Garrett and Jen Snyder have come a long way from selling fruits and vegetables at the local farmer’s market.
Smoketown Helicopters, the flight school the couple started in late 2014, has grown from a shared 10-by-10 office with a folding table to a regional leader of training, Robinson Helicopters service, and aerial sightseeing tours.
Both veterans, the Snyders moved back to the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area to help Garrett’s father with the family business. Garrett had earned his airframe and powerplant certificates during his service in the Air Force, and he had added pilot certificates soon after getting out. The couple used the money saved from produce sales to start Smoketown Helicopters with a modest footprint and an owner-financed R22.
Since then they have focused on investing heavily in the business. “We saw 2008, knew there would be another downturn, and we pushed hard to get ourselves ready for one,” Garrett said. With that in mind they soon paid off that first R22, bought another one, added a leased R44, and then later purchased one. They’ve also added fixed-wing aircraft, although helicopters still make up about 70 percent of their business.
The plan to be stable in the face of an economic downturn has worked. “Most of our costs are variable,” Garrett said. He estimates Smoketown could operate at 50 percent of its current business and survive, thanks to minimal debt, no lease insurance payments, and other cost-saving measures.
Part of what has allowed the Snyders to keep costs low is bringing Smoketown’s maintenance in-house. Because Robinson parts and service aren’t as readily available as those of Piper and Cessna, the Snyders used to have to fly two hours each way for most needs. Minor repairs put the helicopter out of service for sometimes weeks at a time. By becoming a Robinson service center, Smoketown can do all its own maintenance, stock parts, and have a revenue source. That has translated to less money out the door and less downtime on its helicopters.
The company’s success hasn’t been all about keeping costs low and reducing debt. The Snyders also pride themselves on customer service, and the reviews show that focus is paying off. Jen handles the customer-facing side of the business, and she said the goal is to make the school more than a school. “We want it to feel like a family,” she said.
Conducting air tours can sometimes conflict with the goals of a flight school. They are transactional, and the work put in to answering questions and arranging flights can be challenging. But the couple sees it as an opportunity to show the community their commitment to customer service. Sometimes people will call three or four times before a tour, Garrett said. They may have bought a gift certificate and they want the experience to be perfect. So Jen does her best to make sure the flight is perfect. “That person will tell someone else how great it is,” Garrett said. “People aren’t buying fruits and vegetables from you, they’re buying customer service.”
For Jen, the satisfaction is in helping to make the next generation of pilots become successful. The Snyders have been able to attract customers from all over the region. Jen estimates the average student drives between one and two hours for each lesson. She loves the experience of guiding new people who walk in the door completely green, taking them through the full slate of training to the point where they are the ones mentoring the next group of students. “It’s an honor for us to be part of that story,” she said.