The latest addition to the Triad’s aircraft industry, Elon Aviation, looks to get more would-be pilots into the air and capitalize on growing local demand.
After longtime FAA-certified flight instructor Chris Whittle struck out on his own to launch the business last December, the startup has already expanded in hiring another instructor and is considering adding two more planes to its current couple-sized fleet.
Calling his biggest challenge “the fear of stepping out into the unknown,” Whittle has sold about a half-dozen students on his personal flying philosophy, which requires singular focus, then drilling and drilling until a maneuver is mastered.
One of them, Raleigh resident Joe Clarke, pegged the cost of obtaining his FAA-certified private pilot’s license at $8,000 — $1,000 more than Whittle estimated for an average price tag of $8,000. To Clarke, the price tag is well worth the feeling of flying that “nothing else compares to.”
“It was expensive, and I knew it would be,” said Clarke, who works at Cisco Systems. “It’s actually cheaper the more you fly, because the more you practice, the quicker it is you can get your certification because things stick you become more comfortable, and you end up requiring less lessons.”
Elon Aviation — which also rents out both of its four-seat planes at $138 per hour — is quick to point out the potential savings with flying a family of four privately, as opposed to commercially.
“When you look at the cost of a small airplane, and even renting a small airplane, when you put a family of four in that and do an average trip, it’s really competitive with airline fees,” Whittle said.
Launching in the dead of winter presented its difficulties for Whittle, but the timing was quite intentional.
“It was a good move for the time, and it made a good break at the start of the year,” Whittle said. “That would give me a couple months when things were looking a little slow, so when spring time came around I’m already going full steam.”
As springs swings into season, demand for the business has exceeded early expectations. To capitalize on the promise, Whittle has established a monthly meeting of the IMC Club, an international organization of pilots, both private and commercial ones. The first meeting is set for March 5 at 6 p.m. at Elon Aviation.
Fostering a sense of community is important to Whittle — both for the business benefits and more simply to shoot the breeze with his fellow pilots, one of his favorite pastimes.
“One really important thing that’s working well for me is that I’m really trying to establish a sense of community with the aviation population around here,” he said.
So far, Clarke is a fan of the approach, but he said Whittle’s standards can be tough ones to meet, ones that require hours and hours of practice to do and do right.
“He wasn’t kidding when he said, ‘Most people would rather fly with the FAA examiner than with me because I’m much more pedantic,” he said.
The ability to fly solo is earned, not given, according to Whittle. But once it’s earned, it’s the pilot’s to keep — barring an in-air incident that requires FAA intervention.
“I look at flight training as an investment,” he said. “It’s a skill that you’ll have forever. They don’t take it away.”