First: Ask the right question

When I was a relatively young instructor I had the good fortune to call a small uncontrolled airport in central Connecticut my home base. Meriden Markham may not make the annals of aviation as a hotbed of technical achievement, innovative design, or the home of a manufacturing marvel, but I learned more about teaching, and business management, and the importance of successfully marketing a service during my time flying for Meriden Aviation than I have at any other flying job.

Part of that education was happenstance. It was nothing more complicated than good luck that brought me to work for a chief pilot named Frank Gallagher. It was Frank who taught me the valuable lesson that a well-planned cooperative effort can have far more powerful results than a Herculean individual attempt. I’m not entirely sure that was his intent, but that was the lesson I took away from my time in Meriden. Working together to achieve a clearly understandable common goal works. It’s just that simple.

As unusual as it may seem, my first assignment as an instructor at Meriden involved a file cabinet and a phone. There was no airplane involved. Frank simply pointed me, and another new-hire instructor, to a file cabinet full of student records and assigned us to select the students who had stopped flying, but had not earned their ratings or certificates. With that pile of files on our desks, we started making phone calls.

My conversations generally started casually. My introduction was something like, “Hi, Sean. My name is Jamie Beckett. I’m a flight instructor at Meriden Aviation.”

The response on the other end was usually somewhat restrained. Something on the order of, “Uh-huh,” was pretty typical.

“I noticed in your training record that you were making good progress toward your pilot’s license, but you stopped flying a while back.”

“Uh, yeah. That’s right.”

“Well I was just calling to check in on you and to find our if you’re still interested in earning your license. If you’re up for it, I’ve got time open in my schedule. We can get together and talk about where you are and what you need to do to finish your training.”

Believe it or not, I found most of my early students at Meriden because of a series of phone calls just like this one. I never viewed this practice as being anything other than a flight instructor who was sincerely interested in helping students reach their goals. These weren’t cold calls, after all. We were only calling people who had shown enough interest in flying to have shown up at the airport and take at least a few lessons. They were interested. But they were also tight on time, or money, or maybe even motivation. In some cases they had been turned off by a bad experience in the air, or due to a personality conflict with a previous instructor. No matter what the event was that turned them off to aviation, they weren’t entirely opposed to the idea of flying. They just needed a good instructor to help them get back into the game.

I’m pleased to say that a fair percentage of those students actually earned their certificates before I moved on to a new challenge, too. To this day I find a certain satisfaction in reviewing their names in my logbook.

The big lesson for me was that I learned the importance of asking the right question, of the right person, then offering a reasonable solution to whatever the problem might be. As a hungry young instructor, I could come in for an early flight, or stay late for evening flights, or work through the weekend. Whatever my students needed in order to reach their goals, I would do my best to provide it for them. If it was drizzling with the temperature hovering around freezing, or if the wind was whipping across the active at 25, with higher gusts, we could do ground work. It was all about making progress. And together, by working cooperatively, we did just that.

Of course a flight instructor is a bit of an entrepreneur, too. We eat, pay our rent, and make our car payments if we work — pretty much like any other business owner in the world. The skills I learned at Meriden Aviation have served me well for a good long while now, in the cockpit, in the classroom, and in city hall. In fact, I’ve found that the same lesson works wonders when dealing with non-pilots who are responsible for running an airport. Whether talking safety, marketing, or negotiating contracts, the same rules apply. Ask the right question, of the right person, and be prepared to offer a solution to any problems that might pop up. As long as working cooperatively to reach a common goal is the primary objective, we make progress more often than not.

I suspect that’s the case across the spectrum of aviation, and business in general. I learned that from a guy I developed an enormous respect for, named Frank Gallagher. Now you have learned that lesson too. So the right question for right now is: How can you put that lesson into practice to move your airport — or your business — forward?

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.

Comments

  1. Frank Gallagher says:

    Thank you for the article and kind words Jamie. You and your fellow instructors, not only allowed us to survie and grow, but also had such a positive impact on so many people’s lives. That is the lasting legacy of a good instructor.

    We are now in the process of closing down our operation at Meriden after 21 years. Very sad and meloncholy as I look through the flight records of the 961 students we trained. It was a heck of a run, and although we all didn’t make a great living at it, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. We are all so privileged to fly, but more importantly, to teach others.

    Thanks for your articles and your writing Jamie.

    Frank Gallagher

  2. Mike Sundstrom says:

    Jamie,
    I wish there were CFI like you around here. I have yet to find a weekend instructor with a plane in Denton TX. It seems as if I must fly to there work week schedule. I guess I should say I’m not a student but a PP with 125hrs looking to upgrade to a newer aircraft with a tailwheel after 18 years absent from flying. Sure seems funny to me that no-one wants to work weekends. I spent every good Sunday for a year at the airport. It got me my PP, but times are changing I guess.
    Mike

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