Building Community is the Secret of Flight School’s Success

By Scott Spangler on December 3rd, 2012

The day after Thanksgiving, Sporty’s Academy shared news of a week that any flight school would love to have, four first solos, two new private pilots, two new commercial pilots, and a new flight instructor. The cooperation of Mother Nature made it possible, said Eric Radtke, academy president and chief flight instructor.

Radtke summarized the secret to Sporty’s success in the release’s second paragraph: “The fact that so many of our customers and staff were able to participate in the cutting of the shirt tails and other celebrations made it that much more special and created a wonderful sense of community.” The italics are mine.

Community, Radtke continues, has consistently provided three-quarters of of the school’s new customers since it opened in 1987. They come from personal, word-of-mouth referrals Sporty’s earned by delivering a good product to their customers. First-class flight training is, obviously, a big part of the product, but another critical component is building community by eagerly and honestly welcoming the newcomers into aviation society.

clip_image001Flight school cynics might dismiss the importance of building a community, thinking it an expensive process easy for Sporty’s, but not so much for struggling flight schools. Think again. First, like every other division of the company, Sporty’s Academy must pay its own way, Radtke says. Building community requires something much more valuable: time, commitment, compassion, and acting on new opportunities.

The academy does receive important support from Sporty’s other divisions. When students are securing the aircraft after their first solos, a line tech sounds an bell that rings in every building, Radtke said. “If they can leave their post for a few minutes, every employee in every division gathers on the first and second floor of the atrium to welcome the new pilot with a round of applause and pats on the back.” This recognition includes the pilot’s instructor by name, because without a teacher, the pilot wouldn’t be the center of attention.

“And then we reach for the shears,” said Radtke. Sporty’s Academy then frames and displays the shirt tail. It returns the framed icon to its donor later. Sporty’s also sends a news release of the aviation milestone to the pilot’s hometown media and shares it on the academy’s social media channels. It also gives students a how-to guide, along with digital photos, so they can share their aviation milestone on their own social networks.

Solo Hall of Fame

The latest addition to Sporty’s social network and community building efforts is NFlightCam’s Solo Hall of Fame, which the maker of the small HD cameras started a few months ago, said Radtke. About a week before their solo, students or the school register for the program and NFlightCam sends a camera and mount. Returning everything after the solo flight, NFlightCam does a professional edit, adds music, and posts the 3-4-minute video online, sending the solo star the link.

And it’s all free—unless you damage the camera or keep it more than two weeks. Then NFlightCam will charge your credit card $570. When flight schools handle the registration and return, the school’s name and logo grace the opening and closing credits. If you’re thinking “so what?” shame on you. When the solo star shares his or her video, viewers will know the  source of joy displayed by the video’s star.

While expanding its community building efforts in social media, Sporty’s hasn’t given up old school face-to-face events that built unity among aviators and introduces and integrates interested newcomers. “We still hold our monthly cookouts,” Radtke said, unless that Saturday falls on Christmas or Thanksgiving weekend. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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5 Responses to “Building Community is the Secret of Flight School’s Success”

  1. Adam Baker Says:

    That’s great! Keep up the good work guys. Recognition is huge in aviation. Many places are letting it fall to the wayside and treating it as just another day. I believe that traditions such as cutting the shirt tail and a public post-solo announcement are essential to keep interest in aviation. (Of course, when you have the flying bug, it’s just the cherry on top of the sundae.

  2. Regina Coker Says:

    Great job, Sporty’s! It would have been nice if it had been that way 39 years ago for me. Maybe I would have had my PPL before now.

  3. Thomas Boyle Says:

    I cannot overemphasize the difference community makes in aviation. This is something they have tended to do much better in Europe, but glider clubs in the US also tend to do a better job. Community can make the difference between a thriving business, and a dead one.

  4. Todd Says:

    I love the NFlightCam Hall of Fame. Such a great way to share the excitement of the solo experience.

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