If you’re a student at FCA Flight Center in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, you can look forward to a community "where everybody knows your name."
Taking inspiration from the Cheers theme song, flight school owner Jim Powell’s hope is that “clients come in and they feel comfortable. It’s a good atmosphere to feel welcome and trusting that you’re dealing with a professional, knowledgeable CFI that wants to teach you.”
Before he was a flight school owner, Powell was in corporate aviation. After surviving a bout of throat cancer in 2011 he wanted to return to the skies and began instructing at FCA Flight Center.
“The idea was to pay the bills,” said Powell. “When I got back in the planes I realized how much I missed it and enjoyed it.”
Describing flight instruction like “coaching in the cockpit,” Powell felt immense gratification bringing students to solo and beyond. “I had a lot of experience and I enjoyed imparting that knowledge,” he said.
He continued to instruct and in 2017, when the owners were getting to move on, Powell jumped at the opportunity to take over the flight school. While he continues to fly in a limited capacity, his focus is running the business. “It’s fun, it’s gratifying, it’s a labor of love,” said Powell. “I feel good about what we’re doing.”
When Powell assumed ownership there were three airplanes at the school and a couple instructors. Today the school has 10 aircraft and 10 instructors. He wasn’t working with very much capital when he took over, so Powell started with changes he could control. “The first thing I had to do was really look at the operation and how things were being run as far as the revenue,” he said. From there he was able to bring on additional CFIs and invest in administrative updates—like bringing in staff to sit at the front desk and updating to a “robust” scheduling system with student resources.
However, the change Powell seems to be most passionate about is the culture and mindset that the flight instructors at FCA Flight Center employ.
As a flight instructor, “you need to wear a couple different hats,” Powell said. Be serious about maneuvers, but when students grease a landing, you want to be able to high-five them and have fun. “People have to trust you. That’s what it comes down to.”
It’s about creating a relationship with the students and how they think about their responsibilities as a flight instructor. Powell has these responsibilities broken into three categories. (1) Create a safe pilot, (2) create a knowledgeable pilot, (3) and help the student pass their checkride.
The relationship and trust between student and instructor is important, but so is the relationship between the flight school and community. FCA donates introductory flights to local high schools, farmers, and organizations like Easterseals.
Additionally, Powell and his team have worked hard to build a great relationship with the local pilots’ association at the Fitchburg Municipal Airport (KFIT).
“It keeps the people involved and building their pilot skills,” said Powell. “A lot of learning comes from experience. But if you can gain some of that experience from other people then maybe you won’t be in a bad situation to go through that experience because not all experience is good.”
Participating in community conversation by sitting in discussions and asking questions makes students and instructors more well-rounded.
“If we don’t have the answers, we have an open community here. There are no egos in the cockpit, no egos in the office,” said Powell. “They know it’s OK, and feel better about asking a question, if they see us doing it. We’re not omniscient and it’s good to show a student that.”
Powell hopes this humble attitude and sense of responsibility extends beyond his students’ time at the school “It doesn’t end here. It starts here. We have to build that foundation and thought process.”
The previous owner of FCA had a saying, “Perfection is the goal. Excellence will suffice.”
“I love that saying,” Powell said. “None of us are perfect, but that’s the goal. We do that through training, through the community of learning from each other, and having fun doing it.”