Mike Carzoli opened Blue Skies Flying Services 28 years ago to provide a fun, family-oriented, professional flight training environment at Lake in the Hills Airport west of Chicago, and the philosophy has paid off with recognition as the best flight school in the Great Lakes region during the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Survey.
“It’s really all about the customers that walk in the door,” Carzoli said. “I try to bring in people that know how to treat others right.” Blue Skies traditionally throws down a welcome mat during an annual cookout, “and we invited anybody and everybody that flew with us, along with their family and their kids. We’ve done it every year for the last 25 years,” except for 2020 because of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
“We got these little two-person hot dog tables scattered about and people just come and sit down and shoot the breeze,” said Carzoli. “Sometimes it’s old-timers and students, sometimes it’s instructors, or people just visiting the pilot shop. I mean, unless it's pouring rain or a blizzard out, there are people here just hanging out.” Seasoned pilots can be seen sharing insights and encouragement with those beginning their primary flight training while sipping coffee and chatting about flying, sports, and other topics.
The school employs 16 to 17 full- and part-time instructors, and Carzoli’s daughter is the office manager, “so she's one of the faces students see all the time.” Students can train in six Piper Warriors, two Piper Archers, a Piper Arrow, and a couple of Cessna 172 Skyhawks.
“Just this morning, three or four of us were talking about how different students were doing and what we needed to do” to keep them on track, said Blue Skies Flying Services Chief Flight Instructor Mike Biewenga. “There’s a lot of heart that goes into it [because] we really care about their progress.” In the 2018 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards Survey, Biewenga was selected as the best CFI. “It’s been fun,” he said. “I’m busier than ever, but we’re just trying to keep doing what we’ve always been doing—welcoming newcomers and making them feel at home.”
Biewenga said keeping primary flight students on track when they hit a learning plateau can be challenging, “but we’ve all been there.” A common stumbling block students experience is judging the landing flare because they can flare “too high or too low, or too early or too late.” He said that instead of thinking there’s a “magic movement at just the right time,” students should instead think about an ongoing “cycle of monitoring” the landing picture rather than performing a perfectly timed incident. With encouragement and repetition, Biewenga said, they usually see “a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Blue Skies was also recognized as the top training facility in the Midwest region during the 2017 and 2018 AOPA Flight Training Experience surveys and Carzoli praised the evaluation's practical value because it helps tailor training to better suit a student’s needs. “I love having the feedback. I pass that along to the instructors and we try and make it a loop so we can get better and better every year.”