Cathy Mighell's aviation business flies right
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“You'll never make it, you'll fail in a business like that, they told me,” she said with a grin in the pilots' lounge at Out of the Blue Aviation, her business at the Arlington Airport.
She knew that any new business is risky. The worsening economy didn't help. Learning to fly or buying expensive aviation fuel are discretionary expenditures for most people.
But Mighell's doubters underestimated her business savvy, determination and creativity when she opened her business overlooking the airport's runway in 2006.
“We've grown basically every year, except 2009, which was a flat year. Then 2010 was good and 2011 looks like it could be an even better year. We've got a ton of new students and we're pretty much on track in reaching our goals, although some took longer than we wanted,” she said.
Along the way, Mighell earned FAA approval to create a flight school and then approval as an air taxi service, which includes commuter flights and charter services. Now she has a popular business that's a fixture at the airport.
“I'm surprised at how many students came in wanting to fly and a number of them want to buy their own airplane,” she said. “The economy may be grim but people are putting money into things that are important to them.”
She said she doesn't need a large population to support her business, just a share of the people who are really interested in aviation.
Mighell and her husband have owned and operated a medical equipment business since 1994, so she learned good business practices before starting Out of the Blue Aviation in 2006, only a year after earning her pilot's license. She was a “baby pilot,” she said, still thrilled with her accomplishment and the exhilaration of flying, an experience she wanted to help others share, particularly women and kids.
As an experienced businesswoman, she also recognized the need for a professionally run fixed-base operator at the airport, one with highly qualified instructors, to serve students, pilots and the needs of the aviation community, from fuel to flight lessons to rental aircraft.
Today, her Pilot Shop has a lounge equipped with a computer that provides everything from weather checks to a LaserGrade Testing Center for the FAA's written pilot exam. There's also an espresso and snack bar adjacent to a store filled with a wide selection of aerial navigation charts and all the other supplies needed for training or flying.
In 2007, she was certified as a Cessna Pilot Center, enabling her to provide students with the latest technology for the Cessna-designed online training programs. Today, she has six aircraft ready to fly: two Cessna 172s with GPS, a Piper Saratoga, Aeronca Champ, Tecnam Bravo and a Remos GX, all maintained by certified mechanics.
In 2008, the FAA granted her air-taxi status so she could provide chartered flights, including trips to the San Juan Islands, Port Angeles, Ocean Shores, Moses Lake, Seattle, Spokane, Yakima, Chelan, Portland, Ore., and Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.
“We had to add aircraft, instructors and a student base at the same rate over the years. We could have grown faster but by not growing too fast we kept everything in balance,” she said.
Her last two ground schools for fledgling pilots had full classrooms with 14 in each one, nearly half of them women, which surprised her since women are only a fraction of the flying community.
“We've had one woman who came in for our events but knew nothing about us. She had gone to other flight schools but liked the way we treated her as a customer,” Mighell said. “She learned to fly, got her license, then bought an aircraft and leased it back to us. She told us her license had changed her life so much, a great reminder to me that many lives have been changed by aviation.”
“We've got three students under 18 in our current flight school,” Mighell said. “They recognize how empowering aviation is. In our society, women and young people often feel like they're not empowered. As a pilot in command of an aircraft, they're in charge of their own destiny and survival, which is an amazingly powerful thing.”
Her youngest son soloed at 16, on his birthday.
“That's the ultimate cool, too, to be able to say I flew an airplane, better than a driver's license for being cool,” she said, grinning. “I'd rather see more young people going after stuff like that than sitting in front of a computer playing video games.”
She's been at pilot seminars with other fixed-base operators who don't see potential in the “empty pockets” youth market, but she knows differently.
Mighell now runs a three-week-long young aviators summer camp each July and August for $279 per person to introduce kids to “a real-life adventure,” covering everything from ground school to an aviation field trip and a flight lesson.
“I've raised over $2,000 for scholarships to the camp to help youths attend,” she said. “For those who complete the camp, I also offer $500 in flying lessons. I believe our business has grown not only because of our social media efforts, but also because I believe if you create an environment where people want to be they will come.”
In March, Mighell participated in a celebration of the 100th year of women in aviation, an American and Canadian effort to offer free flights to introduce as many women as possible to flying. With her planes and others, mostly from the Arlington Airport, she was able to give rides to 150 women who had never flown before in a light plane.
“It was really exciting. I didn't make a penny on it and it took an incredible amount of time to put it together and market it but it was worth it,” Mighell said. “My son told me, ‘Just think about aviation being discussed over 150 dinner tables that night, sharing their experiences with their husbands and family.' That's the way it works, sharing and spreading the word. Girls don't get enough role-modeling for aviation roles.”
One thing that's helped Mighell survive lean times has been the influx of future pilots training for a sport pilot license, which takes half the time and half the cost to complete as a full pilot's license, which runs about $7,000. The limited license allows those pilots to fly only in fair weather conditions.
“We provide probably more sport pilot licensing than anyone in the Northwest. We have three light-sport aircraft. That relatively new market has helped us to stay alive and also to grow. Some of the graduates then went on to qualify for their full pilot's license,” she said.
Despite the challenges of growing a new business, as well as attempting it amid an uncertain economy, Mighell has found the experience rewarding, not only as a business but for the chance to enrich so many other lives.
“What's life if you're not following your dreams? And, if you're not having fun, you're not doing it right,” she said.
For more information, go to www.outoftheblueaviation.com, call 360-474-1060 or email Cathy Mighell at CJM@outofthe blueaviation.com.
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