Peak Aviation’s flight school soaring to new heights

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Peak Aviation co-owner Al Mathews talks with Air Force Academy cadets who are enrolled in flying lessons. The company has seen a 50 percent increase in business from 2009 to 2011, and it has grown an additional 15 percent this year.

Peak Aviation Center

Founded: 2006

Employees: 9, full and part-time

Aircraft: two light sport, six Cessnas


Peak Aviation Center, a Colorado Springs school for pilots, is taking flight.

The little company, situated on the outer edge of the Colorado Springs Airport, saw a 50 percent increase in business from 2009 to 2011. This year, business has grown another 15 percent.

That’s enough growth for the company to purchase two additional airplanes, putting the flight school at eight aircraft — second in size locally only to the Peterson Air Force Base Aero Club, a training school for active and retired military, their families and contractors.

Airplane enthusiasts are logging 200 flight hours per month with Peak Aviation Center’s instructors, said Al Mathews, co-owner of the center, which also sells pilot supplies and rents aircraft.

The center is attracting students ranging from working professionals who only want to fly on weekends to Air Force Academy cadets seeking their private pilot’s license to advance their careers.

And, Mathews loves it.

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t enthused with flying,” he said. “I didn’t have baseball cards. I had airplane cards.”

Peak Aviation Center is posting about $500,000 in annual revenue. Not bad, Mathews said, considering that when Pat Carlile, a retired U.S. Army aviator, bought the Pikes Peak Pilots Center in 2006, it was struggling.

“(Carlile) implemented some good management processes and turned it around,” said Mathews, who bought into the company as partner in 2008. “We’ve been profitable ever since — we’ve had positive revenue for six years.”

This year, the center bought two light sport aircraft — each costing about $150,000. The light sport is smaller than a typical four-seat Cessna and more sensitive to operate.

“It’s a little more difficult to learn to fly them initially,” Mathews said. “But you become a better pilot after that.”

The light sport also is more economical. Flying the light sport for the estimated 55 hours it takes to earn a private pilot’s license costs about $7,000; learning on a Cessna costs about $10,000.

John Clare-Panton, chief flight instructor, has noticed that once students go for their private license, they continue on to get instrument ratings, flight instruction ratings and even commercial pilot’s licenses.

“The big thing here is we are not just a pilot mill,” Clare-Panton said. “We’re not just trying to hammer people through in the shortest amount of time.”

Both Carlile and Mathews have given enough flying lessons to know the power of flight.

They wanted wounded military personnel and their families to experience life 1,000 feet over Garden of the Gods Park or the Royal Gorge region. Last year, they started High Hopes for Colorado, a nonprofit arm of their flying program. They give free introductory lessons to wounded warriors and their families and to at-risk children in the community. Last year, Peak Aviation made 270 flights in the High Hopes program.

In any flight, even an introductory flight, the student always takes control of the aircraft. For soldiers, flying a plane gives them a rush they might be missing when they come back from deployment. For troubled teens, flying an aircraft gives them confidence, Mathews said.

“So many kids don’t have control over their lives,” Mathews said. “But, you get into an airplane and you are in complete control. You put the throttle forward, you pull back on the stick and you are flying.”

One young soldier proposed marriage to his girlfriend while flying with Peak Aviation over the Air Force Academy at dusk.

“She said ‘yes’ — that was magic,” Mathews said.

Doug Bohnert was a flight engineer and always wanted to be a pilot. In 2010, the company he worked for encouraged him to get his pilot’s license, offering to promote him to pilot. He took time off work and hit the sky with Peak Aviation Center instructors.

“I spent all my savings, rang up my credit card, so I could have a career in aviation as a pilot,” he said.

He got his job as a commercial pilot. Now he is a Peak Aviation flight instructor.

“I just love flying,” he said. “In flying lessons, you are constantly working. It’s really nice when you can see the goals and you are working to achieve those goals — that is a great feeling.”

It seems the economy is improving, and Peak Aviation’s owners thought it was a good time to spread the word about flying, Mathews said. They bought radio and TV advertisements this year for the first time. They’ve even gone the Groupon route and sold 800 introductory flights.

“A lot of people say, ‘I’ve always wanted to learn to fly,’” Mathews said. “We’re making sure we put the bug in their ear.”