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Aviator Zone Academy: ‘Little fish in a big pond’

Santiago, now 27, is a child of Cuban immigrants and his family didn’t have much money, but he possessed two important traits—drive and ambition. His persistence soon paid off. He landed a summer job at the flight school washing airplanes, answering the telephone, helping schedule flights, and did “whatever I could to trade for flight time in a Cessna 150. That kind of started everything.”

He founded the flight school at Miami Executive Airport in 2018 with one airplane and one instructor. He compared the business’s early days to being a small fish in a big pond, “but we weren’t even a small fish, we were like a tadpole.”

He said it was initially difficult to develop a brand and a name because the airfield is a competitive flight training environment with a half-dozen schools. “We do have a lot of big competitors on our field, so it was definitely a challenge.”

The school added more airplanes and more students and kept growing because people were attracted to the welcoming but professional environment. “It’s amazing what happens when you deliver a good service, a good product, and treat people well,” he said.

The school has been named the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Survey Southern regional award winner for best flight school. Santiago employs six instructors, two dispatchers, and a maintenance technician, and operates seven flight training aircraft.

Before establishing the flight school, Santiago performed many hours of banner towing above the South Florida beaches and was wowed by the ocean view from a small aircraft. “It’s beautiful down there and just going up and down the shoreline, I love it,” he said. Santiago has “about 2,000 hours of shoreline flying. Just looking at that shoreline is still amazing and it’s still beautiful. I never get bored; I always find something new” to see.

He gained additional insight by flying for a Part 135 operation in the Bahamas. The Cessna 402 light twin that Santiago flew in the islands had a basic six-pack of analog instruments and a Garmin handheld GPS. “I think I was around 18 at the time and I learned about weather, and I learned about navigation. That was the best experience. It made me the pilot that I am today.”

Instead of celebrating turning 21 at a bar, Santiago spent his birthday at FlightSafety International earning his airline transport pilot certificate and Embraer regional jet type rating. When he isn’t at the flight school, the gold seal flight instructor is delivering travelers to distant destinations as an Airbus A320 captain for a major airline, but he said general aviation remains his first love. “If you ask me if I want to take the Airbus or fly around in a [Piper] Cub, I’ll take the Cub anytime.”

Santiago was humbled by the AOPA Flight Training Experience Survey recognition and praised it for helping tailor his business practices to the needs and expectations of his students. He said the information helps him understand if students want the information to be presented in a different way, or if they want a different product altogether.

If he sees students hit a plateau, get frustrated, or become disappointed, he says he puts himself in their shoes to keep them motivated and provides encouragement and support. “I’ll say, ‘Look, you’re going to be able to do this, you’re going to push through.’ And then once they do, it’s very rewarding.”

Santiago’s advice for pilots seeking an aviation career is to “Just start. Start, and put in the work and eventually you’re going to get there. You might not be as quick as others but the more work you put in, the quicker you’re going to get to that goal. Stick to it. Work hard. Fly, fly, fly, because time is everything in this industry.”

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