They say flying is the most fun you can have with your pants on — the corollary is that it’s on the ground where the trouble begins.
For most pilots in an urban area like Santa Barbara, the thrill of flying starts with instruction, and the person who teaches you to fly matters. Defying gravity tends to have life-ending consequences, and for student pilots, choosing an instructor is not only a matter of knowledge but even more a matter of trust.
A fight over who gets to instruct has chilled the thrill at Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA) since 2016. Three million dollars in federal grant money could hang in the balance.
The combatants are the sole flight school left on the field — Above All Aviation — and a flying club that formed in 2016, Channel City Flyers. It’s mostly a grudge match, a fact that even airport staff acknowledges.
Channel City Flyers was started by three pilots, one of them Mike Fountaine, who is also a certified flight instructor. The year before forming Channel City, Fountaine walked out of Above All Aviation over a disagreement with the owners, Shawn and Joel Sullivan, about instruction. He’d taught flying at the airport for 26 years in various capacities, including through his own flight school Fountaine Aviation from 1996 to 2003.
Above All has been the big dog on the field for many years. Fountaine asserts it holds 85-90 percent of the flight instruction at the airport. A second school, Spitfire Aviation, was caught up in an insurance scheme in 2014 and soon changed hands. The new owner, a Chinese company, managed it from Orange County. Airport observers speculated it was chiefly a means for Chinese pilots to practice English and that Spitfire had been a shell company for several years. Spitfire gave up its lease at Santa Barbara’s airport in October 2020. A third flight school listed at SBA’s website, Santa Barbara Aviation, no longer offers instruction and is a charter service.
What’s a Flying Club?
Flying clubs exist under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules to promote general aviation and pilot safety — but their main purpose is to allow members to share the cost of buying, storing, and maintaining aircraft. Even the airport agrees that the field’s two clubs can allow its members to be instructed in club aircraft; the question is how much, a point the FAA leaves up to airports to determine. What differentiates a club from a school is that clubs cannot operate as a for-profit or compete with commercial tenants of the airport in any way, such as offering transportation, photo tours, or instruction to nonmembers.
SBA has two flight clubs. One, Santa Barbara Flying Club, formed in 1947, has about 60 members — several of whom are student pilots — and charges membership fees and for flight time in its three small aircraft. Channel City has about 30 members and similar rules and boasts a Piper Comanche with retractable landing gear. As a new club, nearly half its members are students trying for their pilot’s license.
And that’s where the fight began.
Above All had complained to airport authorities since 2016 about competition and economic discrimination from the new flying club. The Sullivans made a verbal complaint to the FAA in 2018, which resulted in a letter from George Aiken, the airports compliance program manager for the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region. Saying he wanted the airport to resolve the issue — and prevent FAA investigation and action — Aiken reminded SBA of the need to avoid unjust discrimination among its tenants, organizations, and persons “authorized by the airport sponsor to engage in commercial aeronautical activities at the airport, but who are not actual lessees at the airport with leased facilities.”
For Henry Thompson, the airport’s administrator, even an informal complaint, like the Sullivans’, to the FAA is a serious matter. Aiken’s letter clearly linked a resolution of the conflict to the airport’s continuing eligibility for Airport Improvement Program (AIP) money — SBA gets about $3 million a year in AIP grants for maintenance and other necessary work.
In order to comply, Thompson’s staff asked both clubs for a membership audit in order to find out just how many student pilots they had. Channel City replied they didn’t track that kind of information. The back and forth between the airport and the flying club consumed so much of staff’s time this past year that Thompson told the airport commissioners in December that they were “done with it.” Channel City was sent a cease-and-desist letter advising the club to “transfer” its students or its leases would be revoked by the end of 2020.
The Economy or Personality?
In a written statement to the Independent, Shawn Sullivan made the case for Above All’s economic issue: “Aviation is a challenging business environment, both from the standpoint of regulatory complexity as well as financially. … As the cost of operating a flight school (which is built into the regulatory requirements) is a significant factor in the challenges Above All faces in keeping our doors open, any unfair advantage that other providers enjoy must necessarily be opposed if we are to continue to provide for the community.” She added that she welcomed healthy competition.
As a certified flight instructor, Fountaine acknowledged he had almost no overhead compared to Above All, but they have all the credibility an office and a brace of aircraft can offer, he believes. “Are you going to take flight lessons from someone who pulls up in a car?” he asked. Word-of-mouth among pilots is what gets him students, and the student has to have access to an airplane. If Fountaine provided one, he’d be acting as a school.
Many have told the Independent the Sullivans’ complaint feels personal. David Williams is on the boards of both the Santa Barbara and Channel City clubs. He said he was within three hours of completing his student flight time with Above All Aviation when he joined Channel City. The Sullivans kicked him out of the flight school, he said, even though he’d spent $10,000 on lessons with them. His instructor, appalled, texted an apology, Williams said.
Williams finished his time with other instructors, including Mike Fountaine. “He’s got 25,000 hours of experience,” Williams said, “The level of instruction was incredible, in every way. Mike’s always flown single-engine aircraft and knows them in and out.”
Sullivan insisted the economic unfairness was the only reason she filed a complaint to the FAA.
The clubs came out in force to the Airport Commission meeting on December 16. Among the speakers was one of Channel City’s student pilots. Jason Lee explained to the commissioners that he’d started flying a year ago “when I found the pursuit of flight was within the grasp of a person of modest income.” He’d visited Above All, but online pilot blogs advised trying different instructors. “Given the risks involved in flying,” Lee explained, “choosing an instructor is not to be done lightly.” He went on to say, “The ability of the instructor can mean the difference between life and death” and asked the commissioners not to curtail his ability to choose an instructor.
Constitutional rights were invoked by another speaker. Bob Rice, S.B. Flying’s president, argued the airport administrator was trying to change the rules “so that we would not be able to use the instructors of our choice. Any individual aircraft owner can contract with a federally licensed instructor for the instruction they need, not that some third party says they need.” Darryl Eaton, the secretary for the Santa Barbara Flying Club, said he was actually using the flight simulator at Above All when his club got its audit letter from the airport authorities.
Channel City has lawyered up, hiring Scott Williams, a Thousand Oaks attorney experienced in aircraft law. After first denying the club engaged in commercial flight instruction activity, Williams offered to decrease student membership at the club to 33 percent.
Deanna Zachrisson, business development manager for the airport, said the offer itself pointed to the problem. “The idea of negotiating over the number of students who can receive flight instruction via a flying club instead of in a flight school is illustrative of the issue,” she said. “The purpose of a flying club is not to teach people how to fly.”
Channel City Flyers was given a reprieve until the end of January to conform to the airport’s new rules, though Zachrisson said they were still attempting to find a compromise. While the airport could limit flight instruction at a club, that felt like a heavy-handed tactic, she said, because too much instruction was not typically an issue on airfields, which are highly interested in safety. Once revised, the entire set of new rules regarding instruction would go to public comment before heading to the Santa Barbara City Council for enactment.
At December’s commission meeting, Thompson announced the airport would send a request for proposal to enlist a second flight school. Mike Fountaine is applying. “Above All Aviation is a monopoly, and I think a little healthy competition is good for the consumer,” Fountaine said. If the group he’s formed wins the contract, Zachrisson hoped they and Above All would begrudgingly find a way to compete against each other.
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