They are at the top of their respective industries: one an award-winning country music superstar, entrepreneur, and pilot; the other a renowned airshow performer, aerobatic champion, and 13-year Red Bull Air Race World Championship pilot.
Now they are teaming up through their love of aviation as AOPA’s You Can Fly Champions.
Critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Dierks Bentley and three-time National Aerobatic Champion and member of the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Team Michael Goulian are hoping to inspire people from all walks of life to go up for their first flight and enjoy the experience of flying as much as they do.
AOPA announced the You Can Fly Champions on August 19—a fitting day, National Aviation Day, which coincides with Orville Wright’s birthday. As AOPA's You Can Fly Champions, Bentley and Goulian will engage with and attract student pilots, increase the diversity of the pilot population, and create a greater appreciation for aviation.
When “you’re above the ground, all your biggest problems are so small. It’s a feeling you can’t find anywhere else,” Bentley told AOPA during a Pilot Lounge interview with Goulian.
Bentley, who owned a Cirrus SR22T and flew a Cessna CJ4, both of which were destroyed by tornadoes that struck the Nashville area in March, took his first flight at 13 years of age and earned his pilot certificate in his early 20s. In 2010, about 14 years after getting his pilot certificate, Bentley knocked off the rust and started flying a Cirrus. He earned his instrument rating, multiengine rating, and a type rating in the Cessna 525, and he now has more than 4,000 hours. Bentley said he loves going to recurrent training at FlightSafety International and other training providers to work in the simulators. “I feel like I’m going to aviation fantasy camp,” he said, explaining that he likes to hang out with professional pilots, drink the lobby coffee, and learn from various scenarios in the simulator.
“I’m a big champion of aviation and what it allows you to do,” Bentley said. “I think I do represent a large part of the population that has to travel for work … [and I’m hoping to] shed light on what is possible in aviation as far as quality of time and quantity of time goes with your family. It’s a huge honor.”
Bentley continues to be a dominant voice for the genre with more than 6.4 billion overall digital streams. Reaching a new creative high while “making music designed to challenge,” according to the New York Times, Bentley co-wrote 10 of 13 tracks on The Mountain, which earned him the highest debut sales of his career and became his seventh chart-topping album. Bentley has amassed countless nominations for the Academy of Country Music Awards, Country Music Association Awards, Billboard Music Awards, and more, while also earning 14 Grammy nominations. The multiplatinum singer/songwriter has created professional endeavors outside of the music industry with his Flag & Anthem partnership creating the exclusive lifestyle collection, Desert Son, along with his “Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row” franchise hosting five locations.
To say Goulian lives and breathes aviation would be an understatement: “I love it all.”
Goulian grew up around aviation—his parents owned and operated a flight school, and his father, who died about 20 years ago, was a longtime designated pilot examiner. Pilots still approach Goulian after airshow performances to say they did a checkride with his father, or that his father helped launch their aviation career. Goulian said he hopes to leave a similar legacy by giving back to general aviation. That’s one reason he is such a big advocate of aviation and promotes flying to all ages.
In addition to performing and competing in aerobatics for more than 25 years and racing in the Red Bull Air Race World Championships from 2006 to 2019, the CFII and airline transport pilot with multiple type ratings has written two books about aerobatics and owns Mike Goulian Aviation, a Cirrus Aircraft training and management company, with his wife, Karin, and instructs in a range of aircraft up to the Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet.
“Aviation is my business, and so it’s a difficult business to make a living in but it is just such a satisfying business,” Goulian said. “I’ve been lucky that aviation has been good to me. When I look at our flight school, why are we doing it, it’s not to make a huge living, it’s really to expose more people to aviation.”
One of the most public ways Goulian introduces more people to aviation is through his aerobatic performances at airshows. After giving “110 percent” during an 11-minute routine pulling positive and negative Gs, the performer said he is exhausted but knows it increases his ability to connect with kids. And hooking people at a young age is key, he said.
“As far as You Can Fly goes, I think what you’re doing in the high schools is amazing. We need to expose people to this great industry at a young age,” he said. “When you get them in high school, they’re old enough to start to know what they like and what they want, and to expose them to that at that point, I think, is fantastic.”
AOPA will be adding more You Can Fly Champions. Pilots can watch Bentley and Goulian talk about their passion for aviation and follow them on social media. Better yet, share the videos with nonpilots and invite them for a first flight!
“It’s about community with anything that you’re doing,” Bentley reiterated. “AOPA has created this unbelievable community, message boards, way to contact other pilots … I would tell anybody it’s awesome being a pilot, but it’s not about doing it all by yourself. The heart of getting into this whole thing is when you see another guy that’s a pilot, another girl that’s a pilot, you have this instant bond.”
By sharing the You Can Fly message, more will be able to experience that bond and the love of aviation.
AOPA’s You Can Fly program was created to get more people flying and keep them flying through four key initiatives: High School STEM curriculum, Flight Training, Flying Clubs, and Rusty Pilots. The program is funded by donations to the AOPA Foundation.