Most pilots know Sporty's for its famous "Pilot Shop" mail-order pilot supply business. But for more than 20 years, Sporty's has been not only a place where you can buy "Learn to Fly Here!" signs, but also a place where aspiring pilots can learn to fly.
Sporty's founder and chairman, Hal Shevers, was a flight instructor even before he founded Sporty's in 1960. In fact, one of the first products the company offered was a three-day ground school, and flight-training materials were always included in the Sporty's catalog. But in 1987, Shevers expanded the flight-training portion of the business substantially when Sporty's took over the FBO at the Clermont County Airport (I69) in Batavia, Ohio, purchased four training airplanes and launched the Sporty's Academy flight school. At the same time, Sporty's began expanding the development of its own training materials. Today, Sporty's instructional DVD series are known throughout the industry.
In 1992, Sporty's partnered with the University of Cincinnati to create the Professional Pilot Training Program. Because of that partnership, the school also now offers both an associate's and bachelor's degree in business administration with an aviation minor (including private, commercial, instrument and multiengine ratings).
When students graduate from the Professional Pilot Training Program, they typically have 600 to 800 flight hours. Most of them add a CFI rating and begin instructing. A number of the students also add an ATP rating before leaving Sporty's.
Because of the school's affiliation with U of C, students in the professional program are eligible for financial aid and student loans. Other flight students can apply for AOPA flight-training funds, and the school accepts VA benefits. But Sporty's Academy President Eric Radtke stresses that one of the ways the school makes itself more affordable is that no money has to be paid upfront.
"We don't have an application fee, and students only pay at the end of each lesson," he says.
This approach may be a strong selling point for students who've heard horror stories of money paid for flight training that was never provided.
Yet while the number of professional students at Sporty's has grown over the past 10 years, the heart and core of Sporty's Academy is teaching people to fly for pure fun, utility and reward.
"What we celebrate here is the individual who gets that pilot's certificate," Radtke says. "Which means we pay a lot of attention to knowing our customers and doing everything we can to help them get to their goal and stick with it."
One way Sporty's tries to accomplish that goal is by breaking up the primary flight instruction program into two phases: first a recreational pilot's license, then the completion of the private pilot rating.
"We found that it's a huge thing, in terms of motivation, for someone to be able to say 'I'm a pilot' and take their friends and family flying," Radtke says.
In addition, Sporty's puts a lot of emphasis on flight instructor dedication. Almost half of the instructors at Sporty's are Master Flight Instructors (a certification requiring at least two years and 1,000 hours of flight instruction time), and a number of them are career instructors, as opposed to young pilots building flight time in order to get an airline job.
"We benefit greatly from the fact that Hal Shevers is the founder and owner of Sporty's," Radtke says. "Because of him, the corporate philosophy here is not driven by dollars. It's driven by 'what is it going to take to do it right.' That means we can really focus on providing quality aircraft, quality staff and superior service."
The dominant aircraft in Sporty's 14-plane training fleet are late-model Cessna 172s, two of which have Garmin G1000 panels. But the flight line also includes a Cessna 182 with a glass panel, a Bonanza, a Piper Aztec and a Diamond Xtreme Motorglider. Flight Academy programs include training for individual ratings (instrument, commercial, multiengine, etc.) as well as recently added accelerated training programs and the school's Professional Pilot Training Program.
Regardless of the program, however, instructors at Sporty's are challenged to make the experience meaningful and fun for the students.
"First, we need to do what we do safely," Radtke says. "But then we need to make it fun. If it's fun, they'll come back and they'll reach their goals. If it's fun, they'll tell all their friends about it."
For more information, visit sportys.com/academy.