I’m meandering along a quiet perimeter road at Clermont County Airport near Batavia, Ohio, on a frigid morning. An early winter is settling in here, with several inches of snow adorning the wooded countryside and temperatures hovering only in the 20s. The nontowered field I’m at is just 30 minutes from downtown Cincinnati and is home to the aviation institution known as Sporty’s—the airport’s biggest tenant and an impressive operation, emerging out of the woods like a flyer’s Valhalla.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spy an aviator, dressed in classic garb, complete with a leather flight helmet, A-2 aviator jacket, boots, scarf and goggles. The odd sight startles me and I wonder what he’s doing in this cold, standing near the woods as if hiding something. I report the strange character to Eric Radke, President of Sporty’s Academy and my host for the day. After a good laugh, he tells me that Hal Shevers, Sporty’s founder and Chairman, had ordered some aviation-motif statues a few years back. Due to several problems, the statues couldn’t be sold and sat in storage. With no other use, the Sporty’s folks relocated the human-sized statues to the nearby woods. They serve as unintended “welcomers.” I’m sure the Sporty’s guys are still laughing.
I’m here searching for the heart of aviation, or at least the heart that keeps aviation going by supplying pilots with some of the best home-study courses ever made, an outstanding flight-training academy and top-quality gear known the world over. As part of my quest, I want to know what pilots are buying and how equipment is influencing general aviation’s future. If anybody has their finger on the pulse of pilot gear trends, it’s Sporty’s. Celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2011, Sporty’s has grown to include all facets of aviation, and I want to know what got them here.
“We’re All Pilots”
Pilot gear is what put Sporty’s on the map, and it’s still what drives the company. Even with other catalogs that feature nonaviation products like tools and “lifestyle” products, aviation gear is still the most popular. “Pilot gear is 80% of our sales,” says Shevers, who helms Sporty’s, and is animated and full of life. “And in aviation, gear is as much an activity as anything else.”
One of the keys to Sporty’s success is that nearly everybody here flies. John Zimmerman, vice president of Sporty’s says, “We’ll grab an airplane and fly to breakfast with a flight bag or other product and say, ‘This is nice but it would be better if we added this or changed that.’” Shevers himself nurtures his managers’ interest in aviation and encourages their flying: “I want our products to be for pilots, by pilots.”
My all-access peek into Sporty’s reveals how they have marshaled automation to serve their philosophy of, “It has to be useful, it has to be good quality and it has to make flying more fun.” Orders flow in through computers and are routed to a printer farm where invoices stream out like army ants heading to their colonies. Humans—the live kind—review each order manually and place orders in a tub where a second visual verification takes place. “Nothing goes to shipping until it’s verified by a person,” explains Shevers. The warehouse is a hive of employees—many of whom count their tenure in decades—and college students on Segways rove around moving orders like futuristic androids. It looks fun.
Not following tradition, Shevers’ desk is in the middle of a large, plain room with no dividers, where he’s surrounded by all the other managers. His desk could be that of a mail clerk or telephone operator. There’s no pretense of status here, and all executives are in the same room. Even meetings are impromptu; with managers standing up (“If you sit down, meetings take too long,” smiles Radke). Everywhere, aviation adorns the walls, and the building’s glass-paned windows overlook the panoply of airplanes churning the sky from Sporty’s Academy just outside. And at every desk, there’s talk of gear and flying.
What We Buy
Let’s face it, pilot gear is fun to buy and is a view into the collective heart of aviation. The surprise this year is that the economy hasn’t affected big-ticket purchases, such as the new Bose A20 headset, which Zimmerman reports is “hot and is flying off the shelves.” An amazed Shevers comments, “In the old days, we never imagined paying $1,000 for a headset, but we pay that today, and slightly more!”
Hot items this year also included handheld nav/coms, cockpit video-recorder/camera systems and pulse oximeters, which Zimmerman says are becoming “standard issue.” Technology has brought the price of these devices to under $80, and the benefits (detecting hypoxia early) are obvious. Oximeters slide onto your finger and tell you the oxygen concentration percentage in your blood painlessly and noninvasively.
“The iPad is huge with pilots!” Zimmerman tells me, adding that Sporty’s is “All in on apps,” with their popular E6B application, and more coming. Sporty’s famous courses now are available for the iPad and iPhone and, of course, on DVD and online. During my visit, the darkened digital production labs were abuzz with application development not only for the iPad, but also for the iPhone, as well as the Android operating system (shhh!). Sporty’s is clearly seeing the future.
Flight bags continue to fascinate pilots, with the newest thing being modular bags that allow pilots to add and mix extra compartments based on their personal taste. Pilots like to add components like handheld radios or GPS units, or a water bottle or any number of things, depending on the mission. Today’s newest bags—like Sporty’s “Mission” bag—allow this, using military technology that allows simple coupling of different kinds of accessory pouches onto the main bag, creating an almost infinitely expanding and contracting “living” flight bag.
Another hot trend has been personal locator beacons (PLBs). Lower prices due to ever-improving technology have made these lifesaving units affordable for most pilots, and we’re buying them in droves. The disappearance of our old standby 121.5 emergency frequency is driving PLB sales too. Also in the “safety” category, LED flashlights, backup handheld GPS navigators and portable traffic systems that can be added to a portable GPS system were big sellers.
At Sporty’s, each order is reviewed manually, and no products are shipped until they have been verified by an employee. Hal Shevers takes in the runway view at Clermont County Airport in Batavia, Ohio.
We pilots are a surprising bunch. Just when you think we’re going to zig, we zag. Hal Shevers and his team keep tabs on these things and shared them with me during a grand tour that included Sporty’s vast warehouse, Sandy’s Airpark, and an immaculate aircraft maintenance facility.
“We try to focus on the little guy flying a piston airplane somewhere,” explains Shevers, “and because we actually fly, we get to see what works and what doesn’t.”
It seems we aviators like the security of paper charts because old-fashioned paper sectionals sold like crazy, even with the proliferation of applications on smart devices. Same with manuals like the FAR/AIM. Apps are great, but we’ll take paper for now.
Steam gauges are far from dead. “What we’re seeing is that the majority of pilots out there are not on glass cockpits,” says Zimmerman. Clearly, the idea that “everybody” is switching to glass panels is simply untrue. While the advantages are there, we’re still not flying an all-glass sky.
In-flight music is hugely popular, and pilot purchases reflect that, with Bluetooth adapters, accessory modules and new headsets leading the charge. In the same vein, pilots are flocking to portable e-book readers. Sporty’s has committed to growing their e-book offerings as pilots and passengers fall in love with the fact that they can read countless books without the weight and bulk of paper. Like the iPad, e-book readers look to figure prominently in aviation.
Finally, the basics still rule. Sporty’s has figured out exactly what new pilots need and use, and the results aren’t surprising. They are: a good home-study course, a quality headset, a modular flight bag that can grow with the student, a fuel tester, a good LED flashlight and a personal locator beacon (PLB) when the student begins to travel farther away. We all agreed that flight bags, headsets and flashlights are intensely personal items that are unique to each pilot, thus the enormous variety.
In searching for the “heart” of aviation, I found a company that’s much more than a mail-order giant. I came away with the sense that these folks actually care about aviation. From their philanthropic Sporty’s Foundation, to their flight-training success with Sporty’s Academy and more, Sporty’s is about enjoying and promoting the fun of flying. I knew this, flying high over the frozen Ohio landscape, watching the sunlight wane, from the seat of Sporty’s HK36 motorglider with Chief Flight Instructor Paul Jurgens. The glorious silence was moving. And far below sat Sporty’s—50 years of making flying fun. Here’s to 50 more.
The Future With Hal Shevers
|For Sporty’s, flight training is a key component of a healthy future. Sporty’s Academy has charged forward with a new approach to flight training: smaller, compartmentalized “milestones” that keep students motivated. An industry discussion at this year’s AOPA Summit revealed that, on average, 80 percent of students drop out of flight training before they finish. But Sporty’s is experiencing only a 30 percent dropout rate. They attribute that to their idea of not making the private certificate the main goal, instead creating smaller goals. Sporty’s makes first solo a huge deal and an end in itself. Students then earn their recreational pilot certificate, “So they can start having fun with it!” says Shevers. Only then do students continue to their private certificate.
As a company, Sporty’s will continue to promote aviation for the average pilot. “We’ll continue our Saturday hot dog barbeques,” says Shevers, “because we like to get direct feedback about our products from pilots themselves.” Innovations in pilot gear will continue to drive Sporty’s as new products come through their doors. “We turn down more products than we accept,” Shevers tells me. The study courses that Sporty’s has become famous for will continue to evolve and spread to every format available—online, DVD, iPhone, tablet, Android and anything else that comes along.
Sporty’s and the products they offer are a reflection of who we are as pilots. Flying and gear go together, and they’re part of the passion that fuels what we love. In Hal Shevers’ words, “Training is what we’re all about. Who we serve is the average person just learning to fly. And we do it because, ultimately, flying is fun.”
On Saturday, May 21, Sporty’s will host a special open house and fly-in to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. Visit www.sportys.com/flyin for details.