By Rose Dorcey
Wausau Flying Service made the announcement in its newsletter and on its website: “We’re out of the FBO business.” The announcement caused waves of panic among the many faithful customers and supporters of the business.
“It can’t be,” they cried.
Relief was just a line or two down the page. John Chmiel, manager of Wausau Flying Service, based at Wausau Downtown Airport (AUW) in Wisconsin, explained what was going on. He had a “light bulb” moment, and in an instant, he changed his philosophy about how to run his fixed base operation and flight school. He was no longer in the FBO business; he was now in the adventure business.
That’s right, the adventure business. He explains the new game plan.
“My wife, Angela, and I enjoy kayaking,” he said. “A few years ago, we visited the Madison paddle-sport store, Rutabaga. As I walked into the store, it hit me. They weren’t just selling kayaks; they were selling the adventure. Everything about the store appealed to me: the music, the smells, the displays, and the casual but knowledgeable, enthusiastic employees.”
It occurred to Chmiel that if he applied the same adventure philosophy to his aviation business, it would motivate people to fly more often or learn to fly. He went back to central Wisconsin, full of ideas to implement his plan.
Soon after, his customers, friends and employees noticed the changes. Chmiel began scheduling “adventures” designed to get people to the airport. He promoted them in such a way as to see the adventure in each activity. He invited non-pilots to come along on the adventures. He became a marketing machine, using his website and widely read, online newsletter, CONTACT!, to get the word out on the new activities he was arranging.
The game plan worked. With very little, and in some cases, no outside advertising, the sign-up lists filled. It wasn’t long until they were flying the Canadian Caravan or the Putt-Putt Patrol. They learned about other types of flying with Chmiel’s Seaplane, Helicopter and Glider adventures.
Some pilots flew with Chmiel for a tailwheel checkout or for spin/stall recovery methods. Others went with him to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, Okla., for a Survival/Altitude Chamber Adventure. Young people came for the Youth Flight Camp, which included both ground and flight instruction. Current and prospective pilots from throughout the state and outside its borders were coming to Wausau Flying Service to participate.
Chmiel was encouraged to see so many pilots, and non-pilots, getting involved with aviation through his adventures. So much so, that he expanded his offerings. He has added the Northwoods Adventure, the Busy Airport Tour Adventure and the Air Traffic Control Adventure. Several participants are repeat customers.
Besides making the flying experience enjoyable for all, there is another reason Chmiel feels it is important to promote the adventure aspect. He believes that FBOs aren’t competing with each other; they’re competing with Harley Davidson, SeaDoo and other recreational businesses and pastimes.
“People are spending their money there, and having fun on their motorcycles, snowmobiles and other machines,” he said. “We don’t have to sell anyone on aviation. Airplanes are cool. Flying is cool. Whether you’re flying for business or pleasure, it’s not a hard sell.”
It only takes a few minutes of talking with John Chmiel to feel his enthusiasm for all things flight related, especially in motivating others to learn to fly. He created the flight adventures to “keep the fire burning” once a student has received a private pilot certificate, and to challenge pilots to bring up their levels of performance. He did it, in addition, to bring back something he felt as a youth growing up at an airport.
Ask anyone at Wausau Downtown Airport if he has succeeded in bringing back that feeling. They’ll tell you he has, at least as best as anyone could several decades later. Ask the daily “coffee guys”—the World War II vets, of whom some are former flyboys—who come to share their military memories. Ask the Friday lunch crowd—as many as 30 pilots of all ages—who bring a bag lunch and talk about flying. Ask the flyers of the Putt-Putt Patrol, local pilots who gather on Tuesday evenings (weather permitting) for a short flight to a nearby airport, “just for the sake of flight.” They all feel welcome at the Wausau airport, and that’s just how Chmiel wants it.
“It’s like golf,” he explained. “It’s not always about the game, but an excuse to congregate. You don’t see that at airports anymore, not with the same numbers. I want to bring that back.”
If he sounds nostalgic for the “old” days, he is, and with good reason. Chmiel has fond memories of times spent with his dad, Jack Chmiel, at the airport.
“I grew up hanging around the airport while my dad was twisting wrenches in the shop,” Chmiel recalls. “I hung out all day and couldn’t wait until the next airplane came in so I could look in the cockpit, hoping to get a ride somehow. I remember the atmosphere at the airports in those days, and it’s not like that nowadays. I wanted to recreate that feeling.”
Chmiel moved to California with his mother in 1976, and worked at FBOs there when he became old enough to ride his bike to the airport. At 14, he rode seven miles one way to his job of washing airplanes at Hayward Executive Airport (HWD). He recalls that the flight school at the airport had 16 airplanes, and he got paid $8 for a single, $16 for a twin.
“I got to know everyone at the FBOs there, and I always had a job at an airport,” he said.
After high school, he studied aerospace engineering at Northrop University in Los Angeles. However, he didn’t like what he was doing. In 1985, a call from his dad, the airport manager at Rhinelander/Oneida County Airport (RHI) brought him back to his home state of Wisconsin.
“I got back in touch with my dream in Rhinelander, Wisconsin,” he said. “I didn’t find it in California.”
Chmiel went to work for Charlie Turner, owner of Rhinelander Flying Service. His first job at the FBO was towing and fueling aircraft, but his responsibilities grew. He saved his money for flight training and became a flight instructor.
In 1992, an opportunity became available at Wausau Downtown Airport. By then, Chmiel had met Angela Uhl, and their relationship became solid. The couple went to Turner and told him that if he offered an FBO contract to Wausau, they would go down and run it.
“Charlie gave us a check and a couple of airplanes and said, ‘Make it work’. He didn’t say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,'” Chmiel recalled. He’s grateful to Turner for giving him that chance. “He gave me an opportunity that not many other people would have given me. He’s been fantastic to work for.”
The couple has kept their heads above water, a feat for anyone in the FBO business these days. He credits his wife with much of the success of their business.
“Angela is very important to this business. She’s the financial director; she’s the boss,” he says. “I couldn’t do her job. We’ve been working together, side-by-side, 24/7, for the last 14 years. We’ve raised a family and raised a business, and that part is cool. I can’t imagine not working with her.”
They’ve developed constructive relationships with community leaders and have taken on the role as airport manager. Due to their positive relationships, there’s very little airport adversity. He gives monthly reports to the local airport commission and shares the information that’s important to them, like how much fuel is flowing, if the hangars are filled and estimated figures for airport operations. He’s specific when naming the corporations that are using the airport. Chmiel’s opinion is that it’s very beneficial when local politicians know exactly what’s going on at the airport, in order to garner their support.
As a Wausau resident, Chmiel looks at airport projects from both sides of the coin. He’ll often ask himself how his neighbors might react to an airport proposal. He tries to keep all airport projects on a proactive, rather than emergency, basis.
“As a taxpayer in the city of Wausau, I ask for reasonable projects, like perimeter fencing, trimming trees on approach ends of runways and pavement maintenance,” he explained. “The airport committee knows what’s coming up. Most projects are part of our six-year plan.”
Wisely, Chmiel has also developed favorable relationships with the media. They call on him when aviation issues come up and have reported on several airport events, such as Young Eagles flights and events of historical significance.
Wausau Flying Service concentrates on three areas: managing the airport, fuel flowage, and flight training. Charter operations aren’t a big part of their business. Chmiel feels that if you aren’t teaching people how to fly, even though it’s not a big moneymaker, the airport will die a slow, agonizing death.
“You’ve got to have pilots to fill the hangars, buy the airplanes and flow the fuel,” he said. “If you’re not constantly growing that base, your airport will slowly go away.”
When he opened shop in 1992, he knew he wouldn’t survive without flight training. Today, he looks at the airport tenants and proudly says, “We created those pilots.”
Other great things have happened since arriving in Wausau. The number of based aircraft has more than doubled, as has T-hangar space. A hangar development area was created, and in the last six years, six private hangars were constructed. The city of Wausau constructed a heated 100′ x 100′ hangar, and since doing so, local businesses have purchased aircraft and based them in Wausau. Airport officials are considering the construction of another 10,000-square-foot hangar. The FBO is providing more pilot services all the time.
Chmiel is very optimistic about the future of aviation.
“In the FBO business the saying goes, ‘Good times are right around the corner,'” he laughed. “We always think that this is going to be the year. We’re going to run on all cylinders. We’ve got some great carrots dangling out there right now. We’ve got very light jets. If they produce as many as they’re forecasting, you can only imagine the impact it will have. I think VLJs will have the greatest impact on small to medium FBOs like ours, because those airplanes will go where the light twin charters used to go.”
Where will Wausau Flying Service be a few years down the road? Chmiel is looking at his business plan in the long-term, not the short-term. He hopes they will be running the business 20 years from now. He’ll continue teaching and sharing his love of flight, and flying adventures, with hundreds of students, and passing along bits of aviation’s nostalgic past with those fortunate enough to meet him.
For more information, visit [http://www.flywausau.com].