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Growing pilots one school's success to longevityGrowing pilots one school's success to longevity

A small but profitable flight school in central New Jersey celebrates 69 years of continuous operation this year. Co-owner Linda Castner says its longevity secret is “always looking for new ways to grow pilots.”

“Most schools book only ready-made students, the kind who respond to advertising,” says Castner. “We’re happy for those, but we also find ways to grow future pilots, both kids and adults, by finding who they are and what interests them. That’s what we mean by growing pilots.”

Like many small Part 61 operations, Alexandria Field Flight School graduates 15 to 20 new private pilots and a handful of new instrument or commercial pilots annually. But here’s the difference: About a third of each year’s Alexandria Field graduates are grown and nurtured over time, not recruited with advertising.

Pilot planting season is year-round. Castner speaks at school career days, even for elementary and middle schools. Local civic organizations know she’s available for lunch meeting presentations on aviation, and airport owners stay involved in civic affairs.

In 2010 the school wrote a proposal that won it a Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation education grant to form the Central Jersey Aviation Education Science Club, which meets at the airport. The club’s current project is exploring aerodynamics with student-built four-winged dinosaurs that “fly” in a wind tunnel. Since 2001, local fifth through eighth graders have explored the airport at flight school-sponsored Cleared For Takeoff summer camps, taught in part by Alexandria Field’s four flight instructors.

The flight school finds ways to cultivate adults, too. Earlier this year, Castner; her research partner Dr. Sue Stafford of Simmons College in Boston; and the Rutgers Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Math delivered a weekend workshop for female professors to prove a link between learning to fly and effectiveness in work and personal life, dubbed The Flying Effect. Early returns are encouraging. And yes, the workshop did produce a new flight student for Alexandria Field who has already soloed, Professor Ronke Olabisi of Rutgers.

“You have to use fresh ingredients that appeal to a specific group, then stir the pot and beat the drum,” says Castner. “Start by finding out more about your community, who your potential students might be and what interests them. It might be a short-term project, or it might take years, but be patient. That’s how you build safe and lasting pilots.”

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