Flight School Aims to Launch New Ideas

Hollywood Aviators hopes to counteract diving enrollment with aerial burials, air camp for youths and 'take the controls' jaunts.

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.

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