How Flight Chops Went from Weekend Warrior Pilot to YouTube Celebrity

With 130,962 subscribers and counting, Steve Thorne is undoubtedly one of the most popular aviators on YouTube. Known to the aviation world as Flight Chops, he's a self-described "weekend warrior pilot" who is basically living every pilot's dream by flying a wide variety of airplanes and sharing his experiences with his fans. And while his videos rack up hundreds of thousands of views, he maintains that this has never been about becoming a certified YouTube sensation, but instead the constant pursuit of learning and becoming a better pilot.

It's that quest for improvement and self-deprecating style that sets Flight Chops apart from other YouTube aviators and makes him so relatable to the rest of us. While "Captain Joe" has more than twice as many followers for his video explainers on all things airlines, Thorne's adventures feel friendly and familiar, as if he's sharing them with us over a burger in the airport diner. (That's why Flying was so thrilled to recently begin sharing his videos.) But that was never actually the plan. It just sort of happened.

“It was really a joke,” Thorne told us of his early work. “The whole thing was about being self-deprecating and humbling, and I was not really concerned about it being cool. There were enough cool pilots on the Internet, so I didn’t need to be one of those. It really resonated with a lot of people. At the end of the day, what I do is tell stories that we all tell to our flying buddies when we have a beer. The difference is I’m just telling 100,000 people at a time.”

At a time when the industry worries about a shortage of pilots and the next generation of aviators wonders how they’ll be able to afford such a costly lifestyle and/or hobby, Thorne serves as an example of the Nike mentality, urging anyone who feels that itch to learn and train to just do it. Like most people, he knew at an early age that he belonged in the sky.

“I’m just one of those guys who always knew as a kid,” Thorne said. “There was never a time I didn’t want to be a pilot. It was just a matter of how and when.”

“How” was the hard part. In his early teen years, he joined Canada’s Air Cadets, but his personality “just didn’t jive.” He didn’t want to spend his time polishing boots; he wanted to learn how to fly. In high school, he worked a summer job and saved up for his training. It was in the 90s, so he needed about $3,000, and soon he had it. “But the problem was I was 15 and there were girls and cars, so that's where the $3,000 in the pocket of a 16-year-old went,” he admitted.

He finally got his private license in college, but he was frustrated that it had taken so long. On top of that, he was the classic broke college student, so he had to keep his training costs at a minimum, which meant an intense pressure to perform, ultimately ruining the joy of learning how to fly. That sunk in after he finally earned his license and realized he was still broke and couldn’t afford to fly.

“Then, the whole ‘life gets in the way’ thing happens, you get married and have a kid, and four years had gone by when I realized I hadn’t flown,” he recalled. It was in 2009, though, that a Christmas gift from his wife would inspire his YouTube calling. She bought him an iPad and he began looking at ForeFlight, because, he admits, he was never a fan of paper charts and he was “ready for the digital revolution to happen.” That was when he also realized his GoPro camera was one of his most valuable tools, as it allowed him film himself and learn.

What started as a self-deprecating and humbling video learning project turned into a fan following of more than 130,000 people who give Flight Chops the rock star treatment at events like AirVenture. Steve Thorne

“I was instantly seeing the value of looking at my footage and improving my flying. At the same time, I was sharing that stuff with a few friends, and it kind of organically happened where we started sharing it a little wider,” he explained. “And I’m a filmmaker so I was sharing it with some filmmaker friends to add some production value. I’m also a drummer so I’m always working on my chops, and I had the whole Movember mustache on this particular winter, and so it was at dinner with some of the guys that we drew the logo on the napkin and branded it Flight Chops.”

The original slogan for his channel was “Suck less,” and quality was not a priority. He still cringes when he watches some of the early videos, because the production value is nowhere near as great as it is today. Because he’s a filmmaker, Thorne didn’t want to go from editing video at his actual job to editing video in his spare time, so he made it a rule to spend no more than three hours on his videos. Today, as the production value has improved and his audience continues to grow, he’ll spend a minimum of five days working on any given episode. The hardest part, though, was getting in front of the camera.

“I’m a filmmaker. I always like to be in control behind the camera. This was a very difficult thing for me to turn the camera, because initially all the stuff was showing a shot of the instrument panel or landing gear. I really didn’t care to see myself. It was my buddy James who said, ‘Dude, you have to put the You in YouTube and turn one of the cameras around on yourself.’ It was a really difficult thing to do, but it occurred to me that I’m not nervous about being on camera, because I don’t have the time or energy to think that I’m on camera because what I’m doing requires my entire mental investment. It’s not like performing, I’m never going to be an actor,” he said.

Thorne never set out to achieve YouTube stardom, but he still made it, at least in the aviation community. He’s recognized in airports and at events like AirVenture he’s a certified rock star, as seen in this video of his AirVenture Fisk Arrival at Oshkosh 2016.

"I don't think about it at all, the me, me, me aspect of YouTube and the YouTubers who think of themselves at celebrities," he told Flying. "It definitely happens all the time when we're traveling at any airport, but to have it happen in real life at any old place is super weird. At places like Oshkosh, it's like turning on the rock star switch. I like to engage with people and have conversations about what inspires and motivates them, so that's hard when you have a bunch of people who want to talk to you at the same time. Being asked for autographs is super weird, I'm not comfortable with that. I've signed a lot of logbooks and hats, things like that, at these events. I'm flattered by it, but it's not any part of my motivation. I'm just another pilot who likes to talk about flying. I'm not a professional, I never will be. I'm not comfortable with the idea of being a celebrity."

But because he’s good at what he does, the reaction has been incredible, especially when it comes to the offers he receives for aircraft to be featured in his videos. Again, it’s every pilot’s dream to fly legendary aircraft like a T-6 Texan or the B-29 Superfortress Fifi, and yet there is apparently such a thing as too many airplanes.

“What happened was the community started inviting me to do things, and my problem is too much,” Thorne admitted. “I go through my list every few months and reply to people, ‘I’m still interested, I didn’t forget, I just couldn’t fit it in yet.’ A lot of what I do has been in the works for six months or in some cases a year. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. And I have the same problem with publishing. At any given time, what you’re seeing can be six months to a year old, simply because that’s where my pipeline is at. Sometimes I’ll push things ahead if it’s time sensitive. With Oshkosh 2016, I published things all year long. My last video I published right before departing for Osh 17 was the arrival with the Cessnas at Osh 16.”

Today, the Flight Chops slogan is “Practice, Review, Improve,” which Thorne joked is the “corporate version of Suck Less.” Just as he never intended to rack up a ton of followers and millions of views, he also never planned on wooing sponsors. It all happened organically, and everything he does is authentic. Perhaps that’s why his channel has an incredible 97 percent “like” ratio. Sure, he still has his critics and trolls, but early on he set forth a strategy to “pre-troll” the trolls and make it clear that when he titles his video “Worst Landing,” he’s making it clear that it is the worst landing, so that “keyboard pilots” understand what he’s really doing.

“I’m not the guy who says, ‘This is how you do it.’ I’m saying, ‘This is how I did it, this is what happened.’”

As the offers and opportunities continue to roll in, Thorne still has a white whale: a Supermarine Spitfire, which his grandfather flew in WWII. But if he’s going to fly one, he wants to go all the way.

“I want to show up to training fully prepared to actually be trained and say in my logbook that I’m a qualified Spitfire pilot,” he said. “My plan is to go to England and do it at the Boultbee Flight Academy and really go through their program. That is the dream.”


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