By John Wolcott SCBJ Freelance Writer
ARLINGTON — Six years ago, Cathy Mighell launched Out of the Blue Aviation at Arlington Airport, knowing it needed a full-service facility offering fuel, flight training, aircraft rentals and a place for pilots to gather.
In mid-February, she closed her popular flying business, not because of the weak economy that hit aviation businesses but because the right business opportunity came along.
“I could have kept going, the business was successful, but I had a good offer from a buyer who wanted my hangar and offices to start his own business, making parts for civilian aircraft,” she said. “Besides, I’ve been ready to move on to something else that will be somewhere in the aviation realm.”
It’s been difficult for her to leave after making so many friends in the aviation world and introducing so many people — particularly women and youths — to flying, she said, but the opportunity was right to move on.
“Aviation is a very social world and many pilots and instructors made our offices their aviation living room. But I’ve already heard someone else is preparing to start a similar flying business at the airport, which would carry on without leaving a vacuum,” she said, adding that the owner of the new flight business wasn’t ready to make a public announcement.
She’s pleased that she returned all of her students’ deposits for future flight lessons, was able to sell her aircraft and she returned planes that were leased from other pilots.
“Many businesses that shut down are not able to do that but I was determined to clear the slate and be fair with everyone,” she said. By the end of February, she expected her web site would be closed, too, although her aviation blog will continue at www.outoftheblueaviation.blogspot.com.
As a fledgling pilot in 2006, Mighell knew that launching a full-service, fixed-base operator’s business at Arlington Municipal Airport would be tough.
“ ‘You’ll fail in a business like a new FBO,’ everyone told me,” Mighell recalls, thinking back over her six-year success story. Her doubters also were aware that she had just earned her private pilot’s license a year earlier.
It would have been nice to have some support for her plan, she recalls, but no one in the aviation community did. She relied on her own self-confidence, enthusiasm, family support and love of flying to bolster her success.
“I was just a ‘baby pilot,’ still thrilled with my accomplishment and the exhilaration of flying,” Mighell said, laughing at her naive impulse.
She knew that any new business venture would be risky. But she and her husband had operated a medical equipment business since 1994, giving her a grasp on good business practices and marketing techniques.
“I also recognized the need for a professionally run FBO at the airport, one with highly qualified instructors, aviation fuel, flight lessons and rental aircraft to serve students, pilots and the needs of the local aviation community,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Mighell saw the airport as a great opportunity, noting that it’s one of the largest general aviation fields in the state. It has many pilots, hangars and manufacturing businesses. Her early doubters underestimated her business savvy, determination and creativity, and that’s what pulled her through the harder times, she said.
“We grew basically every year, except 2009, which was a flat year. Then 2010 was good and 2011 was an even better year. We had a ton of new students and we were pretty much on track in reaching our goals,” she said.
Along the way, she earned FAA approval for a flight school and an air-taxi service. Her business became a fixture at the airport, in great part because her enthusiasm continued to attract experienced and “wannabe” pilots.
“I knew I didn’t need a large population to support my business, just a share of the people who are really interested in aviation,” she said. “I’m surprised at how many students came in wanting to fly and a number of them even wanted to buy their own airplane. The economy may have been grim but people were putting money into things that were important to them.”
Her last two ground schools had full classrooms with 14 in each one, nearly half of them women students.
“We had one woman who came in for our flying events but knew nothing about us. She had gone to other flight schools but liked the way we treated her as a customer. She learned to fly, got her license, then bought an aircraft and leased it back to us,” she said. “She told us her license had changed her life so much, a great reminder to me that many lives have been changed by aviation, including mine.”
Despite the challenges of growing a new business in a weak and uncertain economy, Mighell found the experience rewarding.
“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.
One of her new ventures is finding a publisher for her new aviation-themed book, a fictional story of a Seattle woman attorney who is the protagonist in the locally situated tale.
“I’ve had a couple of professionals read through it, not family members or friends, and they found it enticing, well written and saleable. I’m looking for a publisher who would also be inspired to continue the next aviation mystery books in the series I have in my head,” she said. “The books would carry on the spirit of Out of the Blue and my love for aviation.”