These professionals see themselves in every aspiring aviator. Their passion for aviation is infectious. AOPA announced the national best flight school and CFI at this year’s Redbird Migration, held April 11 and 12, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
National Best Flight Instructor/Midwest Region/Bryan Gutraj, University of Dubuque
Flight students at the University of Dubuque’s Part 141 aviation program call Senior Flight Instructor Bryan Gutraj “professional, knowledgeable, and patient.” They also call him a friend. Gutraj, who has been on the faculty of the aviation program since 2020, said the university fosters a collegial environment, “and we work together and learn from each other.” He’s the instructor you can call if you’re stranded on a solo cross-country with a dead magneto and you know he won’t leave you hanging. That’s what happened to Slade Zsobar, a flight student who said Gutraj drove four hours from Dubuque to Springfield, Illinois, so that Zsobar wouldn’t be stranded on the airport over the weekend waiting for a repair shop to open. Gutraj earns consistent high marks from his students, who praise him for his preparation for each lesson. They say that he is equally attentive to all his students and makes each one feel important.
The Flight Training Experience Awards 2023 CFI of the Year did not begin his career in aviation. A lawyer and accountant, Gutraj has a longtime love of aviation that started as a child during a trip to Disneyland aboard a commercial jet. He earned a private pilot certificate in 1998 while in law school. He opened law and accounting firms in Illinois but never lost the desire to fly.
In 2019, Gutraj decided to take a sabbatical from his businesses and get his flight instructor certificate. With a Part 61 background, he was an unusual hire for the University of Dubuque, but he quickly adapted and excelled in the structured 141 environment. He also keeps a roster of Part 61 clients, including a pilot whom he helped transition from an analog-gauge-equipped Piper Warrior to a high-tech, high-performance Columbia 400.
In 2021, Gutraj was named Distinguished Flight Instructor for the Midwest Region in AOPA’s Flight Training Experience Survey. That same year the FAA awarded him its Gold Seal flight instructor designation.
Although he has stepped back to part-time instructing and focuses mainly on training CFI initial applicants and multiengine commercial students, Gutraj continues to help flight students at all levels of their journey.
National Best Flight School/Central Southwest Region 'In the Pattern', Denton and Granbury, Texas
Sherman Gardner, managing partner at In the Pattern Flight School, is forthright about how his flight school stands out from the Part 61 crowd: “People spend a lot of money to do this. I want them to feel as good as they can about dropping so much coin.”
That philosophy has propelled In the Pattern from what was intended to be an aircraft renting and brokerage business founded in 2019 to a full-service flight school with locations in Denton and Granbury, Texas. In the Pattern was named the national best flight school in the 2021-2022 Flight Training Experience Awards, and the school has again won the top honor for 2023-2024, but nobody is resting on laurels around here.
The two locations operate with 25 airplanes and 37 employees, including five full-time airframe and powerplant mechanics who keep the fleet going at full throttle. In the Pattern pilots logged 12,000 hours in 2022, and Gardner expects the business to do about 50 percent more this year.
It’s not about volume. Gardner said he won’t hesitate to counsel prospective pilots not to commit to training until they know that flying is right for them. Better to take five hours of flight lessons and be sure. “I treat your time and money as if it were my own,” Gardner said.
With the rolling cadence of a former pastor (which he is), Gardner said it’s a privilege to be a part of customers’ lives as they get involved in flying, and he wants his flight instructors to remember that. He counsels them to “find out about [the customers]. Find out who they are, what do they do, why did they choose us? Find some common ground.” He’s cognizant of the disconnect older student pilots sometimes experience when training with young flight instructors, and he says this intentional approach not only improves the flight training experience for the customer, it also helps the young CFIs to develop and improve their interpersonal and teaching skills. Indeed, client comments about In the Pattern reference the fact that its roster of flight instructors are not simply “time builders,” but are supportive and dedicated to their students’ success.
Gardner’s goal is to make In the Pattern a “one stop shop” for all kinds of flight training, including training for those who aspire to fly with the airlines. In addition to private, instrument, commercial, and multiengine programs, the flight school offers two- and four-week CFI academies and has recently added airline transport pilot certificate training to its menu. The flight school has also partnered with the local school district’s career and technical education program to offer flight training for high school students. “We aim to meet you wherever you are,” Gardner said.
Find a complete list of all awardees here.