Back in the Saddle…….Again

March 27, 2014

It’s been over a year and a half since taking the reins as NATA’s new president. Just after arriving, I conducted several media interviews. One of those resulting articles, written by Paul Lowe at AIN was titled, “Hendricks Takes Over Left Seat at NATA.” It was a catchy metaphor but ended up having a bit more impact than expected. For reasons not clear at the time, Paul’s headline nagged at me a bit until I realized how much I’ve been missing being in a real left seat. With numerous visits to NATA members now complete, it’s clear that there is indeed a shared passion for this great industry. Our members are living it every day. As the leader of our association, learning from those “closer to the action” is providing great value and perspective.

As most of you know, my background prior to arriving at NATA was in commercial and military aviation. Even though I began my flying in 1973 in General Aviation (GA), it had been decades since I’d spent much time flying around the pattern and talking on Unicom. As a firm believer in the crawl- walk- run approach to unfamiliar things, I’ve greatly benefited from time spent listening to and learning with NATA members about flying once again in the GA environment. Add to this the amazing array of personal devices available to improve situational awareness and improve safety margins, and it can be intimidating.

Another emerging theme for a “new guy” is the cutting-edge work being done by several flight training organizations. Companies like Redbird, ATP and others are filling a vital need for our industry and ensuring we attract and retain people bitten with the aviation bug like the rest of us. From our members, there is much discussion on the challenges of operating successful flight training businesses and continued concern over the cost of flight training, including our limited supply of future aviation professionals. Last fall, I was invited out to the AV-ED Flight School in Leesburg, Virginia, to fly some profiles in their Cessna 172 Redbird simulator which was equipped with a very capable glass cockpit EFIS. The motion, visual, avionics and quality of the instruction was something I’d never before seen in GA. The last simulators I’d been exposed to were Level-D full-motion sims for B-767s and 757s.For the price, simplicity and ease of use, the Redbird device seemed the perfect balance between affordability, capability and adaptability of our training paradigm to suit a more tech-savvy generation of aviators.

After this experience, I reached out to Todd Willinger, Redbird’s CEO to arrange a visit to his company in Texas. On display, at both their Austin headquarters and training facility in San Marcos, was unbridled entrepreneurship and world-class innovation. The founders of Redbird certainly have the vision and hunger to fundamentally change the way we train in General Aviation. Frankly, it made me proud that we live in a country where bright people with bright ideas can take risks and create something so innovative. And, Redbird is just one example of NATA members probing and building new ways to develop innovative and sustainable flight training business models.

So where is this leading? Well, after a nearly four-year absence from regular flying, I’ve finally jumped back into the space where our membership resides every day. Last summer, Dan Montgomery and Bobby Beem of Montgomery Aviation, very active NATA members, gave me a tour of their business operations and granted a little right-seat time in the Cessna 310Q, flying around Central and Northern Indiana. In the military, we used to joke about the new guys having “100-knot minds in a 400-knot world.” This is exactly how I felt with Dan and Bobby; but the old desire and instincts were beginning to awaken from a deep hibernation. Late last year, I was also able to fly a couple of hours in a PA-46 Malibu with Dave Conover at SkyTech in Westminster, Maryland. SkyTech is also a very active NATA member; and spending time there with John Foster was very insightful. But, the Malibu flying was a blast and cemented in my mind that the time had come to get serious about getting back in the saddle.

I’m happy to report that I’ve passed my first flight review after a four-year absence and also knocked out an instrument proficiency check. Everyone I’ve interacted with has been superb, professional and enthusiastic. This is extremely energizing for a graying pilot like myself. It’s also been good to listen to a lot of great advice from many highly experienced pilots. As a commercial pilot, weather cancellations for aircraft limitations were rare. For the most part, the aircraft were capable of operating in almost any IMC condition. Other factors such as runway, airspace, NAVAIDs and airport availability most often limited operations. I’ve gotten a great deal of sage advice on changing this mindset as I settle back into GA flying. “Just say no” is a refrain that’s come across loud and clear. The new paradigm I’m coming to grips with, in the class of aircraft I’m flying, is that the aircraft can indeed be the most limiting factor. Checking one’s ego and being willing to accept occasional disruptions is a must to ensure safety is never compromised.

In the meantime, I hope to see you as I cruise around in a rented Saratoga HP. I’ve already got my iPad Mini with Foreflight and an ADS-B box in the aircraft and it is amazing to see the wonderful information available at our fingertips. Even though the new technology is utterly impressive, what amazes me the most is how many bright, motivated and friendly people I continue to encounter when I’m out visiting with our members. This truly is a special segment of aviation and I’m thrilled and re-energized by the entire experience. Fly Safely! Tom

Article first appeared in NATA’s first quarter Aviation Business Journal. Click here to read more.