Spokane Journal of Business

Northwest Flight Service strives to stretch its wings

Demand for pilot training, services said to be growing

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Bill Ifft, owner of Northwest Flight Service, combined his maintenance and flight-instruction under the NWFS brand earlier this year. The company currently employs 22 people.
-—LeAnn Bjerken
Northwest Flight Service operates out of three buildings at Felts Field, including a 10,000-square-foot structure that houses its maintenance facility.

Aviation training and maintenance business Northwest Flight Service, of Spokane, is looking to spread its wings, as demand for pilot training and rentals or purchase of planes for business travel continues to increase, says its owner Bill Ifft.

Northwest Flight Service was created through the combined services of two local aviation brands: Aircraft Solutions and Northwest Flight School.

The company, which Ifft launched in early 2012 as Aircraft Solutions LLC, originally specialized in maintenance and support of Cirrus Aircraft piston-powered general aviation planes.

In 2013, Northwest Flight School was added as an aviation training facility for both private and commercial pilot training, as well as aircraft rental services.

Ifft says the business moved its operations to Felts Field in 2015 from its previous location at Spokane International Airport and combined its two brands under one name this past January.

“Our maintenance and flight school have been connected since the beginning, but by combining them under the Northwest Flight Service umbrella, we felt that it would simplify our corporate identity,” he says.

Now, with continuing demand for skilled pilots, flight instructors, and business aircraft, Ifft says he expects to grow the business, although it’s currently constrained by lack of space.

“There is, currently, a limited amount of space available for aircraft storage, offices, and maintenance,” he says. “I’d love to see 100 percent growth, but the infrastructure won’t support it at this time.”

Northwest Flight Service has three buildings for its operations, including a 10,000-square-foot maintenance hangar at 5503 E. Rutter, on the southwest end of Felts Field, and a 6,000-square-foot aircraft storage hangar on the eastern side of the airfield.

The business’s offices, which include flight school classrooms, simulators, and testing spaces, share a building and common lobby space with Western Aviation at 6095 E. Rutter, about midway between the other facilities, on the south side of the airfield.

Ifft says Northwest Flight Service’s business offerings are divided between the flight school and its maintenance operations.

He says the business has a total of 22 employees, 13 flight school instructors, three mechanics, and a six-person office staff who alternate their duties between the two divisions. 

Ifft says about 70 percent of the business’s earnings come from the flight school’s training operations and aircraft rentals, while the remaining 30 percent comes from aircraft maintenance and management.

Northwest’s growth has remained steady the last three years, with sales increasing by roughly 15 percent each year since 2015, he says.

“Our annual sales are just north of $2 million,” Ifft says. “Unfortunately, it costs just north of $2 million a year to stay in business.”

Retired Air Force pilot Dan Arch, who is the director of flight operations and chief instructor at Northwest Flight Service, says instructors at the flight school are mainly part-time retired pilots, some of whom, like himself, are also former military members.

Northwest teaches four main courses—a private pilot course, a commercial pilot course, an instruments course, and a Cirrus transition course.

“We’re certified to teach or train in a lot of courses,” he says. “The ones we do most of the time are private, instrument, commercial, and certified flight instructor in single engine, land airplanes.”

Arch says instructors can train students in all of those ratings for Cirrus aircraft, as well as offering multiple Cirrus transition courses for pilots moving from another airplane to using the Cirrus models.

“Most of the training is one-on-one, just a student and instructor in the plane,” he says. “Private pilot training and instrument training are our two ground school courses. We also offer FAA testing and commercial drone operation training.”

Arch says interest in flight training and testing continues to grow, with the flight school seeing between 200 and 300 students each year for its one-on-one courses.

“We’ve seen extreme growth in the last three or four years, as airlines are short of pilots and flight instructors are harder to find. In fact, we’re adding two new instructors to our staff later this month,” he says.

Arch says flight school clients can include new or returning student pilots, already licensed pilots working on instrument or commercial ratings, and pilots training for biennial flight reviews.

He says the school’s client load varies daily based on weather and personal schedules, but overall numbers are rising over time.

Northwest currently operates one four-seat, single-engine Cirrus SR-20 general aviation aircraft, which is primarily used for local training, and has two Cirrus SR-22 Turbos it uses for rental and demonstration flights.

In addition to Cirrus aircraft, Ifft says the company also rents four four-seat, single-engine Cessna 172s to certified pilots who require them for business or leisure travel, and also provides training in various owner-provided aircraft, as well as certification for commercial drone operation. 

Ifft says Northwest’s maintenance shop works on most single and multi-engine piston aircraft and some business jets but specializes in maintenance and repair of Cirrus aircraft.

In January Northwest Flight Service won the Cirrus Training Center of the Year, ranking it as the No. 1 center out of 75 others in North America.

“The Cirrus Training center award is huge,” he asserts. “We are, probably, the smallest training center in North America, but our staff and attitude really stands out.”

Arch says about half of all the maintenance work done by Northwest Flight Service is on aircraft not owned by the company.

“Our typical customers are private owners, people who travel for business,” he says. “As a Cirrus service center, a majority of the Cirrus aircraft in the area come to us for regular maintenance. We will also travel up to three hours away to service aircraft.”

He says Northwest’s service area includes most of the Inland Northwest and extends as far east as Montana, and as far west as Seattle.

“We repair or maintain about three aircraft every week,” says Ifft. 

Arch says the Federal Aviation Administration requires an annual maintenance inspection on all airplanes, and all of Northwest’s planes also require similar inspections after every 100 hours of flight.

“Some of our planes fly over 600 hours a year, so that’s six inspections per year,” he says. “For annual inspections, we need to take the whole plane apart for inspection and put it back together again, which can take a few days.”

Compared to many other single engine manufacturers, Arch says Duluth, Minn.-based Cirrus Aircraft is a relatively new company, with newer planes, having released its first model in 1999.

“These are planes that are built for comfort and travel, as well as speed,” he says. “Most newer aircraft are now made with composite, layers of bonded material that’s lightweight but stronger and easier to work with than the old aluminum planes used to be made out of.”

Ifft and Arch claim that Cirrus aircraft rival larger business jets in technology and capability, which makes them a popular plane for business and leisure travelers.

“I’d say that growth we’re seeing in pilot training is more because of the shortage of pilots for the airlines,” says Ifft. “But we do a bunch of training aimed at business people because of the Cirrus.”

Each Cirrus includes a parachute system that allows the entire aircraft to descend safely in the event of a critical emergency, and several models also include engines capable of high speeds, and de-icing safety features.

Ifft says Northwest hopes to continue growing, which will mean adding additional space or combining some of its current locations.

“We’d like to grow the business, but space is our biggest issue,” he says. “We’re really spread out at the moment, so it’d be nice to have our own hangar. At the same time, it takes a long while to get approval for land and construction.”

In terms of inventory, Ifft says Northwest is currently looking to add another Cirrus SR-20, as well as a new kind of aircraft called the Icon A5.

“Cirrus (planes) are still hard to find so it’s a slow process,” he says. “We have one of the new Icon A5’s already and mechanics who are certified to work on them.”

The Icon A-5 is an amphibious aircraft, and being made from the same sleek composite material, looks almost like a jet ski with wings.

“As far as the Icon goes, it’s new, and it’s a toy, but what we’ve found is that Cirrus pilots also like the Icon,” he says. “We do plan to expand to begin light sport and seaplane training with the Icon A5 soon.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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