As Hal Shevers prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sporty’s, he shakes his head in disbelief that so much time has passed. “I can’t believe it’s been 50 years,” he says. “But when you are able to pursue your passion, time goes quickly.”
What is also hard to believe is that Shevers, one of the most well-known names in general aviation, almost didn’t become a pilot.
Fascinated with flight from a very young age, every aptitude test the New York native ever took showed he should be a pilot. The problem was his lazy right eye. “I was born with it and if it isn’t picked up by age 4, it can’t be cured,” he says, remembering people would say, “it’s a shame that as much as you love flying, with your bad eye, you’ll never be a pilot.”
But that all changed during an internship at Sikorsky Aircraft between his junior and senior years as an engineering student at Purdue University. The company had a flying club and when he was invited to join, Shevers told them why he couldn’t. “But there’s a waiver process,” one of the flying club members told him. “Before the summer was over, I had a waiver and by December of that year I was a private pilot.”
But while he was flying for fun, his career track was strictly engineering. After graduation, he got a job with Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. (now Cincinnati Milacron) traveling in several states demonstrating and servicing machines. While his colleagues took the train to their assignments, Shevers flew the Cessna 170 he bought in 1959 with a partner. While it got him to his assignments quicker, the plane also brought him to the attention of his bosses. One day they called him into the office and told him that while he had a future at the company, he wouldn’t be happy there. “You like flying better than you like machine tools,” he recalls his bosses saying as they fired him.
So there he was — just 25 years old with a couple bucks in his pocket and nowhere he needed to be. So, of course, he headed to the airport. He remembers getting his instrument rating and instrument instructors rating on the same day — “talk about the blind leading the blind,” he says with a laugh — and settled into instructing full-time in 1961.
Instrument students and the Bonanza were his specialty, he recalls. At nights, he would hang out at the bar at Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport, where he began selling a little transistor radio that picked up the control tower. His dad, who had been in the electronics business, found a source for the radios and Shevers would sell them out of the trunk of his car, as well as through small advertisements in aviation magazines. “I was in the mail order business, I just didn’t know it,” he says.
But his main focus was instructing. “At that time, we had all the World War II guys who had all bought planes and they knew nothing about instrument flying, but they wanted to,” he says.
It was one of his students — an MIT grad — who inspired Shevers’ next business venture. “He said he was not going to go two nights week for a year to get through his instrument ground school,” he says. “He told me he wanted to do it in a weekend.”
So Shevers rounded up three more students, bought a Paul Sanderson course, and “locked the four of them in a hotel room and taught them Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then they all took the test on Monday and passed,” he recalls. “And that was the beginning of the three-day ground school.”
With help from Purdue University’s Joe Vorbeck, the course was reworked, complemented with slides in a carousel that were advanced using a garage door opener, making the 1960s classroom wireless. “We put on a good show,” says Shevers, who was inducted into the Flight Instructors Hall of Fame in 2007.
For the next seven years, Shevers traveled the country giving the three-day ground schools. His last was a Beech ground school on June 27, 1970. “I remember the day because it was my 35th birthday and I was burned out,” he says, noting that he was traveling three out of every four weeks. “I made a lot of money, but I was burned out from the travel.”
After that he devoted full-time to Sporty’s. During the time he had been doing the ground schools, Shevers was also still selling the radios, then started adding other products. His first brochure featured about eight products and was mailed to 1,300 people. Today, the company carries more than 12,000 products and sends out about 7 million catalogs a year, plus sells online.
“We don’t just sell these products. We really use them. We throw them on a plane or use them in our schools,” he says, adding, “we turn down more products that we accept.”
Besides the thousands of products it sells, the company, which is now based at Clermont County Airport in Ohio, also boasts Sporty’s Academy, an FAA-approved Part 141 flight school that also manages the University of Cincinnati’s Professional Pilot Training program; Eastern Cincinnati Aviation, the airport’s sole FBO; and Cincinnati Avionics.
Just a few years ago, Shevers launched The Sporty’s Foundation, with the mission to “ensure a healthy general aviation community for the next generation.” The foundation funds aviation education and safety programs with an emphasis on attracting and retaining young people as part of the aviation community.
Part of its efforts are the Next Step program through the EAA Young Eagles, which offers Young Eagles free access to Sporty’s Complete Pilot Training Course online.
“We’re also adding to that two videos: One for Young Eagles before they take their ride so they know what to expect, and another for the pilot with some suggestions on how to handle the flight,” Shevers said. Also in the works is another video that the Young Eagles will take away with them after the flight that spells out what they can do at age 10, age 12, and onward.
The foundation also contributes to a variety of other aviation-oriented groups, including AOPA’s Air Safety Institute, the Aircraft Electronics Association Scholarship Fun, the Boy Scouts of America Aviation Exploring Scholarship Fund, and others.
Through all of it, the basis for Sporty’s remains instruction and sharing the love of flight with as many people as possible. That’s why Sporty’s takes a different tack in training than some other providers.
Getting a private ticket is not the main goal. Instead Sporty’s students have smaller goals. For instance, Sporty’s makes first solo a huge deal and an end in itself. Students then earn their recreational pilot certificate, “so they can start having fun with it!” says Shevers. Only then do students continue to their private certificate.
Using this module approach, Sporty’s claims a drop-out rate of just 30%, compared to the industry average of 70%.
One reason for that high drop-out rate, according to Shevers, is that tackling a private ticket is “too long a tunnel” for most student pilots.
“I’m a firm believer that people should learn to fly with the simplest panel possible,” he adds. “We don’t teach people to drive in a Mack truck and the Boy Scouts don’t start out as Eagle Scouts. We need to use a building block approach.”
The approach seems to be working at Sporty’s, which solos between 80 and 100 people each year. “Every day we solo somebody is a good day,” Shevers says.
In fact, Shevers admits, every day is a pretty good day when you get to spend it at the airport. His wife, Sandy, “limits” him to 80 hours a week at the airport. And he flies about 300 hours a year in his Citation jet or his favorite plane, a 1963 Aztec that’s taken him on trips ranging from Canada to South America.
As he looks ahead to the next 50 years, Shevers, who has logged more than 12,000 hours, has no plans to retire.
“The day after I retire you will see my obituary in the newspapers,” he says. “I hope I can keep my good health a lot longer. I have to live for another 50 years to kick the asses that need to be kicked.”
Every Saturday, Sporty’s hosts a hot dog barbeque, which attracts pilots from all over. “We have a lot of fun,” Shevers says, adding the get-togethers also allow the company to get “direct feedback about our products from pilots themselves.”
On Saturday, May 21, Sporty’s will host a special open house and fly-in to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary.
Telling it like it is
Anyone who has had a chance to talk with Shevers knows he is one of those refreshing people who “tell it like it is.”
Ask him about the future of aviation and he doesn’t hesitate to state that it’s critically important to “let other people know that private air transportation is available” so they can experience the “freedom that we have to go where we want, when we want.”
And ask him what the biggest challenges are to GA today and he replies without hesitation: The TSA and the FAA.
“The TSA is a facade looking for a place to govern,” he says. “And the FAA — we’ve got to get them out of the 1940s flight training mentality.”
One thing that could help GA is that recreational pilots should have the same drivers license medical requirements as glider pilots and sport pilots, he adds. But the FAA “just won’t move on stuff like this…everybody is scared to make a move.”
And don’t get him started on some other facets of the industry. “My biggest gripe is FBOs that do nothing but pump jet fuel,” he says. “They aren’t doing anything for the future of the business. They should support a flight school or give money to a program that teaches people to fly. That is the future of our business.”
For more information: Sportys.com