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AOPA announces 2017 Flight Training Experience Awards

AOPA has announced its Flight Training Experience Awards for 2017, bestowing top honors on a flight school in Alaska and a flight instructor from Colorado.

The National Best Flight School, SkyTrek Alaska, and the National Best Flight Instructor, Zoan Harclerode, were selected from among five regional winners in each of the two categories.

The regional winners also were honored for providing a high level of service to their customers, based on responses to the 2017 Flight Training Experience Survey, which closed in August. The survey was based on AOPA’s extensive research into the optimal flight training experience, and focused on four key factors: educational quality, customer focus, community, and information sharing. The award presentations were made in a ceremony at the 2017 Redbird Migration at the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Flight schools and instructors identified as delivering excellent training experiences also earned Flight Training Experience Awards as Distinguished Flight Schools and Distinguished Instructors.

“This year’s group of schools and CFIs were especially close as we analyzed the results of the 2017 Flight Training Experience Survey,” said Chris Moser, director of AOPA’s Flight Training Initiative, one of the components of AOPA’s umbrella You Can Fly program to grow the pilot population. “Reviewing the surveys is always inspiring because we learn about some incredible training providers and see how much their customers truly value them.”

Jamie Patterson-Simes owns SkyTrek Alaska, winner of the National Best Flight School.

The National Best Flight School for 2017 is SkyTrek Alaska Flight Training, based in Anchorage. Customers of the school who responded to the Flight Training Experience Survey “raved” about the owner, Jamie Patterson-Simes, who they said “promotes the aviation community with lots of events, is organized with the training and overall provides a great educational experience.” Customers are "impressed with the aircraft and the attention to safety in all operations. An overall well-run and friendly atmosphere keeps their customers happy,” said Moser.

“I wanted to create a flight school where people felt welcome and they can train and they wouldn’t feel they were condescended to or where they couldn’t do it,” Patterson-Simes said on receiving the award, adding, “The people who have the most difficult time are the ones I have the strongest connection with.”

Moser added that the school’s customers “are impressed with the aircraft and the attention to safety in all operations. An overall well-run and friendly atmosphere keeps their customers happy.”

National Best Flight Instructor Zoan Harclerode instructs at a military aero club in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Harclerode of Rocky Mountain Flight Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is a solid citizen of her aviation community whose passion and care inspires her students. That is why she is the Flight Training Experience Award National Best Flight Instructor for 2017. Harclerode works with military veterans and other students, always taking time to meet the individual’s needs, whether that means help completing Veterans Administration paperwork, preparing study materials, or receiving some additional ground school to grasp a challenging bit of flight training learning.

“Zoan was described as a consummate professional, customer-service oriented, and an excellent teacher,” Moser said.

“The best thing is seeing people reach their dreams,” Harclerode said on accepting her award. “I’m very blessed to have a wonderful group of students who believe in us.”

Regional Best Flight Schools

In the Northeast, Take Flight Aviation, based at Orange County Airport in Montgomery, New York, was recognized by customers for the value the school provides “while making people feel like part of the aviation family.” Owner Ryan Mayo and Director Chris Graessle help provide that value by offering training in a fleet of new airplanes from Diamond Aircraft. In 2016, Take Flight Aviation was the winner of AOPA’s President’s Award.

FL Aviation Center, a Florida flight school owned and operated by two women based at Tallahassee International Airport, was named Best Flight School in the Southeast region. “Customers consistently comment about the friendly atmosphere and how they make flight training more fun,” Moser said of owners Faith Drewry and Lacey Smith. “The school is heavily involved in the community, hosting and attending numerous airport events, fly-ins, and community shows throughout the year. Customers praised the safety culture, and of the care shown to the aircraft. Squawks are taken care of almost immediately, no matter how small.”

The Best Flight School in the Midwest region honor went to Blue Skies Flying Services and Pilot Shop of Illinois’s Lake in the Hills Airport, where “customers love the friendliness of owner Mike Carzoli and the instructor staff.” Survey respondents lavished praise on the aviation professionals at Blue Skies, who “are great at accommodating customer needs and have a reputation for professionalism all around, including an emphasis on detail and safety. Customers feel like they are getting a great value with a dedicated staff that cares.”

Flight school clients in the Southwest region gave a big vote of confidence to Texas Flight Aviation, leading to the Tomball, Texas, flight school being honored as the region’s Best Flight School.  Customers focused on its “friendly atmosphere, caring staff, structured learning environment,” and the value it provides. “Their customers feel strongly that this team has put together a great combination. Customers consistently mention that the staff cares about each person's training experience,” Moser said.

Regional Best Flight Instructors

Making it fun, being a natural teacher, showing passion, and being capable of teaching different kinds of learners were the flight instructor traits and skills that flight school customers appreciated the most, based on survey responses.

While his flight school was earning regional best-in-category honors of its own, instructor Jim Fellers of Blue Skies Flying Services and Pilot Shop of Lake of the Hills Airport in Illinois was named the Flight Training Experience Awards’ Midwest Region Best Flight Instructor. “Jim's students commented about how professional he is in the cockpit. He understands that the material can be confusing at times, and has found a way to teach aviation in a way that really sticks with his students. Jim makes flight training fun. He allows students to learn from their mistakes in a safe way, always reinforcing the lesson with a calm, friendly reminder on the proper way to handle those challenging situations in the future,” said Moser.

This year's Flight Training Experience Awards were held at EAA's museum in Oshkosh. AOPA announced winners of the best flight school and instructor, as well as regional winners, and distinguished schools and instructors.

The  Northeast region’s Best Flight Instructor Award went to Robert Keleti of Republic Airport in Farmingdale, on Long Island, New York. “Clients say that Robert is a natural teacher and a wealth of aviation knowledge—but most important, he is able to approach each one with a personal touch,” Moser said. He added that Keleti “inspires safety and passion for aviation while providing value throughout the training. Customers commented that Robert is able to keep you motivated through the challenges, and pushes you to excel; very much a personalized experience.”

Chris Dupin of Destin Flight Works, of Destin, Florida, was named Best Flight Instructor in the Southeast region. His students say “that he is passionate about teaching, he is friendly, knowledgeable, and always has a positive attitude,” Moser said. Dupin takes the time to listen to questions and makes sure his students walk away feeling confident about what was discussed.” Students consistently noted his professionalism. “He always has a plan for the lesson and is always prepared for his students.”

The Southwest region’s Best Flight Instructor can be found at Sierra Charlie Aviation in Scottsdale, Arizona. Instructor Scott Campbell’s students describe him as knowledgeable, courteous, friendly, and “a very well-rounded instructor.” Adaptable to many learning styles, he does his best to ensure that each student has adequate training time with him each week. “He really takes the time to explain why something is done, not just how,” Moser said.

See the full list of Distinguished Flight Schools and Instructors.

AOPA ePublishing staff
AOPA ePublishing Staff editors are experienced pilots, flight instructors, and aircraft owners who have a passion for bringing you the latest news and AOPA announcements.
Topics: You Can Fly, AOPA Events, Awards and Records

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