Scouring the scene for special Skyhawks

They have replicated the basic formula six times in as many years: Robert Glidewell beats the bushes for scarce Cessna 172s of a certain vintage, which he buys and upgrades with new avionics and interiors. Then he leases the airplanes to Marian Smith’s flight school, Palm Beach Flight Training, where a largely airline-track student body is keeping 17 flight instructors busy flying at pre-coronavirus pandemic levels from Palm Beach County Park Airport.

You can’t be too fussy in a hot market for training airplanes. (How hot is the market? So hot that when he found his sixth Cessna 172, Glidewell secured the Skyhawk sight unseen—a first for him—and dispatched two of Smith’s staff pilots to fetch it in Rhode Island.)

However, Glidewell, 43, who started off with one airplane and built up from there, sticks with a game plan that works: He seeks out N- or P-model Cessna Skyhawks, the 160-horsepower airplanes manufactured in the late 1970s and early 1980s—”looking under rocks and crevices,” he says—and sends them over to Tomlinson Avionics of Florida at Page Field in Fort Myers for a standardized installation of Garmin avionics. Next, the Skyhawk is bound for AirCrafter’s Refinishing at Sebastian Municipal Airport for application of a custom paint job. Then the aircraft’s interior gets attention at AeroTrim at Treasure Coast International Airport in Fort Pierce. On completion, it is off to the flight line in Palm Beach.

Tying up $55,000 to $60,000 for upgrades is a significant cost burden to carry for several months before the trainer generates any revenue. “But I believe it is the best way to go,” he said. “My rule of thumb is to never place an aircraft on the flight line that is not looking good and running good with good equipment.”

Glidewell estimates that the airplanes fly 85 to 130 hours a month at the flight school. The positive volume smooths out the economic ups and downs of aircraft ownership that would prove challenging for someone who owns only one aircraft and wants to enter a leaseback in hopes of defraying costs.

Glidewell has become what you might call a vertically integrated operator: On the demand side, he connects with the customer base by making weekly semi-anonymous visits to the airport to chat with the pilots who fly his airplanes. (Schmoozing comes naturally to Glidewell, whose day job is that of an energy-industry lobbyist.)

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