Aspen flight school takes off |

Aspen flight school takes off

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Business is up in the air for two local pilots.

Since the base operations at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport were sold two years ago, Aspen has been without a flight school, but two instructors have brought it back.

In April, Bryan Sax, 37, and Gary Kraft, 43, opened Aspen Aero, a flight school based at Sardy Field.

The pair say they’re meeting a need and filling a niche in Aspen.

The first step in building the business was buying the “Quacker,” a Cessna 172 four-seater airplane (the aircraft is named for the “Q” in its call letters).

The Quacker has been in Aspen since shortly after it was built in 1972, and is a popular student trainer. Both Sax and Kraft had to learn to fly the plane before teaching students.

It has been fitted with a special exhaust system for extra power at high altitude.

Sax and Kraft said their biggest expenses are insurance and aviation fuel, which has risen to $6.79 per gallon ” the plane burns between 7 and 8 gallons per hour.

But despite some price increases, including slightly inflated gas and airport fees in Aspen, the instructors charge prices comparable to any flight school in the country.

Lessons cost $189 per hour, including an instructor, plane rental and fuel.

Plane rental without an instructor is $140 per hour, which includes fuel.

Pilots must log a minimum of 40 hours in the air, half with an instructor and half solo. Sax and Kraft have students follow a strict syllabus of air-time and book work.

Learning to fly in the mountains is challenging, Sax said, but there is a benefit to getting your chops in Aspen; if you can fly here, you can fly anywhere, he said.

With lessons over a period of months, a wannabe pilot can pay as much as $12,000 to get a license, but regular, even daily lessons mean students can breeze through course work in half the time and at significant discounts.

Aspen Aero has nine full-time students, and Kraft and Sax expect more as the business takes off.

Sax was born in Aspen and, along with his wife Christy, owns Saxy’s Cafe, with outlets in Basalt and Boulder. Sax got his pilot’s license while working as a bartender at Jimmy’s Restaurant ” where he quipped he’s been a “local celebrity” for years ” and customers regularly asked him about flying and where they could learn.

“Their eyes get big,” Sax said of when he tells people he can fly.

“There seems to be a demand with the local population,” said Kraft, who works full time as a line service technician at the general aviation terminal.

Mountain weather poses challenges, however, and when Aspen is socked-in, students don’t fly, Sax said.

New pilots take the wheel of the plane from the very first take-off, learning about the basic controls, aerodynamics of flight and how to keep the plane under control.

Learning to fly comes in three steps: pre-solo and basic airmanship, then “advanced ground reference maneuvers,” or flying around objects, followed by cross-country flights to nearby airports.

Students first learn to fly by “dead reckoning,” or navigating by sight, map and compass, an essential skill for all pilots despite common reliance on GPS technology.

The instructors also have a flight simulator for teaching the advanced skill of flying by instruments. Sax and Kraft can take students as far as a commercial license.

“Our goal is to produce very safe pilots who can fly anywhere,” Kraft said.

Aspen residents with their adventurous outdoor spirits are prime for learning to fly, Kraft said, though learning to fly is less about thrill-seeking than about safety.

Sax and Kraft started the business for one reason: The love of flying, they said.

“Flying in the mountains is the most incredible thing you can do,” Kraft said. “We’d like to share it with other people.”

“It’s contagious,” Sax said of watching students progress.

Many pilots open flight schools so they can simply log hours in the air in order to earn a commercial license, but not so with Aspen Aero; Sax and Kraft are not out for commercial careers. They hope to be full-time instructors.

“We’re here to build the business,” Sax said.

The pair expect calls from visiting pilots looking to gain experience flying at high altitude, as well as people interested in scenic flights over Aspen.