Turning pilots into managers: Pilots who learn to manage grow with parent firms

Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc. April 1990 Professional Pilot Magazine. If you’ve been in corporate aviation any length of time you probably met that strange hybrid, the pilot-manager. You may have even worked for him and wondered how on earth he ever got to be supreme starship commander for your company.

In the old days, he probably got there one of two ways. The first scenario is exemplified by Frank, who was hired because he showed up as the pilot when the boss took his first airplane demonstration ride. Frank smiled a lot and got his employer safely from point A to point B with a high degree of reliability. As the company blossomed, so did the flight department – and Frank’s responsibilities. Trouble was, our budding manager was so busy flying that he had neither time nor inclination to develop the skills he needed to direct a growing fleet of airplanes.
A second route to the managerial ranks was traveled by Ernest, who was originally hired as a copilot then upgraded to captain and outlived – or at least outlasted – everyone else in the department. His claim to the manager’s slot was based strictly on seniority, and he never got around to acquiring the training necessary to function effectively in that position.
Career advancement patterns like Frank’s and Ernest’s are on the way out now, mostly because a corporate aviation department is often the largest discretionary expense a company has and running it properly requires administrative training.
So how does a pilot get this kind of training? Say you’re a captain pushing 40 with lots of flying experience. How do you beg, borrow or steal the time to learn aviation management? I’d been asking myself this question for years and a lot of other corporate pilots have evidently  been asking it as well.
Learning the language
Enter the National Business Aircraft Association Education and Safety Foundation and their continuing education program designed for business aviation. This program, which consists of 17 different courses, is available in easily-managed, two-day chunks at various times and locations around the country.
The course material is designed to train aviation professionals to develop managerial skills that will enhance the corporation’s bottom line. Once we speak senior management’s language, we can communicate more effectively to the decision-makers, demonstrating how safe and efficient air transportation serves to amplify management capability across the board.
The capstone of this aviation management education pyramid is a one-week course at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I heard about the Darden course, “Managing the Corporate Aviation Function,” when it first began five years ago. I’d been promising myself this training for a long time and last year I finally scheduled myself off flying and took the course. Now I wonder how I ever functioned without it. To say it was an eye-opening experience is an understatement.
Having completed the program, I can now see how much planning and research went into it. The people who set up the curriculum began by interviewing many aviation heads and senior managers. Their conclusion was that we aviation managers are often remiss in relating to upper management in five different areas:
     Equipment and justification, 
     Cost and allocation, 
     Lease buy/charter decisions, 
     People problems, and
​     Fleet planning.

The program uses the hands-on method of case histories involving actual aviation departments with problems in one or more of these areas. Our group discussions of possible solutions included role-playing by members of the class and instructors. It would be hard to avoid learning in the creative environment developed by three of the best professors I have ever encountered.
The teaching techniques vary from casual, hands-in-the-pockets discussions of “charge-backs” to suspender snapping simplifications of depreciation. One wheeled wonder darted around the room in a desk chair using his first, thumb and little finger as a mock telephone while creating real-life situations we had to solve.
Classes start at 0830 and after a late afternoon/evening break, five-person study groups meet to discuss the next day’s material.
Yes, it’s a tough workload but the course is fascinating and certainly no boondoggle. For those pilots who have some trepidation, I would add that there are no grades. It’s not a pass/fail situation and there is no feedback to your employer.
Not only is the classwork interesting, but the housing conditions at Darden are excellent. Program participants stay on campus at Sponsors Hall, just across the street from the classroom and the library, so there is no need for a rental car.
Working with the gray
Pilots tend to develop into black/white personalities because all our decisions are go/no go. After surviving for a number of years, we begin to think that all decisions in life can be made on the same principal. This may be the biggest chink in our management armor. The truth is, management decisions are often judgment calls based on a lot of gray areas. It is this ability to massage the gray into workable solutions that separates the managers from the rest.
Can we be both good managers and good pilots? I believe we can. In general, pilots are the most goal-oriented, challenge-loving group I know, and an admirable goal to set for ourselves is to be the best possible pilot/managers.
There are a lot of excellent managers out there who can’t find Djibouti on a dark and stormy night. There are a lot of good pilots who can’t find their own accounting departments. I want to be one of the few who can find – and comfortably handle – both.
No, I don’t want to do the accounting – the number crunchers can have that. But I want to be able to tell accounting how charging back all costs (including depreciation) to user departments defeats the purpose of having an aviation department. After I’ve stated my case, if senior management’s decisions are not to follow my recommendations, I can live with that. At least I will have done my best.
One thing all departments in a corporation compete for is capital. The NBAA/Darden curriculum gives you the answers you need to defend yourself against the people who believe aviation departments are dump valves for money that can be more effectively used elsewhere. In corporate aviation, this is a survival issue, and once you speak management’s language, you’ve got a better shot at being one of the survivors.
The course at Darden is a sort of educational Mardi Gras. It only comes around once a year, so putting it off is easy. But if you don’t go, you’ll always wonder whether you did the best job you could. If your schedule is so busy you can’t possibly make it, consider sending someone else from your department.
Darden and the NBAA Education and Safety Foundation are important and necessary tools of our trade. Senior management needs to hear from us, loud and clear, in language they can understand.