The honest truth about owning and operating a flight school as a business

Damien Wills Pilot

I am the proud owner of a busy flight school. I am not a millionaire, however I do enjoy an adequate income and for the majority of the week, I undertake work that I truly love as well as working with some amazing individuals.

I am grateful to own a flight school however the reality is that owning and operating a business is tough on a person mentally.

I am confident that the reason the majority of businesses that fail within the first five years is because the owner or owners have had enough of the mental stress and uncertainty which is associated with owning and operating a business.

While owning and operating a business is hard work, owning a flight school can be brutal due to the extra complexities and uncertainties involved.

I have made so many mistakes while owning a business, that I have lost count of them. Fortunately I have learnt from some of these mistakes. I also recognise that sometimes I have no idea what I am doing, so I seek the advice of mentors and books to help me learn critical skills for growing the business.

I have owned GoFly Aviation for almost eight years and during these eight years I have had some not so great times and some wonderful times. I call the ‘not so wonderful’ times ‘inconvenient events’, and truly, if you want to stay sane while operating and growing a business, it is best to call these stressful times ‘inconvenient events’ rather than disasters. The good times I call ‘convenient events’. We learn from both types of events’ but I believe we really learn more about ourselves from the inconvenient ones.

Here is a brief summary of both convenient and inconvenient events that I have experienced while operating a flight school over the last eight years:

  • I was offered the chance to purchase a flight school through vendor finance at a very attractive price (convenient event)
  • Soon after buying the school we experienced the longest prolonged wet weather in 100 years – during which two of my competitors closed down – and I lost $25,000 in my cash reserves (an inconvenient event mixed with a convenient event)
  • After the rain cleared, the students from my closed down competitor’s flight schools, came across to GoFly and increased our revenue by 30% almost overnight (convenient event)
  • One of my students offered to improve my business in return for free flying lessons and he increased the business by 20% in two months (convenient event)
  • A friend convinced me to lease the first Sling aircraft to delivered into Australia (convenient event)
  • One of my students bent the nosewheel and damaged the engine on one of my aircraft (inconvenient event)
  • I started two more flight schools at other locations and revenue increased another thirty percent (convenient event)
  • My reliable CFI/Manager supervising two of those locations had to quit without notice for personal reasons and I was forced to close one of the new flight school locations down and oversee the other two myself (inconvenient event)
  • I created a Learn to Fly DVD and the income from that eventually replaced the income from my closed flight schools (convenient event)
  • Over the course of a few months, one of my students becomes a good friend to me and mentors and improves my website and business systems and eventually steps into the role of Operations Manager (convenient event)
  • The mother of my four children tells me she has fallen in love with someone else and wants to separate, putting my peace of mind, and therefore my business, at risk, as well as increasing my childminding and domestic duties (inconvenient event)
  • My new friend who is also my Operations Manager offered to manage the flight school while I sort out my marriage separation (convenient event)
  • I decided to combine my two local flights schools into one larger flight school at the most popular location, to save costs and increase efficiency (inconvenient and convenient event)
  • Approached for employment by an Instructor recently arrived from NZ, whom I employed and who has proven to be so reliable that I have been able to stop working weekends and I have great plans for his future (convenient event)
  • Met my new life partner who just happens to also have experience in editing, marketing, website creation, real estate, customer service, accounting and risk management, and who also likes cooking and already has adult children (convenient event)
  • Met and then partnered with a student who wanted to learn to fly and also owned a video production company. Together we came up with the idea to film an online reality TV show which has the potential to further promote GoFly Aviation (convenient event)
  • Later, with this Video Director and my then Operations Manager, we created the world’s first online Learn to Fly lessons in 360-degree video, which can potentially bring in income any time of the day and regardless of weather (convenient event)
  • The wet season came early in 2017, bringing with it the wettest November in eight years and causing three weeks of cancelled flights (inconvenient event)
  • Began planning a business partnership with another of my students who happens to be a mortgage broker (convenient event)

I hope it is evident by now that operating a business – and life itself – is full of surprises. Some of these surprises are good and some not so good. While I make a decent income I am hardly rich. If you are looking to start a business in order to just make money, you are deluding yourself and you are going to be vastly disappointed.

Some of the unique challenges owning a flight school include but are not limited to:

Weather

This one is the biggest challenge. Imagine running a restaurant and every week for one or two days, and once a month for four days straight, the electricity gets cut off to your restaurant and you cannot trade on those days. Worse still, you where fully booked on those days and had expected all that income. That is sort of what it feels like to operate a flight school.

The weather is never constant; wind and rain can stop you trading for weeks at a time. This means your cash flow is not constant, so you need to be very disciplined at putting aside a lot of the money that you make while the weather is good, to pay for the fixed costs which are there regardless of weather. If you don’t, you will go out of business very fast.

The first two years of owning a flight school were hell for me. I had come from a corporate management job and was used to a regular income. It was hard to look at the calendar and know that all aircraft were fully booked for the week ahead but I was going to be unable to fly due to rain. On a good week I can make $3,000 profit. If it rains during a fully booked week I can loose $3,000 from my reserve PLUS not make the $3,000 profit, so I end up about $6,000 down.

It might appear that on busy weeks you are striking it rich, however after you average your profit and losses out over time, the profit margins are actually quite thin.

Maintenance

Aircraft cost money to maintain and I am meticulous about how our aircraft are maintained. At times routine maintenance may end up taking longer than expected, and occasionally non-routine maintenance is required, which means the aircraft is then unavailable. For each day that one of my aircraft is offline due maintenance, I lose the potential to earn $1800 in revenue. You can imagine how it feels to have have a busy week of flying booked, but an engine part is delayed and your aircraft is offline for three days more than it should have been (ouch).

Staff

Hiring good, competent staff who are passionate about flying is critical if you want to stay in this business.  The other reality is that unless your flight school trains full time commercial pilots the business cannot warrant paying full-time flight instructors . If a plane is unavailable, if the weather is bad or a student cancels, the instructors don’t get paid. A man with four children would soon go broke if he had to pay instructors who are not actually flying, on top of the fixed rental costs during weeks of bad weather. I am now in the position to be able to give most of the flying hours to my three main staff members – especially at weekends – rather than do it myself. I now mainly instruct navigation lessons and do the testing. I also have a number of casual employees whom I can call on if we get really busy or my regular Instructors are sick or on leave.

The ‘nice to have’ business

The flying school model is a ‘nice to have’ business. What do I mean by that? A supermarket is a HAVE TO HAVE business; unless you grow your own, everyone HAS to buy food. Not everyone HAS to learn to fly a plane. It is a business that is dependent on people’s discretionary income, which means that if a student gets a big tax or dentist bill and they need to spend less that week, guess what gets cancelled first? That’s right, their flying lesson. So cancellations from students, without much notice, are quite common and quite frustrating, especially when staff have travelled all the way to the airport expecting to teach that day.

Competitive environment

Owning a flying school, and particularly a recreational flying school, can be a lifestyle business for some owners. What this means is that this type of business attracts individuals who start the business for lifestyle reasons only, and not as their main source of income. A good example is the retired engineer who is also an instructor, and who decides to start his own school flight school because he is bored with retirement. There’s nothing wrong with this in theory except that this retired engineer might have less overheads and he is happy to undercut his competitors’ hourly rate because he doesn’t really need to make a profit or grow his business. This is bad news for any nearby business which is actually trying to pay staff a decent wage and turn a profit in order to grow the business.

How to deal with business stress and worry

I would be lying if I said I never worry; I am human and I am not the Dalai Lama. When I first started the school, there were times  – due to unforeseen circumstances – that I was unable to sleep because I was worrying about whether I would be able to afford rent the following week or whether my electricity might be cut off because I hadn’t paid the bill yet. Thankfully, as time goes by, my stress and worry have reduced considerably (and my cash reserves have grown thank goodness). I do let worry creep in occasionally but I am aware of it now and have learned how to deal with it so it doesn’t affect my sleep or my enjoyment of owning a business.

Below I have outlined some strategies I use to reduce worry and stress:

  • Learn from others: I read a lot of books, in fact, I read almost one new book each week. The books I read are business, motivational, spiritual and autobiographies. I would not be able to continue doing the work I love, or coping with the frustrations of owning a business, had I not been an avid reader, and learning from others’ success and failures. Reading puts you into the mind of individuals who have done what you are trying to do and have learnt valuable lessons. There are also many books on dealing with stress. Also while you are focusing on reading, you’re not worrying!
  • Meditation: I meditate regularly to quiet my mind and I find that this also allows creative insight to flow freely.
  • Mentors: I have many trusted mentors whom I can call when the going gets tough, and who will offer me objective advice and encouragement.
  • Quality relationships: This helps me put things into perspective.It is our close relationships that really matter the most in life, and these relationships are my number one priority and also partly the ‘reason why’ I operate my own business. Spending time with my partner, kids and extended family reminds me that worry is just a waste of my time.
  • Time spent in nature: I walk regularly amongst nature, in particular on the beach. The ocean has an incredible ability to relieve any stress.

Despite all the challenges I still love being an Instructor and I love owning a flying school. Maybe I’m masochist but I really would not change a thing that I have experienced over the last eight years.

There have been some challenging moments where I thought I might lose the business, but the love of what I was doing kept me going through those times. When you go through struggles, you learn so much about yourself and other people. I believe we grow the most mentally, emotionally and spiritually when we challenge ourselves and overcome adversity.

My reason ‘why’ is powerful: I love flying, I love teaching, I love owning the business and I love coming up with visions for how I want the Flight School to develop and then implementing those ideas. When I was a teenager learning to fly, I had some awful experiences with both lousy flight schools and lousy instructors and this frustration is one of my drivers to make sure that learning to fly is a positive life-changing experience for all of GoFly’s customers.

A flying school business is such a positive business to be involved it. All the customers that come to GoFly to learn to fly are ‘can do’ people who want to be here and they believe in themselves and their capabilities. I have made some great friendships with many of our customers and flight instructors over the last eight years and this also continues to drive and inspire me.

Owning a business involves a never-ending pursuit of improvement. So if your reason ‘why’ is meaningful enough to you, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a coffee shop, an online business or a flying school, you will find a way to make your business thrive.

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