Friday, October 4, 2013

Keep It Simple

Low and slow, somewhere over Victoria County.

It's been a different month for me.  It's amazing how you can be doing what's essentially the same job, but changing where and how you do it makes it feel like a whole new career. 

In September, I've flown the Bosque River valley in a J-3 Cub at sunrise.  I spent time in Victoria giving dual instruction in the family J-3 Cub (which I literally grew up in---that's probably a really good subject for another article).  I've even given ground instruction in a real estate office and several local coffee shops. 

Not only has this been a really neat change, it's proven something else to me. Back in 2009, the model Parker and I used to start Waco Flight Training could be summed up in one phrase: "Keep it simple, manage expenses, and do a better job than the other guy."  I realized when I got to thinking about it that this little adventure is really living that out. 

Customers seem to be liking the flexibility, they definitely like the fact that I'm able to charge less (and ironically make more), and I'm not hating the fact that I'm writing this from my home office.  In fact, soon as I hit "post" I'm making lunch in the kitchen and sitting down for a bit with my Airline Transport Pilot study guide.

I know I'm kind of rambling, but I'm getting to a point.  There's an adage in aviation concerning, shall we say, capital outlays:  "The best way to make $2 million in aviation is to begin with $4 million."  I can tell you, if your goal is to blow money this is the best business to be in.  But, it doesn't have to be that way.  If you want to know why flight schools fail and financial support for them dries up, see the above adage.  Sink a couple of million on flash, and you're going to be left wondering why you can't get out of the hole. 

Maybe aviation needs a little less flash and a little more simplicity.  Airplane, pilot, instructor.  That's all you really need, and it doesn't really matter where the three meet up.  I learned to fly out of a hangar built in the 1930s, sitting in a metal folding chair between a greasy coffee pot and a 1950s-era Nesbitt's (sort of like Orange Crush) vending machine.  It's been rewarding to find that this kind of simplicity draws other people to aviation as well.  Those are the kind of people I want to hang out with.  Those are the kind of people I want to fly with.

"Keep it simple, manage expenses, and do a better job than the other guy."

Side note:

Thanks to Robbie Vadjos and his great friends and family for putting on a great Under-the-Wire Fly-In for the 24th year!  Despite a rain-out and the typical low turnout on the rain date, the passion, hospitality, and camaraderie were there as always and keep this event something that none of us would ever consider missing!

Monday, September 16, 2013

My Time

I was up and headed to work before dawn last Friday.  Well before dawn.  But I couldn't complain; I was to pick up my customer's 1939 Piper J-3 at the McGregor airport, and fly it to Clifton so I could spend the morning flying with he and a good friend of his.  I pre-flighted the airplane using the brights on my Explorer, and ended up hand-propping it because the battery hadn't quite charged enough (neither a big deal; I'm still getting used to the idea of a J-3 having a starter in the first place).

Just as the first rays of the sun were breaking the horizon, I pulled onto Runway 22 and departed to the northwest.  The air was smooth, the smoothest I've seen in a long time, and there was a layer of high clouds to the north and east which provided a unique filter for the sunrise.  It was almost a fall morning (something you look forward to all summer when you spend as much time in non-air conditioned planes as I do).

The idea of commuting to a customer is a new one, but this is my new life.  You see, a couple of weeks ago I left the flight school that Parker and I had started back in 2009.  Over the years, it was bought out, expanded, and then eventually became part of an FBO.  An FBO's focus is on selling gas.  That isn't right or wrong, it just is.  Over time, things began to feel less like the friendly little flight school I built from nothing.

Being attached to an FBO does provide some regularity, but it makes it harder to dream big.  The freedom to travel a little bit, to fly with some unique students in some unique airplanes, and yes, even the freedom to pursue opportunities flying some bigger (read: airline) airplanes was calling me.  So was the little flight school Parker and I opened in 2009. 

And so, here I am, by myself again and loving it.  Which brings me back to the 1939 J-3, about 1,500 feet over the Bosque River valley winging my way towards Clifton.  The beauty of the morning struck me as I was about to enter the traffic pattern.  Solitary, unfettered, just me and a simple airplane on the perfect day, carrying out the simple act of airmanship for which it was so aptly designed over 75 years ago:  this is what it's all about.  This, I thought, is my time.

Indeed, it is my time.  My aviation dream has come full circle and I'm excited to bring the focus back to what it should be:  student, airplane, and instructor.  Instruction may eventually become a part of a bigger aviation career for me, but it will always be a vital part, and this is how it will be carried out. 

So, it's time to dust the 100 Low Lead blog off and document this next chapter of my dream.  My goal is to start making weekly updates.  It's my time, and there's plenty of room for passengers.  See you next week!

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11 and Why I Love My Job

This post isn't going to be about the stupid little fools who have hurt, and still want to hurt, Americans. I hope their 72 virgins are all fat and hairy. It's also not going to be about our government's extremely expensive, sometimes effective, sometimes infuriatingly assinine responses to terror threats either. It's going to be about how I spent my 9/11/11, and why I still love my job.

For me, 9/11/11, was just another day at work. But in my job, there really is no such thing as "just another day." The dad of one of my young adult students is inovlved in the ownership group of the Tulsa Shock, a WNBA team and the only pro sports team in town there. For a cross-country flight, the student wanted to fly to Tulsa for the last game of the season.

The flight was textbook. It was a really rough day, which makes for great teaching if not a bit of misery (especially for Mrs. Dabney, who was in the back seat). When we arrived at the arena, we were led to our courtside seats. What a cool experience! The Big XII is well-represented in the WNBA and it was cool to see some names we recognized playing professionally (including Baylor's own Sophia Young---Sic 'Em!). If you think of WNBA players as inferior or weak, you may have a different point of view when you almost get taken our of your seat by 6 foot plus, 200 pounds plus, on its way out-of-bounds!

After the game, we were in the locker room for the ownership group's final meeting of the year with the players. They talked about the highs and lows of the season, and their hopes for next year for the franchise. Many of these players will leave in just a couple weeks to play in international leagues. The WNBA doesn't pay very well, so they work pretty much year-round.

While in the locker room, Alisa got to meet Ali Olajuwon, daughter of NBA great Hakeen Olajuwon. Hakeen was with the Houston Rockets when Alisa was a teenager, and so it was a real treat for her to get to meet Abi in such an intimate setting.

The whole while, my student and I were discussing the benefits of General Aviation with his dad. We'd made the flight up from Waco in less than three hours, while his dad had taken over four hours to drive from Dallas. Down the road, they'll end up having an airplane to make his travels more logistically simple. Another family gets it.

After the game, we must have talked to the line guys at the FBO (Riverside Jet Center at KRVS is an awesome bunch---pay them a visit) about Cubs, Stearmans, and EAA for a good hour. They'd stayed open 45 minutes past closing time just to let us out and say goodnight. More good people in aviation, more good people who get it.

What does all this have to do with 9/11? In my corner of aviation, we're winning. We're doing our thing, and we're going to keep doing our thing. I had another one of the ordinary, yet extraordinary days that has so popluated my career up to this point. I refuse to live in fear, and I refuse to let others fear what they don't know.

Take somebody flying. Show them how ordinary, yet extraordinary, aviation is. If we tell our story the right way, neither Muslim extremists nor idiot bureaucrats will be able to stop us.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kyle and Amanda: Epilogue

Disclaimer: This is a long-winded one

It's been a while since I've written. In the days since March 12, when I posted the late-night blog about Kyle and Amanda, much of the aviation community (and many new fans outside it) has followed Kyle as he updated us daily on Amanda's condition. Kyle's injuries turned out to be non-life threatening, although he did undergo skin grafts and is still undergoing physical therapy.

It was a roller-coaster ride, and at many times looked like she'd survive. However, infections became uncontrollable and she passed away on May 27. In the meantime, she fought like nobody's business. She became even more of a hero and she didn't even know it.

It's occurred to me many times in the past couple of months how odd this attachment to relative strangers must strike people. And it would be odd, anywhere but aviation. So it was that I found myself flying the first of two of our flight school's 172s to Fayetteville, Arkansas at 0530 yesterday morning. I had brought up the idea of attending Amanda's funeral, and it turned out that our whole professional staff, one student, and one of our controllers from ACT (who also works Oshkosh every year) went.

It was a beautiful, well-attended service. Looking around the church, you could find a true cross-section of the aviation community. Rob Reider, airshow announcer and the host of a lot of Sporty's Pilot Shop's instructional videos, read the obituary and sang a worship song (he's a really good guitar player and singer). Fellow CAF colonels were there in force, wearing their unit shirts. Other airshow fans were there in their airplane-themed Hawaiian shirts. Our buddy Chad, the aforementioned controller, even wore his pink "Oshkosh Tower" shirt (controllers who volunteer to work the world's biggest fly-in wear this shirt as a badge of honor).

At the cemetary, there was a mass flyby (capped by Matt Younkin's twin Beech. He flies a gorgeous airshow routine with it and flew Amanda home in it last week from Texas under the call sign "Amanda One"). There weren't many dry eyes. It was if the airplanes were telling Amanda "goodbye." If you're a pilot, you get that. Airplanes have a soul. Trust me.

Amanda's brother Matt played a solo of amazing grace on his trombone. I don't know how he got through it. And, the five of us got the opportunity to shake hands with Kyle and Matt and thank them---thank them for what their families have done for aviation and thank them for sharing Amanda with all of us.

The other occupants of my 172 were asleep on the flight home, so I had lots of time to think. The whole day was like a somber version of Oshkosh. A family reunion of people who didn't know each other but had a common interest, a common passion, and were on this day mourning for a common reason.

Then I realized why I'm so drawn to the Younkin and Franklin families. They represent the two most important parts of my life: my wife Alisa and my love for aviation. For me and for these families (particularly Kyle and Amanda), those two facets of life are and always will be inseperable. I see a lot of people I know in that relationship---Alisa and I, my sister Amy and her husband Wesley, and many others. We understand things that only people who really live their lives understand, and that connects us in a way that's hard to describe.

If you ever have time, go to the Franklin's Flying Circus page on Facebook and read Kyle's updates...all of them. Kyle's love for Amanda and love for aviation come through in every one, and you'll bawl your eyes out. I'm not afraid to admit that I did often. It hits close to home. It resonates. It reminds me why I do what I do and why I love the woman that I love. It makes me grateful that I grew up at Ball Airport on Saturdays and wondered why the other kids didn't get to go to fly-ins.

That thought process is starting to really help me shape what my calling is in aviation. I want to keep it grass roots, keep it a family activity, and keep it about passionate people who don't meet strangers. People like Kyle and Amanda Franklin do it through airshows, and I want to capture that passion in what I do. And make people feel it. That's going to require me to "stay put" for a while, maybe a long while, as a flight instructor, and I couldn't be more excited or feel more convicted. What I do, and how I want to do it requires every once of a person's being. I'm game.

So now I get it. I can explain that weird pull, in context. I did not know her beyond our Facebook friendship, but she was no stranger. If you're the kind of person to whom that makes sense, I have a calling for you.

Amanda Michelle Franklin


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Professionalism, Antiquated Advice, and AOPA

I just received my copy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association newsletter for flight instructors, called "CFI to CFI." There is an article called "The Art of Professionalism" that purports to tell me how I can be a more professional flight instructor, and thus, secure more students.

Front in center is the idyllic scene. A new student stands, beaming, next to his new flight instructor. Our hero, the truly "professional" flight instructor is wearing epaulets (with 4 stripes no less), a uniform shirt, and a tie.

The article goes on to expound upon the virtues of basically being the sharpest-dressed guy at the airport so that you can get students. After all, you should "dress the part" even if that means wearing a uniform. Let me just stop you right there and say, "really?" And, God forbid you show up for work in shorts!

I'm all about looking presentable. I tuck my shirt in and I shave every day. But, my "uniform" consists of those Magellan button-up fishing shirts from Academy (they're inexpensive, they're comfortable, and they're practical) tucked into a pair of blue jeans or *gasp* khaki shorts. Then there's my ballcap (complete with company logo) and Red Wing boots.
Hey uniform-wearers: Guys like the one in the blue shirt are who your students are coming to when they get tired of you day-dreaming about flying ERJ's instead of teaching :).

And you know what? I stay busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. I worked 14 hours yesterday. That's the norm. What's my secret? I focus on flying airplanes. The kind of airplanes I teach in. That means Cessna 150s and 172s, mostly. No, they are not "lowly." They produce lift through the same physical process that a 737 or Airbus does. And, complexity of systems aside, require every bit as much skill to fly professionally. I focus on my students and how they're learning. I focus on the reputation I earn for the "product" I put on the market.

I DO NOT focus on what may be next. I've mentioned before that I don't know what I want to do when I grow up, and I'm serious about that. The options are innumerable in aviation, especially with the looming pilot shortage, and that's liberating, not frustrating. When it's time, it'll be time. Until then, this is what I do.

The skills I acquire as a flight instructor will serve me well no matter where I end up. So I don't try to fly a 737 final in a 172. I don't checklist the 150 to death like it's a G6. And although federal law does consider me the "captain" of civil aircraft on which I'm serving as pilot in command, I'll leave the epaulets to my friends who are airline pilots.

So, AOPA, if you want to help bail flight instruction out of the hole that it is undeniably in (and I've discussed in earlier blog entries), quit giving bad, antiquated, useless advice. We have much more to worry about than matching our ties to our slacks! And while you're at it---an AOPA wine club? What the f***? Get real. I'm beginning to wonder what it is you're doing with my $49 in annual dues.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Kyle and Amanda

I can't sleep tonight, because two of my heroes are in hospital burn units. Kyle and Amanda Franklin were performing their famous Pirated Skies act at the Brownsville Air Fiesta when what seems to be a catastrophic engine failure prompted a forced landing and caused the airplane to be consumed by fire.

Amanda was on the wing when the problem started, but was able to get back into the plane (according to reports----video I've seen doesn't make me feel as certain that she did) before the impact. Kyle was not able to get her out. They were both burned on 60-70% of their bodies and as of this writing it sounds as though they are in stable, but critical condition.

For those not familiar with Kyle and Amanda, they are the latest generation of an airshow family both ahead of its time and impacted by tragedy. In 2005, their fathers Bobby and Jimmy were killed in a mid-air collision during an airshow in Canada. Kyle and Amanda, who had been teenage sweethearts, later married and soon afterwards their wingwalking act debuted. Their passion for aviation brought them together and kept them in the family business.

These two represent everything that is good about my generation of pilots. They're young, good-looking, they handle their celebrity with grace, and they've reinvented the art of wingwalking for a new generation. They're accessible superstars at the top of their craft. In my opinion, any pilot who doesn't fantasize about doing what they do for a living needs to re-evaluate his or her career choice/hobby. Two accomplished pilots, husband and wife, teaming up to travel the country like modern barnstormers and bring aviation to the masses. What role models!

I don't even know them well enough to call them acquaintances (although Amanda gracefully accepted my Facebook friend request some years ago and is quite accommodating to her fans), and yet I feel like my brother and sister are lying in those hospital beds tonight. Pilots who are passionate about their craft and passionate about life are kindred spirits like that, and I tend to take stuff like this personally.

We're all praying for a full recovery for both of them. In the mean time, the best way I can pay tribute to them and all of our fallen brothers and sisters is to keep doing what I do. Keep taking aviation seriously. Keep trying to get others to feel that passion. Keep leading by example and being the best, safest pilot I can be. As an aviator, I benefit from the legacy of a long line of people just like Kyle and Amanda Franklin. Aviation is an incredible community. We see it over and over again, in both our triumphs and our defeats.

God bless you two, and may you both heal quickly and completely.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Alisa looking like a bad-ass in my old Randolph Aviator sunglasses!

We changed airplanes for this one. Alisa is pretty used to flying the Cub, so I figured using a stick would be more intutitive to her and put her in our Symphony SA-160. She had her first unassisted takeoff, which is a far cry from the last couple of lessons. The cool part about it was that the takeoff was on runway 17 at Marlin, which scares a lot of my more experienced pre-private students.

It may be the powerlines on the departure end, or it may be the fact that Marlin apparently has more buzzards per capita than any other town in Texas. At any rate, it's a narrow-ish runway and she did a really nice job keeping the airplane straight and controlling her pitch during rotation and climbout.

She's come a long way. The first lesson was okay, the second lesson involved some tears and hand-wringing, and the third one saw her finally come into her own. The bug has bitten, and she's started to look forward to lessons. And, so far we're still married :).

On to slow flight, stalls, and landings!