|SKYRAIDER AVIATION. Chris Dillis based his successful LSA flight school on flying-club experience in Europe.|
The success of the long-running Cheers TV show, I’m convinced, came in no small part from the seductive lines in that great theme song that so well captured the spirit of the show:
Sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
Chris Dillis, a big, strapping guy with a big, friendly smile, lived in Germany a few years back. He got involved in a U.S. Army flying club while he was there, and one day had an epiphany: He was having fun.
Here’s the kicker: He had flown previously in the U.S. The experience had been...different, very different indeed.
“I was introduced to the European Very Light Aircraft (VLA) and a particular mentality as I flew with various German and British flying clubs. I saw that these clubs were probably more about socializing than about flying.
“My flight training in the U.S. was nothing like in Europe. Over here, it’s more corporate,” Dillis continues. “Centennial near Denver is one of the busiest GA airports in the country, with lots of rules and regulations. It was very much like school: You fly, you leave, you come back when it’s time for another lesson.”
Most of my flight training syncs up with that assessment. How many of us who learned to fly this way would call the typical colorless, businesslike flight-school experience “fun?”
By contrast, Dillis likens the Euro flight-school atmosphere to “...a clubhouse. People hang out all day with other pilots. Sure, they fly, but often they come out, raise a couple beers, have a good time and never get near an airplane. There’s a camaraderie among club members. I’d even say the social aspect is almost more important than the actual flying. I sure never had that experience in the U.S.!”
Coleman AeroClub in Mannheim, Germany, was created in the European style: membership dues but no fractional ownership fees, since the club owned the airplanes and members paid rent. There was a little clubhouse where members hung out, and 16 hours of volunteer work were required each year.
“On Saturday mornings,” says Dillis, “pilots and students hung out with each other until it was their turn to fly or the weather cleared.”
Some clubs he visited had informal bars with drinks, beer and snacks...not a vending machine in a windowless back room bathed in garish fluorescent light. The Coleman club in Germany put on monthly barbecues and, like many clubs, put on regular fun-flight events.
“We also had cross-cultural fly-ins with a German flying club in Mannheim,” Dillis says. “It was a great chance for Americans to fly with Germans and vice versa. That was cool.”
During his time in Germany, Dillis bought a half share in an Aero AT-3, the almost-LSA forerunner to the U.S. Gobosh. Gobosh, (“GO Big Or Stay Home”), was run by Dave Graham and Tim Baldwin. I’m sorry to report Graham and Baldwin closed up their operation recently, although happy to hear from Dillis that the AT-4, imported under the name Gobosh, will return with new dealers. That’s good news: It remains one of my favorite fun-flying LSA.
Back to Chris Dillis: As half owner of a working demonstrator—his partner was a VLA dealer in Britain and Germany—he noticed how cheerfully people hung around with other pilots, telling war stories, sometimes flying, sometimes not.
When he relocated back to the U.S. about the time the light-sport movement came into being, he reminisced about his friend Trevor, the dealer and AT-3 partner. “He sure was having a lot more fun than I was sitting behind a computer screen doing I.T. stuff.” Dillis has a masters in Internet Technology, earned while working as a young Air Force officer (he’s a class of ’92 Academy grad) in the Pentagon.
And when he saw an imported Evektor SportStar, which was the first ASTM-sanctioned LSA model in the U.S., he thought, “I’m starting my own biz. I’m going to fly around the country selling airplanes.”
He wanted to sell the AT-3, but its stall speed was a single knot too high for the LSA spec, so on to plan B. Since the AT-3’s biggest competitor was the SportStar, he thought, “I’ll go with the biggest competitor.”
But another guy beat him to it; the territory was covered. However, Evektor asked, would you like to be an Evektor Flight Center? They told him he could buy one plane, train people to fly in it, and do some sales, but he wouldn’t have any sales quota.
“That sounded even better to me!” Dillis explains. “By teaching people to fly, I could make money between airplane sales and get commissions when I sold an airplane, but I wasn’t expected to sell.”
Deal! He signed up, but had to wait a few months for the SportStar to arrive. In the meantime, a big air show kicked off in Denver.
“The regional dealer flew out in his nice-looking SportStar,” Dillis recounts. “We set it up in front of aviation enthusiasts who had heard of LSA and were excited about it, but didn’t know much about the new category. We ended up gathering a lot of names.”
When his own SportStar arrived, he sent out emails that said, “We’re in business!” "
“It was kind of funny,” he remembers. “I’d gotten 50-some email addresses of people interested in the LSA. A week after I took delivery of the Evektor, I had an open house. It was me, my wife and my instructor, sitting in the office, figuring maybe one or two would walk in now and then throughout the day.”
No one was prepared for what happened next. “A minute after our starting time, 50 people showed up, all at once; almost everyone on my list. I hadn’t planned for that!”
The surprise led to an impromptu presentation on the sport pilot rule and LSA. “And I had my first revenue flight the very next day.”
That’s how, in November of 2006, Skyraider Aviation was born. Ahead lay the crippling recession and a tragic loss that nearly closed the business. To find out how Dillis weathered those storms to build a profitable LSA school in the worst of times...well folks, you’ll have to tune in next month for The Rest Of The Story...and it’s a good one, I promise you.