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Not the biggest, but the bestNot the biggest, but the best

Two airplanes, one full-time flight instructor, an occasional part-time CFI, and an office assistant. That’s SkyTrek Alaska in Anchorage. 

There are no branded T-shirts in the lobby. Also, there’s no lobby. SkyTrek Alaska is on the second floor of a two-story building at Merrill Field in Anchorage. The first floor includes a hangar and workshop.

If it sounds modest, it is. Yet that didn’t prevent SkyTrek Alaska from winning the designation of 2017 National Best Flight School in AOPA’s Flight Training Experience Awards.

SkyTrek Alaska owner Jamie Patterson-Simes opened the flight school in 2013. Her story is not unlike that of Dan Dyer, the owner and chief flight instructor of San Carlos Flight Center in San Carlos, California—named 2013 Best Flight School in the Flight Training Experience Awards.

Both Patterson-Simes and Dyer wanted to create the kind of flight school they wish they’d had when they were learning to fly. Both flight schools have been recognized for providing high-quality training and superior customer service.

Patterson-Simes sold her car for $8,000 seed money to get the flight school going. “I made money from day one,” she said.

SkyTrek Alaska’s waiting list is three months long. It doesn’t advertise. Business comes primarily by word of mouth.

This is no pilot mill. Each flight lesson is three hours long so that Patterson-Simes can dedicate a sizable chunk to pre- and post-flight briefings. From the first lesson, students preflight, talk on the radio, and even perform most of a landing. They calculate weight and balance and density altitude for every flight, using a worksheet that Patterson-Simes designed.

“If you start off low, you’ve already failed as an instructor,” she said. “I have to sit next to them and watch them struggle. But once they get it, I don’t have to worry about it.”

The lucky ones—private pilot students who come to SkyTrek Alaska the first time—usually complete a certificate in 40 to 41 hours.

When students arrive from other flight schools, the difference in the quality of their training is stark—and a little shocking. Riley O’Connor, who earned his private pilot certificate in October at SkyTrek, came to the school with 45 hours. He hadn’t soloed, nor had he ever been taught how to file a flight plan.

SkyTrek Alaska offers a comfortable setting in which students can learn. A wood-burning fireplace on the second floor takes the chill off during ground school sessions. A kitchen is kept stocked with fresh fruit, energy bars, and tea bags. And the flight school was the first on Merrill Field to have flush toilets.

While Patterson-Simes would like to expand her operation, she won’t until she’s able to hire some knowledgeable CFIs who are not there simply to build time. She’s all about consistency of instruction and consistency of aircraft.

In the meantime, Patterson-Simes works hard when the weather allows. She took off one day in April and one day (Mother’s Day) in May. She worked every day in June, and every day of July except July 4th. In August she took a relatively luxurious four-day break.

General aviation needs more flight schools like SkyTrek Alaska, but it also needs quality CFIs to help top-notch flight schools run smoothly. How can we make that happen? 

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman

AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.

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