Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sporty’s 50 Years On The Pulse Of GA

A look at our collective pilot philosophy through the gear we buy and why

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.”


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