Flight School Aims to Launch New Ideas

Keeping a flight school airborne isn't easy these days. Fuel costs are up, rental and instructor fees are rising and enrollment has fallen to less than half of 1970s levels.

Cue the aerial burial.

For $250, the folks at Hollywood Aviators will take your loved one's ashes to 1,000 feet and scatter them over the Pacific Ocean between Malibu and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

"We scattered a screenwriter's ashes over the ocean at sunset," owner Dan Katz recalled recently. "The family wanted him to literally have a Hollywood ending."

His company's Airway to Heaven service is one of the ways Katz is trying to shake up the staid business of private flight training. Flying tours of Los Angeles, romantic sunset hops (\o7sans \f7ashes), starter flights for 9-year-olds -- all are part of his plan to generate interest in flying while generating a profit.

"I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if a flight school were run by someone with marketing savvy," the former adman said.

General aviation could use a lift. After climbing to 357,000 in 1980, the number of private pilots in the United States has fallen to 245,000. Private plane sales, though showing recent signs of strength, fell 80% during that span, and dozens of general aviation airports close each year.

"It is a major source of concern, especially regarding the number of pilots," said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., the lobbying group for the general aviation industry.

The rising costs of insurance, plane rentals, instructor fees and fuel are major factors, he said.

"A lot of people think they're being priced out," he said. "What we keep hearing is: 'If these prices keep going up, I'm going to have to sell my plane.' "

Flagging interest has forced flight school operators to get creative.

At Red Baron Aviation in Santa Barbara, for example, owner-operator Peggy Redmond tries to come up with activities that go beyond routine flight training, such as trips to Mexico and an annual flying poker game.

In that contest, pilots visit eight airports. At each stop, they pick up an envelope with a playing card inside. Once they are all back at Santa Barbara Airport, the pilots compare hands to see who splits the pot.

"It's very popular," said Redmond, whose business has grown every year since its 2001 launch. "We try to go above and beyond the required training."

For Katz of Hollywood Aviators, "above and beyond" is an understatement. Seasoned by a 30-year career in advertising -- capped by the 2003 sale of his interest in North Hollywood agency PKPF -- he approaches the flying business with a combination of brand promotion, celebrity schmooze and "Addams Family" wackiness.

Katz, the son of a former Rockwell International engineer, caught the flying bug eight years ago when his mother-in-law gave him the "Flight Simulator 1998" computer game by Microsoft. Wanting to try the real thing, Katz took a demonstration flight at a local airport, his first time in a small plane.

"It was a combination of sheer exhilaration and stark terror," Katz, 51, said with a laugh. "By the time we landed, I'd decided that I just had to learn to fly."

A year later, Katz was a licensed pilot. In 2003 his instructor, Farid Azad, suggested they start a flight school. Katz, working only part-time in advertising after leaving PKPF, jumped at the idea.

Armed with $50,000, they opened Hollywood Aviators in July 2004 in a former aircraft radio repair shop at Van Nuys Airport. Katz's goal was to improve on what he saw as the traditional flight school model: an operation run by a pilot with little business experience who treated flying lessons as an academic exercise.

"We wanted to see how we would do if we treated it as entertainment and an adventure," said Katz, who lists "Airplane!" as his favorite aviation-themed movie.

The office decor is Old Hollywood, with floor-to-ceiling shots of stars such as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart decked out in flying garb. The attitude, from the receptionist to the instructors, is pitched to providing superior service in a fun atmosphere.

And the ostensible target audience, as the name suggests, is the film industry.

"If Julia Roberts wants to learn to fly, we want to be the kind of place she'd feel comfortable in," Katz said. "We set the stage, if you will."

Roberts hasn't come in for a lesson yet, but other Hollywood notables have, said Katz, who prefers to keep that part of his client list confidential. He pulls in plenty of business from "below the line" industry types as well.

And although Hollywood Aviators caters to the movie trade, it also schools doctors, accountants, retirees and high school and college students.

Aspiring pilot April Voigtmann, a 38-year-old Woodland Hills homemaker, was amused by the Tinseltown trappings, but that's not what stuck with her after 13 hours of flight training at Katz's firm.

"When you step into the room, it's like walking into a different world," Voigtmann said. "It's the real thing -- the real pilots sitting around, walking out to the plane with my flight bag, doing the preflight check. You can't compare it with anything else in life."

To attract new business, Katz began offering his own version of "discovery" flights, typically a short introductory trip during which an instructor takes a prospective student up in a small prop plane for 30 to 45 minutes, charging about $45.

Katz turned the discovery flight into an "experience."

For $99 for 30 minutes or $175 for an hour, a certified flight instructor sits alongside the passenger, who can take control of the airplane during the flight. Regulations prohibit an unlicensed passenger from landing the plane, the most difficult part of flying.

Back on the ground, the customer gets a certificate, a souvenir picture taken next to the plane and an official pilot's logbook with the flight as the first entry, good toward the number of flight hours needed to obtain a pilot's license.

Katz advertises the "take the controls" flight heavily around Christmas and Father's Day, promoting it as a one-of-a-kind gift -- which can blossom into additional revenue if the recipient decides to sign up for lessons.

Getting a regular private pilot's license requires a minimum of 40 hours aloft, although most students need 65 to 85 hours, Katz said. The pace is set by the client, but a typical student can get a license within a year for about $8,500, including instructor fees, plane rental and equipment.

He experimented with a package deal that required payment upfront but abandoned it in favor of the more traditional pay-as-you-go plan.

To increase sales, Hollywood Aviators contracts with local tour operators to provide scenic flights over the Los Angeles area, including, of course, Hollywood. Katz operates a summer air camp for children and teenagers and plans to expand into aircraft sales and charter flying.

There is no minimum age to begin flight training, but aspiring pilots must be at least 16 to fly solo and 17 to get a license. Students also need to pass a basic medical exam and must speak English, the international language of aviation. Non-U.S. citizens must undergo a federal background check that was mandated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The school has four employees, six flight instructors and seven leased airplanes. At any given time, there are about 30 active students. Revenue runs around $500,000 a year, Katz said, and the business is profitable.

"This isn't a huge moneymaker," said Katz, who tries to take his own 1957 Beechcraft Bonanza up at least once a week. "But given how the industry is doing, I'm very, very happy with how we're doing."

Times staff writer Peter Pae contributed to this report.



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