Photographs by Thomas Metthe
Flight instructor Jeff Harless (left) and student Grace Harrison, 19, finish pre-flights checks before a training flight Thursday at Central Flying Service. A ceremony Wednesday will mark 475,000 flight training hours completed by Central Flying Service’s flight training division.
Sunday, August 13, 2017
Central Flying Service has had many roles in general aviation during its 78 years at the state's largest airport.
Founded on the cusp of World War II to train civilian pilots, the general aviation service company based at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field in Little Rock for years was the go-to place for fuel and hangar space for local and transient private and business aircraft.
Central also evolved to offer an assortment of other advanced services for general aviation aircraft: Need a strut fixed, the interior upgraded, a new navigation system, an engine overhaul or a new coat of paint? Check.
Or perhaps charter one of its aircraft to someone who wants to get someplace without the hassles of commercial airline flights? Check again.
But Dick Holbert, Central's president and chief executive officer, said that the one constant since its founding in 1939 remains integral to the company's success now: Teaching someone how to fly.
"There's a lot of synergy with flight training," he said. "We grow a lot of our pilots. They become our rental customers, potential customers to buy an airplane."
The training fleet has to be maintained, which allows Central to help manage the maintenance department's flow of aircraft work.
The new pilots the company produces often become flight instructors and sometimes company or contract pilots for Central's fleet of charter aircraft. The flight school also builds loyalty in pilots who received their training at Central and make recommendations to others.
"Each part of our business is in the service of other business," Holbert said.
That cooperation has become even more important once Central sold off its fuel, hangar and line business to TAC Air a couple of years ago.
The enduring success will be reflected in a milestone the flight training division may reach as soon as this week: 475,000 flight training hours, a threshold that wouldn't be too difficult for an aviation university such as Embry-Riddle to achieve. But it stands as a remarkable achievement for a family-owned business though it likes to bill itself as the largest and oldest general aviation business in the region.
"It's a large number because we've been at it since 1939," Holbert said. "It's not the largest number. Embry Riddle, Lord knows how many hours they've got. But it would be a milestone for a state flight school like us."
So remarkable that the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Transportation Association are scheduled to mark Central's milestone at 10 a.m. Wednesday on the ramp at the company's headquarters at 2301 Crisp Drive. The event will include a ceremonial training flight.
The 475,000 hours is as close to an accurate accounting of the number of hours the propellers on Central's fleet of training aircraft have been turning since Central was established by Holbert's father, Claud, and Edward Garbacz* to begin teaching people how to fly as part of the federal Civilian Pilot Training Program.
The program began ostensibly as an initiative to increase the number of civilian pilots in the United States, but it also had a military preparedness component in the years before World War II.
All that history isn't on the minds of Kristine Beard or Ricard Requena. Both are among the more than 50 students enrolled in Central's flight training program, which can be tailored to a student's goals, work schedule or financial ability, said Cal Freeney, the company's flight training director.
Beard, 31, is a speech therapist who works part of the year in Alaska, where bush flying is the primary mode of transportation. She wants to be able to fly herself to the places she needs to go.
Requena, 27, is a mechanical engineer who is working full-time on obtaining the necessary array of licenses and ratings to become a professional air transport pilot.
Both received their private pilot licenses at Central and are working on their instrument rating, which would allow them to fly without visual references to the horizon. Using only the aircraft instruments to fly allows pilots to fly in the clouds or in weather in which the visibility or ceiling is too low to fly using visual references.
Both say Central has fit them perfectly.
The company's staff was excited when Beard said she approached them in December 2015 and said she had five weeks to obtain her private pilot's license before she had to return to Alaska.
"They said, 'All right, let's do this,'" Beard recalled. "They have been very accommodating."
The one hangup about flight training? "It's very expensive," she said.
Requena, who got his private pilots license in May, is immersed in flight training, making it his full-time occupation. He took the written test for his instrument rating last week and hopes to begin training for his commercial pilot's license this fall.
Requena said he has always wanted to fly, but thought the only option was through the military. But when he saw a video on acrobatic flying, he researched his options further before settling on Central versus more focused civilian training in what are known as "pilot mills," schools that advertise they can train pilots quickly through the various licenses and ratings.
"The pilot mills teach you the technical requirements of flying," or what Requena said is the "bare minimum. "Central teaches you how to fly, the real skill," he said.
Just as Central students are a mixed bag with different aspirations, so to are the company's stable of nine flight instructors, who range from a veteran pilot who flew C-130 transport aircraft for the military to young instructors using the training to help build enough air time to qualify as a corporate or airline pilot, according to Cal Freeney, Central's flight training director.
"They have all different backgrounds," Requena said. "And they are always willing to work with you."
SundayMonday Business on 08/13/2017
*CORRECTION: Edward Garbac and Claud Holbert co-founded Central Flying Service in 1939. Garbacz’s role was omitted in a previous version of this article.
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