Wheels Up for Flight School
March 16, 2014
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  • Steve Breier has been a pilot since 1987. He’s “mechaniced” on aircraft since 1980.

    Breier, 52, has flown corporate jets and piloted DC-8s full of freight around the world. He can also handle helicopters.

    Now, the former Army aircraft mechanic and fellow pilot Rick Hazen have landed at Cleburne Regional Airport with a venture that combines their aviation expertise.

    The company, Texas Aircraft Services, is bringing flight training, avionics installation and maintenance to a hangar adjacent to airport headquarters.

    Sam Ball, a longtime fixture at the airport, has done the same sort of business at the airport since 1972, and can’t remember missing a day since he opened.

    “I’m only 84. I do everything,” Ball said as he lunched at the airport last week. “I’m a mechanic. I’m an inspector. I already stopped two accidents yesterday.”

    Ball has a wealth of experience and a mind-boggling store of World War II-era — he refers to the conflict as “war two” — aviation stories. He and his wife also own hangars at the airport.

    Hazen, 43, has known Ball for years and said, “He’s probably forgotten more about aviation than I’ve ever known.”

    But while Ball’s doors are still open, Breier and Hazen are positioning themselves to carry on the work for a new generation of owners and pilots.

    A key factor in the decision to move to CRA from Spinks Airport on Fort Worth’s south side is lower overhead. Breier said the offices in the hangar are also nicer.

    At Spinks, ramp space and parking were also limited. Access for flight students was inconvenient, Hazen said.

    Hazen leases the Cleburne hangar from a local attorney under a two-year contract, with an option to renew. His lease runs about $4,000 per month.

    A comparable hangar would cost an estimated $10,000 monthly at Meacham International Airport on Fort Worth’s north side, or about $7,000 at Spinks, Hazen said.

    Fuel costs were also a factor in moving to Cleburne. Gas is also about $2 cheaper per gallon here than at Spinks or at Meacham, Hazen said.

    That’s critical, whether you’re operating your own plane or running a flight school.

    It’s not uncommon to see flight instructors and student pilots from Fort Worth schools landing here for fuel while they’re flying around the area during lessons.

    “We’ve been coming up here for years,” said Breier, who is the company’s director of maintenance and chief pilot. “Gas is cheap.”

    Sharlette Wilson, the airport’s manager, said the city-owned airport can make money on fuel sales, even at a lower price, because the fuel farm is also municipally owned.

    At airports such as Spinks, fuel operations are privately owned and the operators have to pay the city a fee on top of their own profit margins, Wilson said.

    But even with lower-cost fuel, they conceded that aviation isn’t for everybody.

    Hazen laughed when somebody compared flying and operating airplanes to sailing. Owning a sailboat is often likened to standing in a cold shower, fully clothed, tearing up $100 bills.

    “Boat stands for ‘break out another thousand,’” Hazen said. “Planes are worse.”

    Hazen and Breier, a Crowley resident, are counting on a contract with Lycoming Engines to put some wind beneath their wings.

    The deal would give Texas Aircraft Services rights to install a new generation of engines in series of light, six-seat, high-performance Piper aircraft. The earliest of the Piper Malibu/ Mirage/ Saratoga series dates from the early 1980s.

    The pair got the idea when they and a partner bought a wrecked Malibu to fix for resale and learned that Lycoming had an improved power plant that would be a perfect fit.

    Hazen, who lives in Burleson, said he’s about 70 percent sure that they’ll land the deal and certificate that will enable them to become the first company authorized to retrofit the twin turbocharged piston engines.

    Federal regulations mandate maintenance on the aircraft.

    If owners have to spend the money anyway, they might as well spend a little more and have new technology instead of rebuilding an engine that was developed in the late 1970s.

    “This engine could go in multiple airplanes,” Breier said.

    It would mean more employees if the deal came together. But for now, they’re planning to start small and hire a flight instructor.

    Hazen said he wants somebody who will be salaried, full time. He’s convinced that a much-discussed pilot shortage will drive student aviators to flight schools.

    The Los Angeles Times last week looked at the issue. It reported that 1,519 pilots will have to retire this year.

    In coming years, airlines will have to hire an average of 1,900 to 4,500 pilots a year to meet growing travel demand, the report said.

    Also making an impact, according to the Times: new rules mandating the amount of rest pilots have between flights and rules; and more training and tests in the wake of a Colgan Air crash of near Buffalo, N.Y., in 2009.

    “But a study released last week by the Government Accountability Office found mixed evidence of a pilot shortage. The GAO said a large number of qualified pilots may be working abroad, in the military, or in other occupations where salaries are higher,” according to the Times. “The world’s largest pilot union released a statement last week, saying that the only reason pilots are in short supply is because regional airlines are not willing to pay an adequate, livable salary. Regional airlines carry about 22 percent of all domestic passengers. The average starting salary for new first officers in the regional airline industry is only $22,400, according to the Air Line Pilots Assn. International, which represents nearly 50,000 pilots at 31 airlines in the United States and Canada.”

    Capt. Lee Moak, president of the pilots association, told the Times, “There is a shortage of pay and benefits for pilots in the regional airline industry, not a shortage of pilots who are capable and certified to fly the airlines’ equipment.”

    Regardless of what the industry needs, Breier knows they’ve got to keep their Cessna 172s in the air to make the flight school work.

    “Just to break even in the flight school you’ve got to fly 250 or 300 hours a year,” he said. “That means the aircraft needs to be in the air an hour a day just to break even.”

    It should cost about $6,000 to get up and running for most people, Breier said.

    “I try to tell everybody if you’re not real serious and don’t fly twice a week you’re going to spend a lot of money,” he said. “You could get out for less than $5,000. The absolute minimum is 40 hours. It usually takes around 60 hours total.”

    Hazen is confident that the soon-to-open toll road between Cleburne and Fort Worth will in time bring plenty of potential pilots to Johnson County. The airport isn’t far from the road and some of those new residents are bound to want to learn to fly.

    Meanwhile, Hazen said that if he and Breier get the chance, they’ll buy an existing hangar. Failing that, Hazen said he’s got backers who can bankroll construction of a new one.

    “This is a new growth area,” Hazen said. “There’s not a lot of places for people to build.”

    The corporate jet traffic also should increase as the area grows, he said.

    “These guys are the job creators,” he said. “These are time machines for them.”

    Breier and Hazen will also be renting airplanes, indoor and outdoor parking space and brokering airplane sales.

    “We’ve got access to three or four corporate jets” Breier said, for those who need to go “here or there.”

    For now, both men are keeping their corporate piloting jobs.

    As he discussed the new Cleburne operation on the phone last week, Hazen was waiting to fly a group of clients to Houston in an Eclipse 500 jet that once belonged to actor John Travolta.

    Breier has been in the business long enough to know that to ensure a happy landing, you need a backup chute. His sideline: a fencing company.

    “The only way to make a million in the aviation industry,” Breier said, “is to start with two million.”