In 2012, when we opened San Carlos Flight Center, we started almost from scratch. A few of us had some experience at other flight schools and flying clubs. We had some strong ideas of what NOT to do, and some dreams of what a real flying club could be. We talked one aircraft owner into taking a chance on us, and we opened our doors.
Only someone who has attempted to start an organization from scratch knows how much work that entails. There isn’t a guide for starting a flight school. In the beginning, we tried everything. We had a willingness to take risks, and a belief that if it didn’t work we could tweak it until it did. The first year was tough. We tried crazy things. We aimed high. We did things we had never seen before. We took risks.
Toward the end of the first year, we accidentally stumbled across AOPA’s Center to Advance the Pilot Community, a fantastic organization chartered by AOPA’s then leadership to study what worked best in general aviation and to share that information far and wide. We got a last minute invitation to a special meeting taking place the day before the 2012 AOPA Summit for representatives of flight schools. There we found kindred spirits – people crazy enough to own and operate flight schools. It was only a 4-hour meeting, but it had a tremendous impact.
We left that meeting energized. Since the day we opened, we had a long list of different ideas to try, but after the AOPA Summit, that list tripled in size. The contact with other people struggling to find ways to build pilot communities was invigorating. In the flight school meeting, AOPA shared research they had conducted that found 47 key components of a successful flight school. The next day, “Project 47” was born, the internal name we gave to our special research project to be the best of the best.
During the following year, we tried more things. Innovation was the rule. Have a dream, and go for it.
Nothing was too crazy. We spent a lot of money, we lost a lot of money, and we learned a lot of things. Our rule was positive energy breeds results. Working hard and staying positive, we infused our organization with our goals.
At the end of 2013, San Carlos Flight Center was named Best Flight School in the US by AOPA, largely recognized for our innovation and the success we had in building a sense of community. Business success came as well. We opened as the 5th flying club on the field with one plane a lot of big ideas, and within 4 years we were the largest school on the field, larger than all other competitors combined.