By Jim Pitman
Faith Drewry and Lacey Smith are the founders of FL Aviation Center located at the Tallahassee International Airport (TLH) in Tallahassee, Florida.
Before opening their doors in 2012, Drewry and Smith had not planned to start a flight school. “We set out to build a community; that feeling of belonging. As the concept developed, it just naturally turned into a flight school. The instructors who embody that love for general aviation quickly asked if they could join us. We did not recruit at all. We now have a staff of 10 instructors who are GA enthusiasts that come from all backgrounds with a wealth of experience. They love to teach and share their love of flying with others,” Drewry said.
“Lacey and I each moved to Tallahassee around the same time, both seeking an aviation community. I had been exposed to this concept since earning my private certificate in 1999. When Lacey started flying, her CFI made a point to bring her into what small community existed at that time,” Drewry said.
“Aviators seem to be naturally friendly and open. When you find a group of pilots, there is a sense of community and belonging. It’s a special thing to be part of something that has such good camaraderie. With fences and the TSA, providing this feeling to the public is difficult, but we were committed to creating it here in Tallahassee. We jokingly called it ‘coffee and couches’—which really didn't exist at the time,” she said.
Building a community like this makes good business sense for flight schools. “Every customer here is a part of our family, and those types of people who want individual support are attracted to our business. It must be working. We have a waiting list that is scheduling two to three months out, and people coming from all over the Southeast to participate in our culture,” Smith said.
As winner of the 2017 AOPA Flight Training Experience award for Best Flight School in the southeast region, it’s clear that Drewry, Smith, and the rest of their team are doing it right.
“It seems that many flight schools have started with one or two flight instructors who are really good at teaching, but don’t know the first thing about running a business,” Drewry said. “Lacey and I knew we needed to be different. We’re not even instructors, so that forced us to hire quality CFIs and focus on running the business right from the beginning. We took the time to create a solid business plan that clearly outlines our goals and identifies our highest priorities. We feel it’s important to work ‘on our business,’ not just ‘in our business.’ This is why we schedule a retreat each year where Lacey and I get away for several days to revisit our business plans. We evaluate our current progress, review our priorities, and refocus our efforts moving forward. This annual retreat is one of the main keys to our success,” she said.
What’s discussed on these annual retreats? “We always focus on our three core tenets, which are: Be respectful in all actions; stay safe; and foster dreams and embrace passion,” Smith said. “We believe that respect is the cornerstone to both safety and satisfaction. An instructor who respects the tools of his or her trade will take better care of the equipment, improving both safety and the customer experience. A dispatch clerk who respects a customer’s time will ensure that all paperwork is in order. Business owners who respect their employees’ personal lives will strive to create a fun working environment and pay decent living wages,” she said.
Fostering dreams is a worthy goal, but what does that look like in the day-to-day business? “It’s really a mindset and heartfelt philosophy that is shown in everyday interactions,” Drewry said.
“No experience can compare with ‘slipping the surly bonds’ and seeing the world from a different perspective, yet few believe that this experience is within their reach,” Drewry said. “In our own journeys to become pilots, we have both experienced the hurdle of joining what seems to be a closed community. Airports are friendly places—to pilots. But to the dreamer, standing outside the airport fence and gazing skyward, joining the ranks of those who defy gravity can seem to be an insurmountable goal. Our guiding philosophy is to embrace those dreamers and make them feel at home inside the fence. Once they step inside, make it fun; make them family. We want to create pilots that will go on to become ambassadors for general aviation, and encourage the dreams of others,” she said.
To keep this special culture going strong, FL Aviation conducts a thorough orientation with each new instructor. Smith explained, “The new CFIs that come on board with us are people that already have the same spirit and love of aviation. We have an onboarding process where we take up to half a day to introduce each new CFI to our culture. We start with the history of the company and show them photos from our beginnings; when we had to do a lot of renovations and hard work on a very small budget to get the doors open. Then we show them client successes, how we celebrate every person's progress, and we ask them to sign a contract of professional conduct to ensure every customer receives the same level of attention and care,” she said.
“Several of our instructors have come in and thought the onboarding was hokey at first, but by the end of it they really understood how much passion and thought went into creating a very specific culture oriented toward community,” Smith said. “Once they internalize our mission, they are able to deliver better customer service and more effectively share their love of aviation.”
When asked to share other specific examples of things they do to promote this community environment, Drewry answered, “We host an IMC Club ( https://www.eaa.org/en/eaa/aviation-communities-and-interests/imc-club ) every other month, but instead of just having the meetings, we also created a companion program for instrument currency using our Redbird flight simulator. Pilots practice difference scenarios, we talk about them, and they develop greater proficiency than comes from just flying the same local approaches over and over again,” she said. “We take the focus on safety and turn it into a focus on fun as well. We also regularly host a pancake breakfast/fly-in. It started as a single promotional event, but everyone enjoyed it so much that we decided to do it regularly. Our customers and CFIs all love hanging out and visiting together here at FL Aviation Center. We’re proud of what we’ve created and work hard to keep it going.”
To learn more about FL Aviation Center, visit their website ( http://www.flaviationcenter.com/ ) or contact Faith Drewry at 850-778-3591.
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 ( http://FlywithJim.com ).