By Jim Pitman
Illinois Aviation Academy was started by Robert Werderich in 1993 at DuPage Airport (KDPA) in western Chicago. After making it through the ups and downs of the flight training industry over the past couple of decades, Illinois Aviation Academy now is a thriving part 141 flight school with 22 airplanes, 16 flight instructors, and six assistant chief pilots.
To achieve this success, Werderich and his team continually focus on three key areas: people, partnerships, and performance. “I think of it like a three-legged stool,” Werderich said. “Our people, partnerships, and performance are the three legs that support our entire business. Without any one of them, our flight school would cease to be profitable.”
Illinois Aviation Academy is doing some noteworthy activities with its focus on people. “It starts with our employees,” Werderich said. “We believe in putting in the extra effort up front to identify, hire, and properly train the right people for each position. I also made the decision several years ago that our instructors would always be employees. I know the reasons why many flight schools choose to have contracted flight instructors instead of employees. For us though, the benefits of quality control, standardization, and teamwork far outweigh any other reasons to have instructors that are independent contractors,” he said.
This is also an important distinction that needs to be understood to operate legally in the United States. The IRS explains that businesses operating with independent contractors cannot dictate what will be done or how it will be done. In other words, if you tell your instructors when to be at work, what flight syllabus to use, or what to wear, then they are acting as employees and your taxes/payroll should be completed accordingly.
Werderich and his management team work with each employee to set and evaluate specific goals every six months. He explained, “We really want each of our employees to be successful with whatever it is they are working to accomplish, whether it’s related to aviation or not. We keep the process simple, but it’s highly organized and effective.
“Our employees know it’s more than just lip service. The other managers and I actively follow up and encourage each of our employees to keep taking the necessary steps to achieve their personal goals.”
Sometimes that means helping employees gain experience and prepare to quit their job to move on to something else, and that’s OK, Werderich said. “Our experience has been that the positive attitude and personal fulfillment experienced by each employee translates by a factor of 10 to each of our clients, which is our end goal,” he said.
Illinois Aviation Academy has a strong community outreach program to help feed the pipeline for new qualified pilots in the future. The flight school hosts an average of three aviation career days with local high schools and colleges every month.
“Our career days are amazing,” Werderich said. “We focus on drones, maintenance, flight attendants, and of course, professional pilot opportunities. Our team has been doing the career days for so long, it’s almost on autopilot. Sometimes we host the events at our flight school, but most of the time we are on location at the high schools and colleges. The schools love it, and we have a steady stream of potential new clients and employees flowing into our business,” he said.
The second area of focus is strategic partnerships. High schools and colleges are part of that. Illinois Aviation Academy also has created valuable partnerships with local corporate jet operators, regional airlines, aerial photography, and traffic watch businesses. Werderich said, “These partnerships are critical to our overall success formula. Each of our partners provide valuable services and piloting opportunities for our clients and instructors. When it’s time for them to hire, we usually have one or more qualified candidates that they have already met and worked with. For our flight instructors, it’s like a paid internship that provides valuable experience while they are still teaching, which then adds practical application in the classroom and aircraft. Our partners also provide much needed support for our aviation career days. Everybody wins!”
The partnership that Werderich is personally the most excited about is with Tuskegee NEXT, an amazing nonprofit organization that helps young people become pilots. Illinois Aviation Academy has helped 10 Tuskegee cadets earn a private pilot certificate every summer for the last five years.
Performance is the third area of focus. Werderich and his leadership team conduct a staff meeting every Tuesday to review goals, discuss actions items, and provide needed support. “I’ve never been a fan of having meetings just for the sake of it,” Werderich said. “We work hard to keep these meetings fun while staying focused on measurable performance. We track and discuss important statistics related to our clients, instructors, and other staff members. After years of collecting and analyzing data, we now can predict/prepare for optimum service. This allows us to perform with measurable standards for aircraft, student, and resource tracking,” he said.
Another beneficial performance philosophy is what Werderich calls, “Triple-7 Service.” It means the flight school is open and staffed 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. This allows Illinois Aviation Academy to maximize service to their clients.
Whether you’re operating a large established flight academy or starting out small, I encourage you to follow the example of Illinois Aviation Academy by focusing on people, partnerships, and performance.
Learn more about Illinois Aviation Academy and connect with Robert Werderich at 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 currently flies the Canadair Regional Jet for a U.S. carrier while working as a freelance flight instructor and Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) for the FAA. Connect with Jim at his website (FlywithJim.com).