I talk with Neel Khokhani from Soar Aviation who is an entrepreneur and flight instructor who started his own flight school at the age of 23. Neel and I discuss how Soar Aviation grew rapidly from only one aircraft to a large fleet today with 3 locations across Australia including Bankstown, Morrabbin and Bendigo. Soar Aviation manage to keep its rates low by continuously innovating and using fuel-efficient and modern Rotax powered aircraft. This results in lower rates for its customers and best of all more opportunities for student pilots to hone skills in the cockpit.
Foxbat over Melbourne
Starting out – Neel started out as a Qualified Flight Instructor. Neels first job was at Lilydale Airport and he notes that it was initially difficult to get flying hours. After much hard work Neel was able to get a few students and build enough hours to move through the ranks to a Senior Instructor and a Grade One Instructor.
Instructing experience – Neel has worked at MFTA teaching China Southern Airline cadets at Mangalore Airport and has taught Instructors courses at Melbourne Flight Training. Neel was told to ‘piss off’ and start his own company by one of his bosses due to differences of opinion in how a flight school should be run. Neel notes that at Morrabbin Airport some of the schools had nearly identical rates and that they were raising their rates every six months to try to stay in business. Neel suggested that they should reduce their rates to try to increase the number of customers which was not well received by the owner.
Crowd Funding – Neel did a Scoopon deal (Voucher website) offering a half hour Trial Instructional Flight for $89. On the very first day Neel (just before father’s day) sold 1400 trial flights in 24 hours. He took the cash flow from that deal and bought his first aircraft. Neel notes as a 23-year-old no one wanted to lend him money so he had to buy all his aircraft with cash.
Owning Aircraft – Neel made a promise that he would not lease aircraft from other private individuals (Neel notes that most schools lease aircraft in this manner). In Neel’s experience this model leads to higher costs for students to hire out the aircraft. Neel has found that if he owns his own aircraft then the Return on Investment is reasonable and he can charge his customers less which results in students flying more. Soar Aviation buys all their aircraft through cash-flow, saving up and keeping costs to a minimum.
Aquila A210 with Foxbat’s in the background
Aircraft types – Neel notes that most schools own 1980’s or earlier era General Aviation aircraft such as Piper Warriors and that these are generally worth around $40,000. Neel notes that at $400 an hours the schools are charging around 1% on the cost of capital per hour. Soar Aviation charges only 20% on their base costs which allows the business to stay solvent and pay their wages but also not putting and unnecessary burden on customers.
Fleet – Soar Aviation has several Aeroprakt A-22LS Foxbat’s and Aquila A210 which are powered by Rotax engines. Neels notes that Rotax engines are light, strong and fuel-efficient. Neel comments that Lycoming and Continental engines which power older certified aircraft are generally older technology engines which use more fuel and are therefore more expensive to run.
A Foxbat on the ramp
Fuel Savings – Soar Aviation charges $229 per hour for the Foxbat and $299 for the Aquila. Neels notes that Soar Aviation rather than being ‘cheap’ is efficient in that they used Rotax engines (which use around 15 litres and hour) and run on regular car fuel.
Types of Training – Last year Soar Aviation purchased Bendigo Aviation Services, therefore now they do all different types of training all the way from the first flight to a Diploma in Aviation. They are a Registered Training Organisation and CRICOS approved so they can take international students.
Soar Aviation differences – Soar Aviation hires keen instructors who are new to the industry but they also have experienced instructors within their organisation. Their Head of Flight operations has 30,000 hours of flying experience and another of their instructors has airline experience with REX. Neel prides himself on employing people who fit their company mission which is to bring in as many people into aviation as possible.
Neel Khokhani (CEO) stands in front of one of his Foxbat’s
Advice for someone looking to start out – Neel recommends not getting misled by old school operators who dismiss Light Sport Aircraft. If you takes Neels opinion his suggestion is to look at Light Sport Aircraft for your training to lower the costs. He recommends finding a flight training organisation which fits your culture.
Neel’s Initial Training – Neel went solo in 10.8 hours, he only had completed 3 lessons of circuits by that point in his training. Neel was told by his instructor to exit the runway at the first taxiway so as to not obstruct other aircraft and was so elated after his landing that he pushed hard on the left rudder and put the plane on one wheel during the turn. Neel had to provide an explanation to his instructors for his actions but over ally he recommends keeping calm during your first solo.
Neel’s Cross Country Training – Neel has encountered a lot of bad weather during his training. Neel once took off from Bankstown and was surrounded by cloud in all directions and got into Instrument Conditions. Neel had to be escorted back to Bankstown by the controller. From that point on Neel noted that he would never ever fly into marginal weather again.
Flight Instructors at Soar – Neel notes that different students like different instructors (i.e.: easy-going versus precise and strict). Neel aims to match instructors with students personality and is happy to let students change instructors if they do get along for whatever reason.
Preflight Briefing with a Soar Aviation Instructor
What phases of training do students have difficultly with – Neel notes that going first solo is the most difficult aspect of flight training. Neel comments that once students have completed their first solo they generally gain confidence and breeze through the rest of their training.
Challenges in managing a flight school – Neel notes that it is difficult dealing with regulatory bodies as a small company, that Soar don’t have the money to engage consultants to deal with these organisations like some large organisations. Neel notes that he needs to constantly innovate to ensure that customers don’t end up paying more per hour.
Running a Flight School at Bankstown – Neel notes that it’s not that difficult. Neel comments that at non controlled airports there are a lot of wrong things happening that don’t get noticed. Neel notes that a controlled airport gives the school more motivation to do the right thing all the time.
Registration of Aircraft – Neel noticed that with the changes of Part 61 that it is easier to have a VH registered fleet. Neel notes that the other schools talk down the use of Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). Neel notes that all the other companies are using standard GA aircraft and Soar is using a totally different business model.
Inflight picture of a student and Instructor in the Foxbat
Soar Aviation in the future – They are looking to register for FEE-Help so that after PPL all the flight training can be put as debt to the government for students so they can finish their flight training sooner. Neel is looking towards emerging markets but they are not forgetting their core customer base which is Australia Recreation and Private flyers. Neel wants to give his customers a diverse fleet to give pilots more options in the future.
Final messages for people starting out – Neel recommends doing a lot of research (i.e.:by using social media) which gives them a perspective of the various cultures of the available flight training organisations.
Final 3 questions
If cost was not a factor what aircraft would you buy?
If you could fly with a famous pilot who would that be?
Whats your favourite aviation phrase?
On Neels email signature he has a quote which says:
“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” – Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company
How can people find out more about Soar Aviation?
Click these links:
Merchandise giveaway – if you mention the Go Flying Australia Podcast at Soar Aviation locations they will giveaway a Soar Aviation cap.
Thanks for listening!