By Marjorie Hernandez
Mark Oberman started his company at the Camarillo Airport nearly 40 years ago with a desire to share his passion for aviation with the local community.
One of the airport’s first tenants, Channel Islands Aviation Inc. began operations with three small charter planes that offered tours to the nearby islands.
Channel Islands Aviation — run by Oberman, wife Janie, daughter Sarah and son Mike — is now a multimillion dollar company that offers classes to hundreds of aspiring pilots and aviation professionals as well as the tours. The company’s latest acquisition — a top-of-the-line Cessna Citation CJ3 jet — is now available for domestic and international flights.
After taking a hit during the economic downturn about five years ago, the Obermans said the company is continuing a steady rebound and they have plans to expand.
“We are definitely seeing a steady and positive improvement,” Mark Oberman said as he sat inside the Cessna. “We have become very good at adapting during the downturn, but things are looking up for us. We are hoping that this airplane will be a springboard to get us some additional jets and continue hiring.”
Channel Islands Aviation has 30 employees and a growing fleet of 16 planes. Aircraft owners use the company’s two hangars where mechanics and staff maintain the planes. The company also includes a flight school.
In 2011, the company acquired the Redbird LD flight simulator, which allows students to virtually run through various flight scenarios during instruction.
Last year, Channel Islands Aviation received a Gold ARGUS Rating from ARGUS International, Inc., an international company specializing in aviation safety.
Building and maintaining the business is a family affair for the Obermans. Mark, a pilot by trade, serves as president, while Janie serves as vice president and manages airplane sales and other accounts.
Sarah, 28, manages the flight school, while Mike, 26, serves as the chief co-pilot on the executive charter planes.
Mark started his business in 1975 at the Oxnard Airport, and a year later, moved the operation to the newly opened Camarillo Airport, a former Air Force base.
It was the first aviation company at the Camarillo Airport and started regular flights to the Channel Islands in October 1976. By the time Mark and Janie married in 1979, business was booming.
“We started with three planes and were conducting tours, but within a few months, we had an explosive growth and had about 12 planes,” Mark said. “People wanted to be a part of the new airport and business mushroomed.”
The flight school now has nine instructors.
Sarah, who started helping the family business by washing planes after school, said flying is “definitely in the blood”
Mike started flying at age 7 and was a professional pilot by the time he was 19. A graduate of CSU Chico in 2010 with a business management degree, he now serves as the company’s chief pilot. He oversees five other pilots and flies the Cessna Citation CJ3 and the company’s Socata TMB 700 on executive chartered flights.
“When other kids went to day care, we went to the airport,” Sarah said.
Although not a pilot herself, Sarah said her goal from a young age was to someday help run the business. After graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a business management degree in 2006, she came back to run the flight school.
“It’s really rewarding for me to see the kids that start flying with us when they are just 14 years old, who eventually go solo and then graduate through our professional pilot program,” Sarah Oberman said. “I also enjoy seeing someone who is able to purchase their own plane and know how that changes their life. Aviation makes the world much smaller and much more accessible.”
While aircraft sales remain stagnant, the company’s flight school is rebounding.
Flight school numbers dropped about 70 percent in 2008 as people stopped renting planes, Sarah said. Customers also sold their airplanes during the recession and airplane sales dipped.
“We have experienced four recessions now, and this by far has been the longest lasting and the deepest,” Janie said. “The fact we are still here is significant. As a business, we depend on people who have discretionary income and businesses that can afford to invest in a plane. When so many people lost so much in the market, all of those dried up and our revenue also dropped.”
The Obermans decided to refocus their efforts and find more creative ways to engage their customers. In the past two years, the number of flight school students has increased by 50 percent from the height of the recession.
With a growing shortage of qualified pilots as people begin to retire, interest in flight schools has increased. According to projections by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of pilots and flight engineers will grow 12 percent by 2018.
Officials at aircraft-maker Boeing Co. say an additional 466,650 pilots will be needed in the next two decades.
The spike in flight school interest and being more efficient has helped the company weather the economic storm. New programs such as a summer youth aviation academy and a college program also have helped put its training services on the map.
“It was challenging, but it made me a better business person because we had to become more creative in all aspects of the business, from marketing to customer retention … and focus on the things that mean most,” Sarah said.
The company is seeing a growing interest in its executive charter flight services. About four months ago, they leased the $8.7 million Cessna Citation CJ3 from a private company.
Since then, the luxurious six-seater plane with leather seats and wood-grain interior finish has been in the air nonstop, Mike said. The company hopes to lease another jet and hire additional staff to maintain and service the Cessna Citation CJ3.
“The flight school has a lot of positive growth on the horizon and we can now carefully add more staff,” Janie said. “We are cautious, but very optimistic. The good news is, our kids have grown up in the business and they understand it from the inside out. They are the new generation that will take it to another level for us.”