 'About 50 hours.' It tends to be pretty accurate." Dillis, maybe it's not age, but that thin Denver air!
Centennial is the busier Skyraider locale. Each plane flies around 50 hours per month. Erie yields closer to 40 hours. The financial break-even point is about 30 hours per month, so the company operates in the black. Who wouldn't like to say that these days? The planes (three Gobosh 700s, a PiperSport, an Evektor SportStar and a Remos G3) rent for $105/hour at Erie and $115/hour at Centennial.
Club membership is 92 between the two locations. "And we add more than we lose." Dillis hopes a stronger economy will improve growth. "We're a recreational-flying operation: No one's going toward an airline career with us."
Flying several training missions a day at busy corporate-traffic Centennial Airport doesn't hurt business either.
"When we use the 'Gobosh' call sign, the tower tells the biz jets: 'Gulfstream, parallel the Gobosh.' The pilots radio back, 'What's a Gobosh?' After a while, they learn. It's like free radio advertising, every day! We've created the perception there's always an LSA in the air over Centennial. That's not far from the truth either. I think they're jealous we're having all that fun!
"I think we're helping legitimize light sport," Dillis says. "We operate at one of the busiest GA airports in the country and don't interfere with other airplanes. We're as fast as a 172, outclimb them and cruise downwind at the same speed. It's fun to beat them to pattern altitude."
Chris Dillis took a simple idea—provide a friendly place to fly—and turned it into a winning business concept.
"People say flight training is a commodity: 'You learn wherever you go.' I don't agree. We've created something beyond flight training. Flight schools could be more creative by embracing the idea that pilots learn to fly because they enjoy it. We make it feel like fun, not like school.
"Too many flight schools still look down their noses at light sport," Dillis says. "There are so many potential customers! When private-pilot students quit flying because they haven't a clue what to do with their license, we say, 'Come join us, have fun with us!'"
Right now, I'm thinking of all those studies and advertising programs and discovery flights, all focused on figuring out how to grow GA again. Hey folks: Take a hint from Chris Dillis and put the kicks back in flying!