It’s said that if you want to make a million dollars in aviation, start with a billion. Independent Helicopters’ CEO Heather M. Howley opened her flight school in 2008 with $25 in cash and one leased helicopter, so if the old saying held true, she should have been bankrupt right out of the gate.
Instead, Independent now has two locations—one at Stewart International Airport (SWF) in Newburgh, New York, and one at Saratoga County Airport (5B2) in Saratoga Springs, New York. It has acquired additional helicopters and a simulator, and its CEO has plans to expand even further.
At the very beginning, however, Howley couldn’t have predicted her success. She obtained all of her ratings and certificates through the now-infamous Silver State Helicopters in Nevada. After flight instructing at Silver State for a while, Howley joined the teaching staff at another flight school, where she worked for six to eight months before coming up with a plan to go out on her own.
“When I started the business, I wanted to partner with [the flight school],” she said. The parties agreed that the flight school would handle students obtaining training in a Robinson R44, while Howley would train other clients who wanted to fly an R22. Howley, then 25 years old, leased an R22 on good faith and turned in her resignation letter, assuming she would pick up the flight school’s student base.
“I never heard from them again,” she said.
Howley found herself saddled with a rather expensive aircraft lease and no students at all. Rather than give up, she decided, “Let’s make something out of it.” She brought the R22 to the East Coast and opened Independent Helicopters in Newburgh.
“I was flying something like 11 hours a month the first year,” she said.
Slowly but surely, however, business increased. “It has doubled about every year until 2012,” Howley said. “It’s been pretty steady.”
Hawley and Operations Director Matt Taggard opened Independent’s second location in 2013. Both facilities operate under Parts 135 and 141, offering aerial tours, photography, and utility inspection as well as flight training. The current fleet includes two Robinson R22s, one R44, and a Frasca simulator. Plans are under way to acquire a second R44, a third R22, a Bell LongRanger L3, and a second Frasca for the Saratoga Springs location.
During winter, when demand for helicopter instruction slacks off, Hawley and Taggard divide flight instructing duties between them. They generally hire an additional CFI in May and two more in June. The instructor ranks may soon need to get a little fatter: The school is seeking Veterans Affairs approval and is partnering on a flight training program with Schenectady County Community College; a second partnership is pending with Dutchess Community College.
What has driven Independent’s success? “We have a family environment here, so everybody who comes into the flight school becomes part of the family,” Howley said.
“We all hang out together; we talk about what’s going on with them personally,” she said. “This is therapy for a lot of my students. Not just the flying but even just coming in and talking. We have communication with our students; I check in with them and see how they’re doing. I take a very personal approach to it.”
At the same time, Independent offers a structured learning environment that clients appreciate. “We do ground school and flight training pretty much concurrently. A lot of flight schools don’t do ground school,” Howley said. “We have always used a syllabus; we have ground lessons that go with the flight lessons, and certain steps that [students] have to take before they’re allowed to solo or go for their stage checks. A lot of students like that kind of structure while they’e training.”
Social media and participation in charity events fuel Independent’s main marketing efforts. We’ll take a closer look at the school’s marketing successes in the May 5 issue of Flight School Business.
Reflecting on the business, Howley said, “When I started, I had a lot of people telling me how to do things. ‘You need to do this type of marketing; you must have XYZ.’ I took everything at my own pace. I started the business with literally $25. I couldn’t have done what they wanted me to do at the time.”
It would have been nice to have some initial capital, she acknowledged. “We’d have been in a different position to do things. [But] I don’t think I would have changed anything or done anything differently.”