Thousands of flight schools can teach people to learn to fly. Air Ventures Flying School in Smithfield, Rhode Island, aims to teach people how to be pilots.
Air Ventures Flying School, located at the North Central State Airport (SFZ) in Smithfield, Rhode Island, isn’t going to sell a client their next rating while they’re still working on their first, said owner and chief flight instructor Doug Auclair. “My objective is to sell training, but over a 30-year period instead of a two-year period,” he said.
Air Ventures was named top flight school in the eastern region in the 2021 Flight Training Experience Awards. Auclair said any accolades the school receives are the result of a joint effort by instructors and employees, students, and the parents and spouses of the pilots learning to fly here. “We can’t do anything on our own,” he said. “It’s a huge team effort.”
Auclair opened Air Ventures in 2010 with $800 in his pocket and an airplane on leaseback.
Auclair says the physical structure was a 1960s-era vacant office building on the airport that he came across while trying to figure out how to start a flight school. The airport was happy to rent it to him, and they happily agreed to let him clean it up and rehab it in lieu of three months’ rent.
Today the flight school has a fleet of four airplanes it owns, a flight simulator, and eight full-time employees. He has four Cherokee 140s to rent—a somewhat quirky fleet that is both by accident and design. He initially acquired a 140 through an advantageous deal with a client, then added a second 140 because they are good trainers and easier to maintain, and they use the same parts. He could keep one flying if the other was grounded. He’s since added two more Cherokees.
Air Ventures offers a warm and welcoming environment in which customers are encouraged to hang out, ask questions, and watch airplanes. That’s because Auclair doesn’t believe in a cold, sterile environment for an operation that promotes such a fun and exciting activity as flying. If a new face walks through the door, flight school staff are instructed to stop what they’re doing and greet the visitor. Beyond that, the flight school fosters community through such events as an annual chili cookoff, a summer luau, flyouts to Martha’s Vineyard, and a yearly pilgrimage to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
A Part 61 school with “absolutely no ambitions to be a Part 141 school,” Auclair said, Air Ventures utilizes a highly structured curriculum that emphasizes gaining proficiency in single tasks before moving on to the next.
“We build pilots to be pilots so they can succeed as a pilot in the long term,” Auclair said. This means teaching customers to fuel airplanes, arrange overnight parking at remote locations, and even how to hangar or move an airplane by yourself. “It takes the anxiety away when you’re out in the world,” said Auclair.
The flight school’s combined commercial/CFI program, he said, is so comprehensive that upon completion, “it’s a breeze” for the pilot to finish up the CFI certificate.
Air Ventures also encourages its customers to remain connected to general aviation by showing them more affordable ways to fly: for example, flying clubs and airplane partnerships, as well as outright ownership. “We have put together two flying clubs, any number of owner shares, and countless people who own airplanes, everything from a Piper Cub to a CitationJet,” he said.