Southwest Flight Center marks 30 years taking would-be pilots up, up and away
By Marjorie Rice
When Gary Lewin needs a break from a hectic day, he jumps into his golf cart and takes a spin in what he calls “a resort for business jets”—the tarmac at Scottsdale Airport with its backdrop of the McDowell Mountains.
“This year we’ll celebrate 30 years at the airport,” says Lewin, president of Southwest Flight Center. “I never get tired of the work—or the view.”
Lewin’s fascination with aviation dates to his childhood, when the family would fly from New York to Florida for vacations. “That was when people dressed up to take a flight—the tail end of the glory days of aviation,” he says. “One of our neighbors had a plane, and that, along with those yearly trips, got me interested in flying.”
One summer, Lewin’s family moved west, and a friend introduced him to a United Airlines pilot with his own plane. “He took me on a joy ride that turned into my first lesson,” recalls Lewin. “When I was 12, I told my parents I wanted to be a commercial airline pilot when I grew up. My mom took me to Scottsdale Airport and signed me up.”
Lewin earned his solo license on his 16th birthday—the youngest age allowed. More minimum-age milestones followed: private pilot license on his 17th birthday, commercial license on his 18th and airline transport certificate on his 23rd.
“When I was younger, a regional airline’s chief pilot gave me a chance to work as a commercial pilot,” Lewin says. “I’ve had a lot of support from generous people along the way, and I’m determined to pass that along. A lot of our former flight instructors now are commercial airline pilots in part because of the opportunities they had here. I’m very proud of that.”
Lewin began his company while still a flight instructor. Within a couple of years, his parents stepped in while Lewin went on to work as a commercial pilot.
“I recruited my mom and dad to help me grow the business,” he says. “They still are a valuable part of the company. I’m a full-time single dad, and my two daughters also spent a lot of their childhood here. It really helped to live just five miles from work. My older daughter started learning to fly at age 12. My younger daughter is in high school and she helps in the office a couple of days a week. She’s learning to fly too. This business is a passion and a hobby—it’s in our blood.”
Through the ’90s, the family grew the business from two to 25 planes. “With September 11, the aviation industry came to a screeching halt,” Lewin says. “Our business was shut down for three weeks, and when we reopened, aviation totally changed. “More than 500 flight schools closed. Business slowed down, but we were able to weather the storm because our company was well run with no debt and controlled overhead.” Today the company has 15 full-time employees and manages 15 aircraft.
The recent economic downturn also posed challenges, Lewin says. “In 29 years I’ve seen at least 20 local flight schools come and go at Scottsdale Airport. The recession put some out of business, but we were able to succeed, partly because we’re the only flight school in Scottsdale with own maintenance facility at the airport for our own planes and those of other aircraft owners. That sets us apart from other schools.”
Diversification also has fueled Southwest Flight Center’s success. Among other services, the company provides certification, instrument rating and flight reviews for private, sport and commercial pilots. It provides planes and pilots for local radio drive-time traffic reports and offers flights for aerial photographers. The center also has planes for hourly rental.
There’s more, including the “Pinch Hitter” program—two- to three-hour sessions for passengers who want to learn how to operate the radio and land small aircraft in an emergency—and “Discovery Flights,” which include a half-hour flight in the pilot’s seat under the guidance of a flight instructor for those thinking about learning to fly.
If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground during our initial cockpit experience, there’s the flight simulator. For $89, two people get an hour-long “flight,” where in an eerily realistic setting they can take off, do maneuvers and land anywhere in the world, in any kind of weather, day or night. For a recent visitor, that included take-off in Juneau, Alaska, a flight along the fjords, then a rather bumpy landing at Scottsdale Airport.
Lewin also operates a separate aircraft management and sales business, and he still flies jets for private and corporate clients.
He sees blue skies ahead for his industry.
“Airlines are going to need pilots because so many are reaching mandatory retirement age. We see a ton of opportunity ahead, and our company is positioned to grow.”
Southwest Flight Center
15041 N. Airport Drive, Scottsdale