Martha King: The Grand Dame of Aviation Ground Schools

Nearly 50 percent of U.S. pilots have spent time with this legend of aviation.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a month-long series to mark Women’s History Month: March 1: Pioneers of Women’s Aviation | March 2: Carole Hopson | March 4: Martha King | March 8: Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance | March 11: The Air Race Classic | March 15: Sisters of the Skies | March 18: Women in Aviation Conference | March 22: Women In Aviation: The Numbers | March 22: The first graduating class of Air Force female pilots. | March 25: Bonny Simi of Joby Aviation | March 29: Top Female Difference Makers in Aviation

It has been said that just about every pilot who holds at least an instrument rating has spent some time with Martha King. She is, after all, one-half of the most famous flight instructor team on the planet. She and her husband, John, are the co-creators of King Schools Inc., one of the most utilized online ground schools in the world.

A pioneering woman in aviation, Martha has been recognized by numerous organizations for her contributions to the industry. In 2003, she was honored by the First Flight Centennial Commission as one of the 100 distinguished aviation heroes of the first 100 years of flight at the Kitty Hawk Celebration.

On that day, she shared the stage with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Bob Hoover, Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, Tom Poberezny, and Joe Ettinger to name a few. That same year, Martha was named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Aviation by Women in Aviation International. In 2021, her latest commendation, she and John were jointly inducted into the Flight Instructor Hall of Fame

Life Began With Other Interests

Martha was born at the tail end of World War II in Big Spring, Texas. Her father was in the U.S. Army Air Forces, and according to Martha, “He was in charge of a base that trained pilots for World War II.”

King was close to her father, describing herself as a “Daddy’s girl,” and has fond memories of canoe trips with him. But for the most part, she says, she was “non-athletic” with the exception of an interest in horseback riding. 

“I was interested in literature and I dabbled in various things like painting and writing poetry. My vision of my future self was ending up as a professor at a university somewhere,” she says.

As a child, she had no interest in aviation. “In those days…it was very unusual for women to be involved in aviation,” Martha says. And, her father viewed aviation more in military terms, “as a weapon rather than as a means of recreation.”

A young John and Martha King [Courtesy: Martha King]

Martha Meets John

In 1963, Martha’s older sister introduced her to a young man named John King. Martha and John were both attending Indiana University in Bloomington. 

“John already had an interest in aviation,” Martha says.”As a young kid, his father owned a small airplane, and John flew with him and a family friend. When John was old enough, he took flying lessons. He got through solo and a few hours past, then decided to quit flying in order to save money for college.”

The pair married in 1965 and went into business together, because, Martha says, “John’s father and mother ran a restaurant and a service station on the highway, and John wanted to work with his spouse, just like his father did.”

The younger Kings opened a truck servicing business where they performed oil changes and lubrication for fleets of trucks. When the OPEC energy embargo hit in 1973, the business disintegrated. 

Martha King was honored by the First Flight Centennial Commission as one of the 100 distinguished aviation heroes of the first 100 years of flight in 2003. [Courtesy: Martha King]

“We could blame the loss of the business on the oil crisis, but we were young and naive and didn’t design the business to withstand a financial crisis,” Martha says. “We went bankrupt, and when we came out the other side we said, ‘Let’s go do something for the fun of it and then look for a serious business, something that we had a passion for.’”

That fun thing was aviation. They started by buying a Cherokee 140 and taking flying lessons together.

“We got our private pilot certificates two days apart.” Martha notes. Spurred by their collective “intellectual curiosity,” the couple pursued additional ratings and certificates. “We started with the normal progression of airplane from single to twin, then we went to Alaska where a friend flew seaplanes and got our seaplane ratings; and then we went to Hawaii and got our glider ratings and became glider instructors,” she says.

As they progressed in their learning, a passion for teaching others to fly was born. Today, the Kings hold every certificate and rating from airship to jets and are the first and only couple to both hold every category and class of FAA rating on their pilot and instructor certificates. 

Having all of those ratings and that experience comes in handy, Martha says, recalling when she and John were tasked to do some work for Fugifilm (TSE: FUJIY) after a friend introduced them to the company’s chief pilot. 

“The blimp was doing some exposure work over the Super Bowl and they needed some backup pilots,” she explains, adding that they have been the pilots over such events as the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby.

Launching the Ground School

The King’s ground school programs began as face-to-face classes.

“We went to work for another ground school where we would spend two days traveling some place to teach ground school to get people ready for the knowledge test,” Martha says. After about three months, they realized it wasn’t viable. They took the lessons they learned from this failure and went back to the “drawing board.” Martha says, “We decided we should start a ground school business—and we figured out how to do it without going broke.”

The Kings created weekend courses where pilots were in the classroom on Saturdays and Sundays, and then took their knowledge test on Mondays.

“It was a good business model,” Martha explains. “We ended up going to places in North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Western Washington, Oregon—places [where] there was a lot of distance between airports and cities—where it was not feasible for someone to drive 100 miles to do ground school two nights a week for eight weeks. We made it so these people could do ground school in a weekend, and we encouraged them to make sort of a mini-vacation of it, [to] bring their families, stay in a hotel and knock the test out in two days. We figured if they are not having fun, they will not learn as well.”

“We figured if they are not having fun, they will not learn as well.””

Martha King

In 1974, King Schools—the videotaped version—was launched from a spare bedroom in the King’s Southern California home. At first, it was a videotape of a basic lecture with a few hand-held teaching tools like a model airplane. Today, the Kings have a facility in San Diego and produce courses that use graphics, digital animation, video, and a green screen. The courses are shared across multiple platforms from home-based media to the internet.

The matching company-branded polo shirts that they wear—which have become an EAA AirVenture corporate fashion trend and a statement of emotional commitment between couples—began in 1983 as part of the video ground schools. 

Martha has been teaching for more than 40 years. She says she still enjoys it, and she’s still learning herself.

“I like teaching the instrument course best, especially instrument procedures, particularly the use of new avionics like ForeFlight and on the iPad,” she says. These tools are helpful; but at the same time, learners need to pay attention to the airplane and be able to create a mental abstract of where the airplane is in their minds so they don’t have to depend on fancy avionics, she adds.

Martha has logged approximately 14,000 flight hours. When asked how many hours of ground instruction she has provided over the years, she answers in what may be the “Queen Mother” of a mathematical story problem:

“We taught live for 10 years every weekend and then we went to video, then to computer with DVD, and internet with short-course lessons of five or 10 minutes, then study questions. Our IT folks tell us we are delivering 10,000 lessons a day to people, Martha says. “We sell about 50,000 courses a year. We figure we have taught about half the pilots in the country and helped them get either their private or IFR rating.”

John and Martha King still fly together. They switch off PIC duties. [Courtesy: Martha King]

The Kings have shelves of trophies and honorifics from various groups and associations and are the acknowledged experts in aviation education.

When asked if she ‘s ever thought about retiring, Martha sort of sighs, “We tried it. We’re not very good at the retiring thing.” 

They still fly together, she says, switching off PIC duties. 

Her advice to flight instructors: “Make it fun, and sell the benefits of what the learners are learning. It has to be more than ‘this is going to be on the test’ because you are or should be training these pilots for real-life flying—so they should be taught how it will make flying safer and more enjoyable.”

Despite the fact that both she and John have decades of experience helping thousands of pilots reach their personal and professional goals, Martha is reluctant to refer to themselves as professional flight instructors.

“I tend to think of us not as professional flight instructors but as business owners and ground  instructors as we have never worked for a flight school and never taught flight instruction on a full-time, regular basis in the aircraft. We have enormous respect for those who do, because flight instruction is difficult and very rewarding when you have the right learners.”

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