Helicopter training proves profitable

The route to fulfillment of a dream took this helicopter school owner to a destination he didn’t expect.

In the mid 1980s, Patrick Corr was a helicopter flight instructor with a dream of something greater. He wanted his own helicopter touring business. He would use turbine helicopters to fly outdoor adventurers to hunting and fishing locations in Northern California. But getting there required a plan.

The first opportunity to move in the right direction came when the flight school he was working for decided to discontinue its helicopter training operations and concentrate on the fixed-wing side of business. It was primarily a fixed-wing operation anyway, with some Robinson R22s on leaseback. A dispute with the leaseback helicopter owners ended the helicopter training.

Mr. Corr bought a used R22 with 600 hours remaining until its required overhaul. Two weeks later he leased another R22 and office space on the airport at Concord, Calif., brought in another instructor and, in February 1987, Helicopter Adventures, Inc. was born. The company name reflected Mr. Corr’s plan right from the start. As he describes it, “The first year was a mix of hard work, excitement, and apprehension on our ability to survive through the year. I had always heard that most small businesses fail within their first year.” Every bit of his savings and those of his wife, Nancy, were at risk. But Helicopter Adventures (HAI) was busy from the start, in that it had an immediate student base from the discontinued operation Mr. Corr had worked for previously.

The first major short-term goal was for HAI to generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the R22 factory overhaul. In doing so, Mr. Corr also would be working his way toward another goal — building enough flight time so he could become insurable for his planned part 135 operations in a turbine. The first goal was realized in just six months. That big hurdle was cleared when his R22 went through the Robinson overhaul and came out just like new. Little did Mr. Corr know that the overhaul hurdle was miniscule compared to what he was about to face.

In November 1987, that R22 was involved in a fatal crash. The instructor and his student, who was also an instructor, were working towards a CFI certificate reinstatement for the student when they had one of the numerous and controversial “rotor blade contacting the fuselage” accidents. This was a devastating event that left the Corrs seriously wondering about their future in this business. The answer came from their students. As Mr. Corr describes it, “We were small and had a family atmosphere. Our students convinced us that as awful as this event was, it wasn’t a reason to give up so long as they were willing to stick by us.” And the students did just that. Flying and life continued. The freshly overhauled R22 had been insured at full value, so they were able to replace it with a new ship. By the end of their first year, HAI was back to normal operations.

Mr. Corr described his second year as “interesting.” HAI leased a used Bell 206, which allowed him to build the turbine time necessary for his adventure tour plan. As he built this flight time, his flight training business also was building with very little effort. HAI ultimately developed the charter business, which was difficult but successful. The most popular of the charters were the fishing trips, a “race-car driving, helicopter flying” package they developed with a local race car driving school, and ad-hoc charters. But through all of this, Mr. Corr realized that the flight school aspect of his business was far more satisfying than the charters. As he explains it, “With the training, we make a difference in someone’s life.” Providing quality flight training became more important to Mr. Corr than the charters. In 1989, HAI dropped the charter work and the lease on the 206. By this time, HAI had six R22s, six CFIs, and had moved into better facilities.

Deciding to focus on training required rethinking the business plan and its philosophy. Mr. Corr now would take the approach that he was in the education industry, specializing in helicopters. This isn’t just catchy marketing semantics. This approach definitely changes how you operate. “Your goal shifts from putting time on the Hobbs meter to the quality of pilot training,” Mr. Corr stated. “We wanted to put more depth and structure in our program and pursue accreditation.” He wasn’t referring to the FAA part 141 school approval, which was far easier to obtain. He was referring to the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, which looks at schools to assure specific standards are met for third level education. These standards include academic structure, facilities, expertise of the faculty, and level of expertise of the supervision. Although HAI uses some lower time CFIs trained at the school, they also have high-time instructors who were career pilots (five of them are now in their 60s) who bring a high level of teaching and line experience to the program. HAI became the first dedicated helicopter school to receive this accreditation, and remains one of only two in the United States to have it.

Another decision Mr. Corr had to make was far more personal. He realized that to be as successful as he wanted to be in business meant that he had to put aside being the career pilot he also wanted to be. He stopped teaching and became a full-time manager/owner of HAI. In 1989 he took on a business partner, Camillus Byrne, an old friend with whom he had worked in the past. A silent investor from the start of the company, Mr. Byrne now added his considerable energy to the management.

The following year they also accepted the fact that growth means spending significant dollars on promotion. “We took ambitious steps that were both expensive and challenging,” explained Mr. Corr. “We ran big ads in magazines, selling our program. It was risky because we were a smaller company but we delivered what we promised,” he added. Indeed, the results came in faster than expected: a noticeable activity increase within three months of the first ad. Steady growth became the norm for HAI, as well as international marketing for foreign students.

By the mid 90s, HAI would realize a growth of operations to 18 R22s, 18 CFIs, five mechanics and four administrative staff. In mid-1995, another change started to take place at HAI. Mr. Corr had always liked the Schweizer 300C but never could make the operating economics work for his business. Then the 300CB was released. Mr. Corr put in an order for the first 10 and took delivery of the first ship in the summer of ’95. By Christmas of that year, all 10 of the new CBs had been delivered, replacing 10 R22s, most of which were leased.

The increased activity also had a bad side: local community relations. The growth in HAI’s operations resulted in unexpected reactions from the community. Political issues reared their ugly heads and heavily distracted Mr. Corr and Mr. Byrne from the management of their business. And it would only get worse. In early 1996, they began to think about moving the business away from Concord, where they were barely tolerated, to some place where they could realize their growth potential. Local options for the move offered little gain. The entire San Francisco Bay area was congested and also victim to considerable winter fog.

So the search expanded outside of California. Their criteria were: The airport had to have a control tower, which is essential to the training experience and required by European JA Authority; lots of acreage and a buffer zone from neighborhoods; the right mix of traffic, but no airline operations with their associated delays; an airport where HAI would be a major tenant; significantly lower cost of living for the students; good climate and weather favorable for as many flying days as possible; a good political climate that is pro-growth, pro-airport, and pro-aviation; and access to mountains for their mountain flying training.

After an exhaustive search, the hands-down winner was Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Fla. This airport offered all of the criteria except for mountain flying training (more on that later). This search and decision process was not a quick one. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of 1999 that the decision was made to move to Florida. By that time, HAI had grown to 18 CBs, seven R22s, 25 CFIs, seven mechanics and five administrative staff. They were training 120 students annually (80 at any given time) and 80% of those were foreign students.

The move would take a year to plan and execute. The new facility had to be set up in Florida and the massive move had to be planed carefully. The students, staff and local community were skeptical. In fact, the community thought it was a negotiating ploy. But in July of 2000, Mr. Corr removed any doubt when he sold his home in California and bought one in Florida. In another bold move, he bought out Mr. Byrne’s interest. A committee was created, which met every week to handle the big relocation task. The move was dubbed “Operation Alligator” and handled like a military deployment. An advance party moved to Florida in November 2000. Two brand new CBs were delivered directly from the factory to the new Florida base and the rest of the aircraft and equipment were shipped in 11 big-rig trucks. This all started the week before Christmas and HAI was back to full operation in the first week of January 2001. The downtime impact was minimal, since the students all took a break over the holidays anyway.

HAI now encompasses 5,000 square feet of office and hangar space on the airport, and 7,500 square feet of space a quarter-mile off-site, for classrooms, training labs, simulator rooms and workstations for the CFIs. This was a big “leap of faith,” as Mr. Corr describes it, but he reports that it has been very good for HAI. “Some predicted that this would be a mortal blow to us, but just the reverse has happened,” he stated. “Our customers appreciate the big improvement in facilities and lower living costs; and regarding how the community treats us, well, it’s like night and day.”

Current activity shows a climb to 110 students enrolled at any one time and a significant increase in aircraft use. Although HAI’s student ratios are still foreign in the majority, they have noticed a big surge in U.S. students. Mr. Corr attributes this to a number of factors, including the cost of living in the Titusville area, more job opportunities in the helicopter business, and better compensation packages for pilots. Another positive impact on HAI is its JAA program, and the fact that pilots can train to the JAA criteria only if they want to. As Mr. Corr boasts, “It’s the only helicopter school in the world where the two different philosophies of the FAA and JAA coexist.” Whereas the FAA requires 150 hours of flight training and 30 hours of ground training for a commercial license (HAI students get 150 hours of ground instruction), the JAA requirements are 135 hours of flight and 830 hours of very structured ground training, along with 14 tough exams. Meeting these standards required HAI to hire four very highly experienced foreign ground instructors. The side benefit was that the level of quality for the entire training program was raised.

Today, HAI operates 20 CBs and eight R22s. Two each of the CBs and R22s remained in California with a small staff, to service local business demand and to maintain the mountain course. HAI quickly determined that, with proper planning, it was much cheaper for the students to travel by airline to California for the mountain training than to ferry a helicopter to and from the nearest mountains, which are in northern Georgia and western North Carolina. The students rave about this arrangement and say it’s one of the best weeks of their training course. Two more instructors have been added for a total of 27.

As HAI celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, future plans include a new facility which will combine the flight operations with those of the off-site ground facility. This also presents the greatest risk facing HAI right now, as a result of the attacks on America last September. Mr. Corr said that he can’t really tell yet what the long-term impact will be, although the security issue has settled down. It all depends on the influence of the National Security Council. His main concern is adding layers to the visa regulations, which would make it more difficult to get foreign students. Indeed, Mr. Corr’s biggest problem right now is that many potential foreign students have come to the incorrect conclusion that it is now extremely difficult, or even impossible, to come to the United States for training.

This doesn’t just impact flight training. Hundreds of thousands of students, here on visas, attend third level schools that charge top dollar. They also inject considerable sums of money into the respective local economies. Mr. Corr says that “Flight training was a model industry, bringing mostly positives to the U.S. Will this industry now be impacted? Will we now be punished?”

A big morale boost on this issue came in November 2001 with the arrival of a group of seven military pilots from Bahrain. “It’s a very positive sign for the future,” said Mr. Corr. A Bell 206 JetRanger was added to the fleet to support this contract. Another positive sign was the awarding of a three-year contract with the FAA to provide recurrent VFR and IFR training to its inspectors. Mr. Corr had to add a second JetRanger to support the training of the FAA inspectors.

Ironically, another concern facing HAI is based on the very thing that drove them away from California: the local community. A major reason Mr. Corr liked the Titusville Airport so much was that the County Commission was very pro-aviation and maintained substantial noise buffers around the airport. However, this year the airport was annexed into the city of Titusville and the city does not appear to see the airport as offering the regional asset value that the county saw. Rezoning has occurred, allowing the development of 1,000 upper income houses on property that was previously airport open space and a good noise buffer. The original plan was for more than 5,000 houses, but lobbying efforts reduced that number to the current 1,000.

In the true spirit Mr. Corr has displayed since the inception of Helicopter Adventures, he isn’t going to wait around to see what happens, delaying important decisions for his company. I suspect that the 30th anniversary of HAI will reveal a bigger, better operation than ever.

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