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Ridgeline Aviation fosters more than learning

Grayson Sperry is something of an overachiever. While finishing a chemical engineering degree in four years at Montana State University he also earned all his pilot certificates up through flight instructor. After a few years working in his field, he bought an airplane, quit his job, and started a flight school. Now only four years later, his one-man, one-airplane flight school occupies 15,000 square feet with plans to expand to 40,000, has two locations, and operates multiple airplanes on a charter certificate. Now he can also claim it’s the best in the Northwest Mountain region.

Ridgeline Aviation often operates instructional trips that double as a fun bonding experience for students and instructors. Here the fleet rests at the Shearer U.S. Forestry Service strip in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Ridgeline Aviation.

Montana-based Ridgeline Aviation has been recognized in the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards as the best flight school in the Northwest Mountain region.

Ridgeline Aviation’s main facility is in Bozeman, Montana, with a growing satellite office in Billings. Sperry said the school’s overriding philosophy is to provide superior flight instruction at a reasonable price. When he started the school there were others in the area that offered quality instruction, but at a premium, and cheaper schools where quality suffered. Sperry saw a niche by offering advanced instruction in his Cessna turbo 182RG. “That first winter we didn’t make any money,” he said. By spring he was flying only 10 hours a month, but word traveled fast as the weather broke. By the end of June the first year he was flying nearly 100 hours a month, and soon hired Mitch Edwards to be chief instructor. “From there it’s been grow as fast as you can.”

Superior flight instruction starts with great instructors, and Edwards and Sperry have a simple philosophy when it comes to finding the right CFIs for the school: They hire people who have a passion for aviation. If a candidate says he or she has a job lined up at 1,500 hours and seems interested only in making that target, Sperry said Ridgeline isn’t interested. He estimates that half of the school’s CFIs have been its students at some point in the past.

Ridgeline Aviation has a diverse fleet of aircraft that reflects the school's operating environment. The company’s first charter aircraft was a Piper Super Cub used for wildlife tracking in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of Ridgeline Aviation.

Edwards spends time mentoring the new instructors to make sure everyone is on the same page. And although the school uses the Jeppesen syllabus and is Part 141 certified, he said the school gives each instructor the leeway he or she needs to provide the type of instruction that best fits his or her personality. The school then matches the potential students with the instructors to get the best result. Sperry said a critical law of learning is that the training will be most effective if the student and instructor have the same foundation. Someone who grew up a farmer will have more mechanical know-how, for example. So, Sperry and Edwards do their best to make the right matches.

Then it’s all about transparency, honesty, and making students feel like they are part of the family. “They walk in as clients, but 90 percent leave as good friends,” Sperry said. They take family vacations together, and students are invited to fly into the backcountry with instructors on camping trips.

Sperry credits his staff for being able to grow so quickly without sacrificing quality. He said they always rise to the challenge, whether it’s the hangar extension, a lesson, or helping to get the charter operation off the ground. Given the high marks from students who submitted comments for the flight school award, it’s clear the clients agree.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.
Topics: You Can Fly, Flight School, Awards and Records

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