How YOU Can Open a Flight School

One of the factors that seems to have stymied the growth of foot launch flight is a lack of instructors and schools in the majority of the country. My aim in this article is to discuss how relatively easy it can be to set up and operate a flight school, as either a primary or second-income business.

By Paul Voight, first published in Hang Gliding & Paragliding magazine, July 2007
Photos by Paul Voight

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With the advent of instructor insurance (becoming available through the USHPA's insurance carrier), there has never been a better (or safer) time to consider instructing. Even if you don't care to run a flight instruction business full on, becoming an instructor and working on a consultant basis for an existing school is now a viable consideration as a fun, rewarding addition to your current pastimes.

Scooter towing is another HUGE (and timely) boon to flight training. Eliminating wind-direction-specific hills, and offering more reliability, this exciting form of training may well be the biggest boost to flight training ever. If just a few of you readers are sparked by this article to become instructors, I'll be happy, and the sport will benefit!

A common misconception is that to be a "professional" operation, one must tool up and invest heavily to be comparable to the known success story shops (Lookout Mountain, Kitty Hawk Kites, Wallaby Ranch, Windsports, etc.). In reality, all these businesses started small and grew to their present stature over a number of years.

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In 1984, after instructing for two different schools, I opened my own business (out of my home), which still thrives today. This vocation affords me a very unique lifestyle that I would never trade for a "normal" job.

The following outline will list the minimalist version of what you need to do to get a flight school started. Obviously, the more resources one can afford to apply towards this goal, the more complete the "start-up." Realistically, there are certainly ways to start up affordably and build from there.

If I've piqued your interest a little at this point - good! Here are your bullet items to get started:

  • Obviously (albeit not necessarily first), you need to become a certified instructor (unless you can afford to hire already-certified instructors). This process requires an Intermediate rating, a first-aid card (easy to acquire through the Red Cross and many volunteer ambulance corps) and successful completion of an ITP (instructor training program) clinic. While this process does require you to invest some time, energy, and pay a fee for the training program, it really isn't a prohibitive hurdle. The USHPA actually relaxed the requirements several years ago, at the insistence of many long-time veteran instructors. Clinics occur regularly around the country, and if you are willing to organize and host the training program for four to six pilots, you can easily arrange to have a clinic in your area. Most ITP administrators are willing to travel to do the job (myself included).   

Business and logistics considerations: 

  • A training facility: This (admittedly) may be the toughest nut to crack. It requires driving around on search missions, and an up-beat convincing pitch to the landowner (including demonstrations or videos) to acquire use of hills, lands or airports for your purpose. Perseverance should ultimately prevail, and with our new (better) insurance coverage, you can be all that more convincing.
  • Incorporation: A small fee and some paperwork begets you "corporation" status. Operating as a corporation affords you numerous benefits, from insulating your personal assets from the "instructional activity" to many accounting opportunities that can enhance the viability of running a small business.
  • A good waiver: This is a must for obvious reasons. Waivers are very important. They work. They help protect you and any landowners who allow you to operate on their land. There are many very thorough, well-written waivers in existence (like the USHPA's) and I've always found that schools don't mind sharing. Take a couple of good waivers to your lawyer, and have one created for your situation.
  • Advertising: This aspect of running a business can be taken to any (or hardly any) extent you care to. Be careful not to create a larger demand than you can accommodate! Creating an exciting, easily navigated Web page is the best start to your advertising efforts. Getting in the yellow pages also helps. Bright, eye-catching business cards are easy to design, and from my experience, are one of the better ways to "spread the word." Billboards, radio, television, mall displays, presentations and demonstrations are more examples of how you might choose to get the word out.
  • Solicit dealerships: Acquiring product dealerships is not as hard as you might think. If you are certified and teaching, most of the manufacturers are interested in you. You can sell their products for them. Gliders, harnesses, helmets, wheels, books, flight instruments, flight suits, T-shirts and videos are all products for which you should seek dealerships. In cases where you are close to an existing dealer, sub-dealerships are an option, or you can seek out other manufacturers. I have strong opinions (borne from my experiences) of who your first choices should be for dealerships, and if you contact me, I'll be glad to explain those preferences!
  • A storefront: This is a commodity that is low on your initial priority list, and is normally costly. Since most of your business is conducted in the field, you may never need one.
  • Set a "Standard of Excellence": Right from the start, you want to utilize a philosophy involving safety, professionalism, and exceptional service to your customers. The most effective tools for creating a loyal and recurring clientele (who will bring you more clientele!) are teaching students safely, responding to their needs in an expedient manner (as affordably as is feasibly possible), and always being "professional."

Equipment Considerations

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  • Here is where you have a large range of variables influencing how to proceed. Hill training? Scooter-towing? Aerotowing? These factors are greatly affected by the kind of flying you normally do (and the kind of flying your students will graduate to). At the very least, you need at least two training gliders to start. Obviously several sizes are better, and ultimately you will need to acquire more gliders. Wills Wing Falcons and the like, or any level-1 paraglider, are primary considerations due to availability and serviceability. Used gliders are an affordable way to go. Training harnesses are easily scrounged up (used) if you put out the word that you are looking for them. There are several manufacturers of new training harnesses; if you're interested, contact me for that information. Several sizes of sports helmets (light, vented and washable) are next on the list and can be obtained from many sources. Again, I can supply leads if needed. A pair of FM radios sure helps when you start putting distance between you and your students! A small first aid kit is prudent to have on hand at all times. In a perfect world, you will devise a simulator (perhaps from a scrapped glider frame), particularly if you can get permission to leave it at a training location. Simulators are nice, but if you can't swing one yet, any assembled glider (or tree) can serve the purpose. 
  • If you plan on scooter towing, then you obviously need to shop for the necessary items to do that kind of operation. Steve Wendt at Blue Sky Hang Gliding in Virginia is a knowledgeable source of information regarding this topic.
  • Also watch the scooter towing training video (and download the manual) on Wills Wing's Web site.
  • If you plan on aerotowing, again seek out the well-known sources already operating safe flight parks out there. Previously owned tugs can be found occasionally, which will save you quite a bit of start-up cost.

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Basically, the above is a fairly complete list of tasks and considerations you need to facilitate to get a flight instruction situation set up. Like any undertaking, the biggest step is simply starting the process. I hope this information is helpful to anyone who has contemplated teaching hang gliding or paragliding. If even one new instructor or school is generated from this article, then it was worth writing!

Paul Voight is a long-time hang gliding enthusiast, photographer, and the owner of Fly High flight school, near Ellenville, N.Y. He has been instructing hang gliding since 1980, and paragliding since 1990. Fly High has been keeping him busy since 1984.

Paul is rated H-5 and P-4, is an administrator for both the USHPA Tandem and Instructor programs, and has been the Region 12 director since 1989. You can contact him at www.flyhighhg.com with questions concerning this article, or about anything flying-related.

UPDATE: As of 2016 all schools must also be certified members of PASA.

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