Private, commercial, and airline transport pilot certification requires a trusted instructor, high-quality aircraft, and hours of time logged both on the ground and in the air. It’s an impressive achievement earned by less than one percent of the U.S. population. The Chattanooga area is home to three flight schools with deep roots in the industry.
Crystal Air, Inc.
Crystal Air began as a company that leased airplanes in the mid-1990s. Owned by Taylor Newman and his wife, Crystal, the organization now has the newest fleet of airplanes among flight schools in the Chattanooga area. Operating out of Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport and Collegedale Airport, today Crystal Air specializes in private charters, airplane maintenance, and flight instruction. Newman has 27 full and part-time employees including charter pilots, maintenance staff, and instructors.
Before the pandemic, Crystal Air student pilots flew primarily in the evenings. With the shift to more flexible schedules has come an increase in student pilots logging air time throughout the day. One of his organization’s strengths, Newman adds, is the deep understanding that every student learns differently. If the instructor can be adaptable, then each student will learn to fly at a reasonable pace. Four Crystal Air instructors have logged well over 10,000 hours in the air each. For clients who are already pilots, Crystal Air’s instructors are CFI, CFII, MEI certified to accommodate re-current training needs.
Newman’s love for flight began as a child in the 1970s, when his grandparents would take him to the observation deck at Lovell Field. Native to the Hiawassee area, he says one of the greatest changes he’s seen in learning to fly since he started in the business has been in technology. While the fundamentals of how to fly have changed little, the implementation of touch screens, and the implementation of redundancies that add safety, have changed instruction drastically.
The average Crystal Air flight school client is male, age 30-50. “Maybe he has a second home to go to. Maybe instead of playing golf or buying a boat he wants to own his own airplane,” Newman says. Fifteen percent of Newman’s pilots-in-training are area high school students. While the minority of his students are female, Newman says women actually make the ideal pilot, as their hand-eye coordination is so brisk. What his students love most about being in the air is the separation from the everyday. “I think it’s the getting away from everything that’s terrestrial,” Newman says. “We have clients that say, ‘I love to go flying because I don’t have to answer my phone.’ And the thousands and thousands of different vantage points you get visually. Seeing the sun rise, seeing the sun set, being on top of the clouds. A sea of white below us. The different places it takes you.”
Aviation Specialists, Inc.
As a child, Todd Pettibone dreamed of being a pilot. He’d visit cockpits mid-flight, fascinated by how the plane worked. At the time, most airline pilots seemed to be ex-military, with backgrounds in Vietnam and the Cold War. As a young adult, he earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Aviation Technology, a commercial pilot certificate, and a flight instructor certificate. Since then, Pettibone’s career in the air has included flight school instruction, Initial Flight Training for active-duty Air Force Pilots, charter piloting, photo piloting, and fire patrol piloting with state and federal forestry departments. “I love that I get to see things from a different perspective. I get to watch sunsets, sunrises, and moonrises from the air,” he says. “On cloudy days, I can often take off and climb to where it’s sunny. I get to see the seasons change from above. I love that in just a few hours flight time, I can be anywhere from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, or halfway to the Rockies.”
The owner of Aviation Specialists, Inc. since 2016, Pettibone offers training highly customized to each individual student. Nearly exclusively one-on-one instruction, his team can work with students with zero flight time to help them become private pilots and, later, professionals. They also help seasoned pilots fine tune their skills or add certifications, ratings, or endorsements. Class schedules are custom as well. Some students fly once a week, others four or five times a week. And there is no “average clientele,” Petticoat explains. “We have students of all ages, from early teens to retirees. We have men and women and a variety of ethnicities. We have clients who are pursuing a career as a pilot, and others who just love to fly for recreation. Basically, anyone with the motivation, means, and time to pursue the dream of flight can, and often does become our client.”
Depending on the student pilot’s budget, goals, and availability, a typical program at Aviation Specialists, Inc. lasts six to eighteen months and includes textbooks, study guides, and references books as needed. Although the flight school industry is experiencing a shortage of experienced instructors, Pettibone says, his team is made up of pilots with years of experience. And being based at the Collegedale Airport provides a relaxed atmosphere to learn that avoids the bustle of commercial airline traffic.
“I love machines and understanding how things work. I love heights. I love speed and G-forces. I love scenery and travel,” Pettibone adds. “I love the challenge of doing something that relatively few people in the world know how to do.”
Hixson Aviation Flying Club
Mark Winton, owner of Hixson Aviation Flying Club, says what he loves most about aviation is the freedom of being in the air. “It is a constantly changing, challenging, dynamic situation. No two flights are identical,” he says. “The greatest and most rewarding thing about teaching someone how to fly is being a part of helping that individual achieve their goals and dreams, helping [them] become a part of an extremely small elite club. There are 350 million people in the United States, and less than 1 million licensed pilots. That equates to less than 0.3 % of the people in the United States.”
A pilot since age 17 with experience as an Air Force Officer and a pilot for UPS, Winton initially made an impact on local flight opportunities when he and two business partners purchased Dallas Bay Skypark in 2002 to save the airport from real estate development. He took sole ownership of the flight school in 2009 and relocated his business to Lovell Field in 2021 after the airport closed for good. Hixson Aviation Flying Club Flight Training Programs include Private Pilot Training, Instrument Rating, Commercial Rating, Tailwheel Rating, Advanced Training, and Certified Flight Instructor.
Winton says his father instilled the love of aviation in him from a young age. He got his pilot’s license at age 17 and enlisted in the Air Force immediately after high school, working as an Avionics Technician on Vietnam Era fighters. He received his instrument rating and commercial pilot’s license, dreaming of one day becoming a fighter pilot. Winton later graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a Mechanical Engineering degree and returned to the Air Force for Officer Training School and Undergraduate Pilot Training. He finished top of his class, and when he retired from the Air Force, he had more than 3,000 hrs of military flight time and 500 hrs of civilian flight time. Winton then spent 22 years flying for UPS.
Part of what makes Hixson Aviation Flying Club stand out is its staff expertise and advanced course offerings. “Approximately half of our instructors have real world experience flying airplanes as opposed to just flying in a very controlled structured teaching environment. Hixson Aviation has over 50,000 hrs of combined flying experience to share with each new student pilot wanting to learn how to fly,” Winton says. “We also teach tailwheel training, advanced stall and spin training and aerobatic training in our Super Decathlon, which is a specialized aerobatic airplane.”