By Jim Pitman
Is it better for flight training clients to rent our airplanes or buy their own? Bill Heckathorn, president and founder of Performance Aircraft in Lincoln, Nebraska, thinks every flight school owner should be asking this question. Heckathorn and his team have helped their clients purchase more than 50 airplanes since the flight school opened its doors in 2006 at Lincoln Municipal Airport (K71).
Many flight school owners and managers worry they will lose money if their clients purchase their own airplanes and stop renting. “This couldn’t be further from the truth,” Heckathorn said. “The increased revenue we receive from sales commissions, helping to manage our clients’ airplanes, transition training, pilot services, and the several additional benefits far outweigh whatever we lose in aircraft rental,” he said. It’s also important to realize that clients who purchase an airplane often do so at or near the end of their flight training, so very few rental hours are lost.
When asked about those additional benefits, Heckathorn said, “It’s really about fulfilling our company mission to inspire and enable others to achieve their dreams. We believe in helping pilots go as far as they want to go in aviation. By creating an environment that encourages aircraft ownership, our clients fly more, earn additional certificates/ratings, fly more advanced aircraft, get more utility from aviation, and find more fulfillment. As a company, we feel good about achieving our mission while generating additional income. Our instructors also gain valuable experience flying a wider variety of high-performance airplanes.”
This is a unique focus for a flight school. I reflected on my early days of training and working as a young flight instructor. Even though I was surrounded by aircraft owners, I could not personally relate to the concept of ownership. “You’re not alone,” Heckathorn said. “The typical flight instructor mindset or ‘financial blueprint’ is our biggest obstacle to overcome. I’m always reminding them, ‘If you see someone who can buy a new SUV, they can buy an airplane,” he said.
It’s important not to judge other people’s financial situations. “That’s a big one,” Heckathorn said. “You would be surprised at how many clients I’ve had drive up in an F-150 pickup truck and then write a $750,000 check for a new airplane. It’s not our place to make assumptions. We simply treat everyone with respect, maintain our culture that aircraft ownership is a normal and beneficial path, and then ask questions to find out what is best for each client. Most will never buy an airplane, but many do,” he said.
Heckathorn’s passion for selling airplanes “is really about helping people achieve their dreams. But I’ve found that people often need to be coached on what those dreams look like in reality. Someone can know they love to fly, but then what?
“We train our entire staff, especially the flight instructors, to constantly talk about the benefits of being a pilot. For example, in the flight training section of our website we have a graphic called ‘Imagine Where You Can Go.’ It’s a map of the U.S. showing how far someone can drive in two hours versus a two-hour flight and the nonstop range of a Cessna 172. It’s an impressive representation,” Heckathorn said. “As we learn about the places our clients would like to travel, we’re able to continually remind them and help refine their dreams to become a reality. That’s what I love most about the work we’re doing. Selling the airplanes is just a natural extension of it all.”
Any flight school can do this. Start by contacting sales representatives who specialize in the kinds of aircraft your clients commonly purchase. These representatives should be more than happy to meet and discuss the possibility of working together. Consider inviting them to give a presentation to your office staff and instructors. Discuss the resources they can provide and the referral bonuses they will offer to you and your instructors. You can also create a simple aircraft management package that includes services such as aircraft parking/storage, maintenance, washing, et cetera, based on your available resources.
What other advice does Heckathorn have for flight schools that want to participate in the sales process? “It’s important to have a good team of professionals you can trust. This includes experts in sales, insurance, maintenance, avionics, interior, and paint. This can all be contracted out, but you need to have a team you can count on,” he said. “Remember that you get what you focus on. The mechanics of it all are pretty simple. The real key to success is all about your company culture and the mindset of your individual employees, especially the flight instructors. Help them understand that their financial situation is not necessarily the same as their clients’. Teach them to avoid making potentially offensive or judgmental comments about ‘rich people.’ That guy or gal standing next to them wearing jeans and a Timex watch could be the wealthiest person they’ve ever met. In short, teach them the benefits of aircraft ownership, teach them to ask questions and inspire dreams, and then share the sales bonuses to keep them motivated.”
There are many benefits to educating pilots on the value of aircraft ownership and helping them make that dream a reality. I encourage flight school owners and managers everywhere to consider ways of implementing the suggestions Heckathorn has shared. Together we can significantly increase the number of general aviation aircraft owners that are regularly putting their certificates to good use.
Contact Bill Heckathorn directly and learn more about Performance Aircraft on the website.
Jim Pitman has been a flight instructor since 1997. He has been a Part 141 chief flight instructor, Cessna Pilot Center regional manager, and Arizona Flight Instructor of the Year. He flies the Canadair Regional Jet for a U.S. carrier while operating his own flight training business. Connect with Jim at his website.