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Article, Photos & Video by Lyn Burks

There is an old aviation axiom that goes like this: How do you make a million dollars in aviation?  Answer:  Start out with two million dollars!

It doesn’t matter if you have designs on becoming a pilot, mechanic, or business owner, the aviation industry can be very unforgiving.  There is virtually nothing easy about being successful, especially in the rough and tumble world of flight training.  Inject a helicopter into the equation and your “difficulty factor” goes up exponentially.

Personally, I really enjoy watching the television singing competition, American Idol. It’s a show in which a person can go from being totally unknown to a superstar in a matter of months.  Aviation is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, as there is no fast way to success.  It takes a scary mixture of financial risk, fearlessness, sleepless nights, passion, and straight-up hard labor.  No one knows this better than Elite Flight Training & Management owners Shawn Mullin and Jason Duncan.

With aviation pulsing in their veins since their teenage years, in 2005 Jason and Shawn, who are both FAA Designated Pilot Examiners, started with nothing more than some education, a Cessna 172, and a burning desire to build an aviation business.  Since then, Elite has grown its business to more than 15 aircraft and 20 flight instructors by staying true to its business model of providing the newest and safest aircraft, performing impeccable maintenance, maintaining a state-of-the-art training facility, and focusing like a laser beam on customer service.

Looking down Elite’s bullet point list of approvals, I am impressed with how far they have come in just eight years:

  • FAA Part 141 Approved (Both Airplane and Helicopter)
  • V.A. Approved (Both Airplane and Helicopter)
  • S.E.V.P. Approved (Vocational M-1 Student Visa)
  • FAA 91.147 Tour Operations
  • UVU- Utah Valley University Provider
  • CSN- College of Southern Nevada Provider
  • WSU – Westfield State University Provider
  • On-site CATS Testing Center

According to their website, Elite Flight Training & Management flies more hours per year that any other flight school in Nevada.

Both Shawn and Jason are accomplished professional pilots with backgrounds heavy in the fixed-wing world.  As such, neither of them had roots in the helicopter industry.  However, when you combine their passion for aviation with their propensity to be serial entrepreneurs, the helicopter market seemed to be the next logical direction for their business.

As they see it, they have found the recipe for success in the fixed-wing training world, and according to Jason, “We spent seven years learning, and building success in our fixed-wing business.  If we execute our business plan properly, there is no reason that those same experiences will not translate into success in our helicopter operations.”

In addition to their Cessna and Cirrus fixed-wing fleet, they are also flying the Robinson R44 and R22 as their primary helicopter trainers.  Their helicopter training programs include Private Pilot, Commercial Pilot, Instrument Rating, Certified Flight Instructor, Certified Flight Instructor Instrument, and Airline Transport Pilot (ATP).

WATCH THIS VIDEO to see what the owners of Elite Fiight Training & Management have to say about their school.

In the lean years following the collapse of the financial markets, I saw many schools come into existence, only to go out of business in short order.  One common denominator for successful schools during lean times is their ability to “follow the money.”  By that, I mean helicopter schools that align themselves with student financing programs better their chance to grow their business.  The two most prominent safe havens for helicopter flight training providers have been colleges and universities, as well as U.S. Armed Forces programs offering veteran educational benefits.

Of course this all sounds well and dandy, but aligning with these institutions requires a massive amount of investment in both time and dollars.  Having a training curriculum approved under FAR Part 141, so that you may provide programs to veterans, is no easy task.  Taking that one step further, integrating a flight-training program into a degree program at a college or university can add a massive layer of work, record keeping, and responsibility.

Elite is not only FAR Part 141 approved, but it also has relationships with not one, but three colleges.  These symbiotic relationships between the flight schools, the FAA, and the colleges have actually been a savior for the helicopter training industry in more ways than one.

First, they improve the quality of the end product (the pilot) that is really good for both the customer and the industry.  The FAA and colleges all impose higher standards on flight schools and force them to put in systems of accountability.  In other words, if you want access to the training dollars, you must meet higher standards. 

A second advantage created by symbiotic relationships is that they provide a strategic avenue for helicopter training companies to market and grow their businesses and produce quality pilots for the industry.  Naturally, the owners of Elite understood this dynamic from the beginning and built it into their business plan.

When it comes to training curriculum, Elite hangs its hat where it “FITS.”  The FAA / Industry Training Standards (FITS) program is a partnership between the FAA, industry, and academia, designed to enhance general aviation safety.  This is accomplished by developing flight-training programs that are more convenient, more accessible, less expensive, and more relevant to today’s users of the National Airspace System.

All FITS products are non-regulatory and incentive driven.  FITS is focused on the redesign of general aviation training.  Instead of training pilots to pass practical test, FITS focuses on expertly manage real-world challenges.  Scenario Based Training (SBT) is used to enhance the pilot’s aeronautical decision making, risk management, and single pilot resource management skills.  Elite was the first flight training organization in the world to offer both fixed-wing and helicopter SBT training programs.

Another key component of the Elite business plan revolves around the concept of diversity.  Yes, flight training is their core business, but their intuition led them to look at other areas in which they can leverage their expertise and flying assets.  In addition to flight training, they also provide aircraft management and sales brokerage services.  Being in the heart of Las Vegas, a haven for helicopter tourists, they have also become approved by the FAA as a helicopter tour operator, which allows them to offer the popular “Vegas Strip” night aerial tours.

Smartly, Elite’s owners are not only taking into consideration their core competencies when chasing down new areas for business expansion, but they also are looking at geographic areas where growth potential may lie --- like China.  Last year, the Elite team spent several weeks in China exploring opportunities in that giant market, which is still in its infancy.  The Chinese market is a sleeping giant, which is now being awakened by capitalism and the creation of aviation regulations and airspace.  Out of that trip was born a partnership, in which hundreds of Chinese can be sent to Elite every year for fixed-wing and/or helicopter training to fill that country’s demand for professional aviators.

If past performance is any indicator of future results, Elite will take its fixed-wing experience and continue to build success in the helicopter market.  So, from an outsider’s perspective, things seem to indeed be looking up for Elite Flight Training and Management.

Posted in: Company Profiles


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