When I first interviewed Tim Poole of GT Aviation at Potomac Airfield, it was 2009 and he and his wife, Karen, had just opened a new flight school. Poole seemed confident that, even in a struggling economy and a problematic airspace, the flight school could succeed.
Let me take a few sentences to describe the airspace in question. Potomac Airfield is one of three Maryland airports located within the Washington, D.C., Flight Restricted Zone, which encompasses a 13- to 15-nautical-mile radius around the Washington, D.C., VOR-DME. Flying at any of these airports means the pilot has to obtain a personal identification number in a process that entails submitting a form to the Flight Standards District Office and then getting fingerprinted. When flying, the pilot must obtain a discrete transponder code from Potomac Approach. Flying here isn’t the casual operation that it can be in most other parts of the nation.
Poole, who learned to fly at Potomac, wasn’t deterred. “There’s a huge pilot population here,” he told me then. “There’s an equally large opportunity for new pilots in the same area. Potomac is literally the closest GA airport to downtown Washington, D.C.”
His business instincts were correct. “We’ve grown exponentially,” Poole said on Feb. 11, 2015.
The fleet has expanded from one Diamond DA20 and one Piper Arrow to nine aircraft and a Redbird simulator. GT employs eight part-time flight instructors. Karen Poole left a full-time job to manage the flight school. (Tim Poole continues to work full time as a government contractor.)
“People seem … kind of dumbfounded when they realize where we are and that we operate as well as we do,” Poole said. “I don’t want to make it sound all roses—we could do a lot more business if it weren’t for the airspace restrictions—but we’ve made it work.”
He attributes some of the school’s success to excellent customer service. For example, he and his maintenance director work hard to stay on top of an aging fleet. (That’s Poole's characterization.) In fact, Poole got his A&P certificate in 2013 and apprenticed under his maintenance director. (“We’re still looking for reliable maintenance help,” he said.) They don’t want aircraft maintenance to disrupt customers’ flying schedules.
“Winter is rough, but we keep [customers’] needs at the forefront,” Poole said.
This is a takeaway from a bad experience at the flight school where he learned to fly. “There wasn’t an effort to help people achieve their goals,” he said.
Another factor, oddly enough, is the location. Though situated in some of the most restricted airspace in the nation, GT Aviation is still the closest airport to Washington, D.C., on the southeast side of the Capital Beltway. This means people who are interested in learning to fly don’t have to navigate as far on the area’s very congested roads.
There have been some other changes since GT Aviation opened its doors. The DA20 is gone. (A DA40 is on leaseback.) Three Cessna 172Ps form the core of the primary training fleet. All have Garmin 430s. “The panels are essentially identical,” Poole said, so students can move among any of the three aircraft. They can stick with the 172s for instrument work, or move up to the Piper Arrow. The fleet’s Piper Twin Comanche is equipped with a Garmin 430W, so “there’s minimal relearning in terms of avionics.”
GT Aviation went from Part 61 status to Part 141, and has received Veterans Administration approval. It also is a CATS authorized testing center. Poole said it’s about recognizing customer needs and being able to adapt to those needs. “I’m not trying to be everything to everyone, but I want to be enough of the right things to the majority of our customer base,” he said.
Looking forward, Poole is considering adding rotary-wing training, and the business might expand to a second location.
A future issue of Flight School Business will focus on GT Aviation’s marketing strategy.