I show up on the Monday after our Grand Opening Party with dread in my heart. It is not because I drank too much, talked too loudly, and danced on the tables at the party – at least, I don’t think I did ALL of those things. Rather, the dread is for the question that I know John, my chief pilot, is going to ask me: “What now?” What now, with this flight school that has no students and no airplanes? “What now Boss Lady?” I don’t know what now, but I’m sure not going to tell my staff that. The Pilot in Command will stay calm and handle the total engine failure without alarming the passengers . . . .
Since Anna is late (again), I call in Mike, my ancient-aviator guide, to work the front desk. Mike knew Wilbur when he was young, and remembers before this airport was built in the 30s and worked at Boeing for 100 years, so he knows everything that goes on around here. Sure enough, word is out - did you hear? - that the new gal lost her airplanes! The airport environment is a lot like high school. Rumor travels fast, and everyone knows everything about everybody. If not, they make it up and share it generously over hangar coffee. “So,” Mike says, “Somebody was saying to me that this hangar sure looks good, and all that, but well, there’s no airplanes, so ‘Where’s the beef?’ is what he said to me . . . .”
Mike has to leave early and I am sitting alone at the desk pondering those very questions, “Where’s the Beef?” and “What now?” when a gentleman walks in and asks me if I’d be interested in leasing his C-172. It just came out of annual and he heard from his mechanic that I didn’t have any airplanes (ah, lovely rumor mill, my friend) and so if I want it, he’ll bring it by. I scramble up a lease from the AOPA website, we quickly come to terms, shake over it, and he promises it will be here tomorrow.
He is barely out the door when another gentleman walks in. This one I know from a checkout flight he did recently with my chief pilot, John. His name is Jim, and he has a friend who is interested in learning to fly. He hands me $1,000 cash and asks if that is enough to get her started with a few lessons. I calmly assure him that I will get her scheduled as soon as we have availability. I write him a receipt, and he is gone. As he drives away, I grab the phone and call my husband. “Oh my gosh honey, you’re not going to believe this – we have an airplane! And that’s not all, we have a customer! Someone just walked in and gave me $1,000 on deposit! Can you believe it?! It’s true! I think we have a real business here!!”
And so the morning of dread is transformed into an afternoon of opportunities and new ideas, one of which was the certainty that relying on someone else for airplanes was a bit like borrowing money from an uncle – it works great until Dear Uncle wants his money back and then you better have a backup plan. I knew that Out of the Blue Aviation needed to own its own airplane.
This may seem like an obvious conclusion to those more experienced than I, but when I had originally broached the idea of starting up a flight school to my husband, I had argued that either I could go buy an airplane or I could start an FBO and we could lease aircraft. Either/Or. Not both. To convince him that, four months after buying a hangar and spending gobs of money remodeling it, I was now going to buy an airplane too was going to require some pretty fine persuasion. Fortunately, I was able to rise to the occasion . . . and soon I was airplane shopping.
Here was yet another chance for me to exhibit my ignorance and potentially make expensive mistakes. I turned to my ancient-aviator guide: “Mike, I need help. I need to find a good Cessna 172, not too expensive and not too far from home. Can you help?” Mike loves to buy airplanes so he is the perfect person for the job. He goes online and prints off reams of paper with airplanes ads that have secret codes that only the initiated can understand. It is like a Mensa puzzle. What, I ask myself, could TTSN mean? SMOH? TTAF? STOH? What about NDH? And what, for god’s sake, is a KLN90B or a KMA 24? I feel like I’m drowning in alphabet soup, when Mike throws me a spoon: “I found one at Tacoma Narrows you might wanna check out,” he says, “It is a 1971 Cessna 172 with a low time O-320-E2D (my eyes start to glaze over) and an IFR panel with 2 KX-155s (he sees the glaze deepening and simplifies for me) “It has a good panel and a good engine – you should go look at it.”
Tacoma Narrows is only 40 minutes from Arlington, so I arrange to fly down on Friday to check out the aircraft. I take my chief pilot John, because, frankly, I have no idea how to test fly an airplane to see if it is worthy of spending scads of money on it. We fly it, he likes it, it looks good (in a 70s mustard-yellow sort of way) and I indicate I’m interested in a purchase. The owners inform me they have someone else who is coming with cash on Monday. Perhaps they like me, or perhaps it is just pity, but they agree to let my instructor fly it up to Arlington to have a mechanic there do a pre-buy inspection (I may not know an O-320 from a KX-155, but I wasn’t born yesterday. I know to do a pre-buy!). The mechanic likes it and the deal is done. Out of the Blue is now the proud owner of its first airplane. With the other leased 172 and the occasional paying customer, we now have everything we need to succeed.