“Your students are the future of our community, and when you serve them well, you serve us all,” AOPA You Can Fly Executive Director Elizabeth Tennyson told the assembled crowd at the Wings Over the Rockies Exploration of Flight museum in Englewood, Colorado. “Without great CFIs and flight schools, there would be no pilots. You teach, you motivate, you inspire. And for every would-be pilot who walks through the door, you make the difference between dreaming and doing.”
A New England flight training business known for nurturing students in a professional environment and a Tarheel flight instructor who was recognized for his patience and motivation were the national winners of AOPA’s annual Flight Training Experience Awards. AeroVenture Flight Center, of Mansfield Municipal Airport in Mansfield, Massachusetts, and MIL2ATP flight instructor Christopher Kreske, from Wayne Executive Jetport in Goldsboro, North Carolina, were the top honorees. This is the fifth year of the annual recognition for the nation’s flight schools and CFIs, based on responses to an online survey of pilots currently enrolled in flight training.
The 2019 Flight Training Experience Survey received 7,585 complete responses. From that feedback, 972 flight schools and 1,876 flight instructors were reviewed by their customers. Awards recognized standout schools and instructors with at least five independent reviews and consistently superior ratings.
Customers highlighted educational quality, customer service, information sharing, and community among the 51 distinguished flight schools and 53 distinguished instructors who comprised the top one-third of their regions. A committee of industry experts awarded the top-scoring flight school and instructor in each of six regions—Eastern, Southern, Great Lakes, Central Southwest, Northwest Mountain, and Western Pacific. A seventh award was presented to each national award winner.
Family-run flight school
Students complimented AeroVenture instructors for their dedicated and innovative approach to flight training (see “Beyond ‘Mom and Pop,’” p. 39). Clients also said the overall ambiance provided a “very positive, encouraging environment” while a young fleet of aircraft made learning attractive. Family members and school owners George (the president and CEO), Bill (the chief instructor and dad), and Debra Allen (the marketing vice president and mom) were recognized as “some of the finest people you will ever meet,” said one respondent. The school was previously named AOPA’s Best Flight School in 2015.
“I think it’s really hyper-customer focus, treating everybody right—like they’re special and not just a number coming through,” said George Allen during the Migration event. “What comes across is that warm, welcoming family environment—not just our family but the whole general aviation family. At the same time, they are getting a structured, professional education. Balancing those two things carefully makes a very positive environment” for flight students, he said.
Kreske, a flight instructor and retired U.S. Air Force pilot, founded MIL2ATP to help military pilots transition to the airlines (see “The Accidental Instructor,” p. 40). His unique approach to flight training, which is rooted in military service, instilled confidence in his students and pushed them to persevere, survey respondents said. He was cited time and again for keeping students focused and for believing in them. One student wrote that Kreske “clearly set high expectations” for performance but displayed “uncanny patience and thoughtful criticism” when needed, with an “incredible knack” for recognizing a learning opportunity.
“Wow, that’s triply flattering,” said Kreske, who learned of his national and regional wins during a video conference with Chris Moser, AOPA senior director of flight training education. “It’s almost unfair. It’s really a labor of love,” said the airline pilot and retired F–15E pilot. “I can do this because I really enjoy doing it. I’ve been blessed with a job that I love and that’s how I look at it and how I view it,” he added. Kreske complimented a supportive staff “that makes me look good” and a solid customer base. “We have an incredible program that lends itself to being successful, so I’m flattered. I simply enjoy teaching and I enjoy seeing a light bulb come on” when students master a skill or a concept. “Having the best clients in the world makes it easy,” he said.
Amazing aviation educators
The awards help celebrate those who provide a customer experience that can elevate pilots of all levels, said Moser, who complimented the group of “amazing aviation educators.” The survey and accompanying awards are based on AOPA research that identifies four characteristics Moser said are critical to providing the best flight training experience: educational quality, customer focus, community, and information sharing. “While those areas may seem like common sense, it takes commitment and hard work to consistently deliver them to customers,” he said.
The list of distinguished flight schools and instructors included several regional finalists who previously received top AOPA national flight training awards. SkyTrek Alaska Flight Training, founded by Jamie Patterson-Simes, was named the Best National Flight School in 2017. The Anchorage, Alaska, instructor’s teaching methods also were rewarded with an Outstanding Flight School designation in 2016.
Another regional finalist was Blue Skies Flying Services flight instructor Mike Biewenga from Lake in the Hills Airport near Chicago. The gold seal flight instructor and former engineer realized that “flying was a lot more fun” than engineering. Biewenga’s contagious enthusiasm propelled him to be recognized as the nation’s best CFI in 2018.
The ceremony in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains paralleled the annual Redbird Migration two-day learning seminar for flight training industry professionals who participated in breakout sessions; special challenges; and other events that enlightened, invigorated, and recharged the aviation educators. FT
The You Can Fly program and the AOPA Air Safety Institute are funded by charitable donations to the AOPA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization.
Helping military pilots prepare for airline jobs
Chris Kreske, who was recognized as the best flight instructor in the southern region and nationwide in AOPA’s 2019 Flight Training Experience Awards, never intended to open a flight school. “I decided I would teach my little girls how to fly, so I bought an airplane,” said the airline pilot and retired Air Force F–15E Strike Eagle pilot and instructor. “To pay for the airplane, I decided I would help some of my Strike Eagle brethren with their airline transport pilot ratings, and everything was born out of that. It became so popular so quickly that we bought another airplane, so we’d have a spare, because guys were traveling from around the world to do our course.” He didn’t want a broken airplane to delay their training. The second airplane was quickly booked, so he bought another spare. “I think we’re up to six [Piper] Seneca IIs now.”
The school he didn’t intend to start, MIL2ATP, is located at Wayne Executive Jetport Airport in Goldsboro, North Carolina—only 8 nautical miles north of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, which is home to nearly half of the U.S. Air Force’s Strike Eagle fleet.
Kreske was surprised and humbled by the recognition. “All of us are busy. Your time is priceless. That these guys would take the time to fill out [the survey] is telling,” Kreske said. “It absolutely validates what we are doing. We’ve got the best customers in the world—and staff.”
Most of his customers have considerable turbine experience, but no Part 91 experience—and many have no piston-aircraft flight time. “It’s disingenuous to call them students. Some of these guys have 10,000 flying hours,” he said. “The process is a mental transition from Air Force rules to federal aviation rules.”
Despite that experience, their civilian ATP training can present challenges, many of them expected (see “From Air Force to Airlines,” p. 46). Anticipation allows Kreske and his staff to complete the training effectively and efficiently, so his customers can move on to whatever is next for them. “My goal would be that a military pilot, on the day he retires, has four or five job offers,” he said. “What a great problem to have.” —Mike Collins