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How to start a flight school: Plowing through turbulenceHow to start a flight school: Plowing through turbulence

You're an independent CFI holding down a real job at Bigco International Inc., but your dream is to turn your passion for aviation into an income stream and maybe tell your overbearing boss to go take a long flight on empty tanks. Or maybe you just want to start simple, do a little training in your 172 evenings and weekends, and see where it goes. How do you get started?

Your first stop should be to the airport manager's office. Shake his/her hand and say what you plan to do. If you try freelancing at an airport that already has one or more flight schools/FBOs present, it’s likely somebody will squawk to the landlord—and it's best if the manager has heard about you from you, rather than from Chuck over at Charles' Flight School. After all, Chuck is paying good money on rent, insurance, a phone, and a couple of leasebacks out on the ramp. The last thing he needs is to compete with an upstart operating out of a tiedown and doing pre- and post-flight briefings across the street at the Donut Palace. Chuck has an investment to protect, and he could see you as a threat.


You'll find that many airports have a rule—written or otherwise—that requires anybody providing training or commercial services to have a physical presence on the field and adequate premises insurance to protect the airport if something bad happens. Using your car as your office just won't cut it.


What? you say. You mean I have to rent an office and have insurance? I can't afford that, I'm just getting started! This could be the first sign of rough air in your new business, so slow your plans down a little and plot a course around the light chop. How about talking to an existing tenant, like a repair shop or non-training FBO, about renting desk space on an as-needed basis? Face it, if you're just getting started you won't be using their space all that much, and somebody may welcome the opportunity to put a little more green in their pocket each month. If you strike a deal, ask them if they can put you down as an insured party on their office policy. This protects you, your new landlord, and the airport if somebody slips on the sectional chart lying on the floor or bumps their head on the decorative propeller hanging from the ceiling.


You could also consider joining forces with a flying club. Many clubs need aircraft, and by leasing your airplane to the club you could not only generate revenue but start building a clientele of students and other pilots who need training. As your business grows, you could consider going out on your own, eventually expanding into that dream flight school.


Another source of turbulence is marketing. Once the word is out that a new business is starting in town, you'll get calls and visits from the newspaper, radio stations, maybe a web marketing company or two. All want to help. All want your money. Don't even think about investing in advertising until you've established a firm budget and considered all the options. Tell the reps to email their info to you and not to call for two weeks. Digest their offers, then discard them all. Social media is the way to go in the beginning. Anything else costs too much and brings too little.


Before you get started, you need to do a little work on your school's identity. Choose a good name, and create a logo that looks professional, not a home-brew concoction of conflicting colors and fonts. Go online and shop for logo design. It's cheap (under $200), and some artists do a great job very quickly.


Your next stop should be Facebook. Create a business page, and do a little reading about how to make that page sparkle and work like a young mule. Consider advertising on Facebook with a promotional offer, such as a demo flight for $99. Most experts would agree that you'll get more bang for your buck with Facebook and Google Adwords than virtually any other medium.


Next stop: website. Nothing too fancy with pictures of jets and white shirts. Just a well-organized site featuring your training programs, prices (yes, list your prices—it won't scare off any serious prospect), and your telephone and email address. Simple and honest works best. 


You can try Craigslist, but many will tell you they don't get much action there. There's no special category for “flight training,” so your post goes into some nebulous Education column along with massage therapy lessons and acupuncture. It can't hurt (it's free), but don't plan on paying next month's rent from the business that comes your way.


Next, you’ll want a nice, two-sided, full-color business card. There should be a photo of a training airplane, and your logo and contact info on the front side. On the back list the services you provide, and repeat the contact info. Buy these cards online. If you pay more than $30 for them you're paying too much. 


Create a simple brochure that you can print at FedEx Office (what we used to know as Kinko’s) for pennies. Can't do desktop publishing? Go to Craigslist and find someone who does design and hire them to do it. Again, simple and honest. Prices, program details, contact info. Bam, you're done.


Go to or another provider and buy shirts with your logo.  Wear these everywhere you go. Ask your spouse to wear one, too. You'll be surprised how many people will notice and ask about flying.


Once you have all these things in place you can start selling in earnest. Cold call 100 local businesses by walking in the door, meet the owners, and tell them you're a new flight school in town. Leave them a certificate for $99 demo. You'll get business within 10 days. Guaranteed. Don't like cold calling? Nobody does. Just do it.


Another source of turbulence is the FAA and IRS. Don't mess with these guys; they have very little sense of humor and can close you down in a heartbeat. Make sure your aircraft records are up-to-date and well-organized. Don't let your flight review and CFI certificate even get close to expiring. Providing training when your own certifications have gone stale is a big no-no. Several small schools have gotten burned because they let administrative details slip.


Keep good books and declare all income. Repeat: Keep good books and declare all income. Don't put the cash your last student paid you in your pocket and buy groceries with it on the way home. Put it in the till and account for it. The IRS is hip to this game and can cause you much misery. Best to play it straight and avoid the wake turbulence that comes with a welcome call from the Feds.


Flight training is a tough biz, but rewarding on several levels as well. Don't let a little rough air or push back from local competitors or government stop you. Start small, keep your costs down, and have fun.

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