Continental Motors Learn-to-Fly Day
I spent a busy Saturday at the H.L. Sonny Callahan Airport in Alabama, otherwise known as Fairhope. Thatís where Continental Motors has its factory and customer support facility and where it does engine overhauls and mods. Itís a nice little airport right by the lower reaches of Mobile Bay.
Continental was holding the first of what it hopes will become an annual event: Learn-to-Fly Day. Lots of airports organize airport days and aviation promotions, but you may have noticed not many big general aviation companies support these, much less an engine company. Continental had a static display of aircraft of all vintages, Young Eagle rides, Discovery flights, free food and seminars. In fact, everything was free; theyíd sell you a t-shirt if you wanted.
The whole thing had the feel of an old-style southern ice cream social and they sure enough had the ice cream to go along with it. Continentalís Bill Ross, who was otherwise giving back-to-back Eagle rides in his Stearman, hauled out a nicely restored vintage John Deere one-lunger which was churning an ice-cream machine. A big one. I tried to show some restraint. (See the video of the event here. Mike Gifford explains Continentalís thinking in detail.)
This is another turn of events in keeping with Continentalís vertical view of the world. Two years ago, it started its own simulator-based training facility in an upscale mall and now itís reaching out to the local community, fishing for possible private pilot candidates. Can this work? Itís hard to say, really. Thereís no doubt that there are niches of wealth out there in demographic slices where people can afford to learn to fly. Continental is betting that maybe some of them just never thought of it and the leads the Saturday event generated may very well scare up some business for both Continentalís Zulu†flight school and the school fleet based at Fairhope, soon to be offering Centurion diesel-powered versions of the Cessna 172.
But what I liked about the event Saturday is what it represented: A major GA company investing in its own future by encouraging flight training. Other GA companies have shied away from this sort of direct involvement because, I think, of liability fears. Or maybe thereís just no interest or understanding in the corner office and itís just easier not to do such promotion and just concentrate on shaving costs and building margin, relying on a parasitic business model. Thatíll work for awhile, of course, but eventually, the host will have nothing left to offer.
Continentalís Rhett Ross has said repeatedly that the companyís business view recognizes that the long game requires getting new people into the industry. To me, this looks like one step in the process. And Iím glad to see it, frankly. You should be, too.