Sporty’s chairman Hal Shevers talks about Lee Kuan Yew, aviation dreams and the needs of youths
This is the debut of a series of interviews with Pilots who made an impact, broke new ground, or are just plain interesting
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By Paul Jansen In Batavia, Ohio, USA
August, 2011 – His first words to me: “How is Mr Lee?” It took me seconds before I realised who Hal Shevers was talking about: Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
We had just met but Shevers was not asking about Lee Kuan Yew to make polite conversation. He is genuinely interested in the health and doings of the former leader of a tiny country halfway around the world. This stems from his respect for Lee’s firm hand in governing Singapore and implementing policies even at the risk of alienating those in and around “the little red dot”.
Shevers spoke about how he was particularly impressed with Lee Kuan Yew’s constant search for solutions to problems that were far off in the future and going ahead with schemes that were criticised by some as either distracting or disturbing.
Singaporeans are all too familiar now with the acronyms they spawned: COE, ERP, SDP, CPF, HDB … But it was interesting to hear Shevers’ objective opinions.
Once you get to know Shevers, you will understand his admiration for the elder statesman. Shevers too is not one to accept the “norm” and is eager to help people achieve their dreams, whether you are on the start of the scale and wanting to take to the skies or at the other end and want to live in a home you can taxi your own plane right up to.
As a flight instructor in the early 60s, he was not happy with the training materials. So he created his own. In 1961, he took this a step further by launching a store: Sporty’s.
Overnight, pilots, even in the most remote areas, could buy a wide range of otherwise hard to get items, from training material to cockpit necessities, as long as they could get mail delivery. Today, with the advent of the Internet and online catalogues and payment, his service benefits fliers around the world.
As a major beneficiary of Sporty’s long-distance service in Southeast Asia, a region bereft of any decent physical store serving General Aviation, I was curious about how Shevers’ company came into being and made a trip to its headquarters in Batavia, Ohio, in the United States, in August 2011.
I had bundled three programmes into the one trip: a visit to the extraordinary annual Air Venture show organised by the Experimental Aircraft Association at Oshsosh, Wisconsin; paid for a flight review at Eastern Cincinnati Avistion in Batavia, Ohio; and arranged an interview with the legendary founder of Sporty’s Preferred Catalogue.
Air Venture turned out to be exactly what I expected: awesome. Over 10,000 aircraft, scores of the latest models, heaps of warbirds, hours and hours of aerial displays, innumerable opportunities to see, feel and test equipment, and too many chances to use my credit card.
My flight review which followed my trip to Air Venture was a most pleasant experience, due mainly to the professionalism of my instructor Cory Deming. Despite my hours of experience, Deming was able to spot gaps in my knowledge and areas in my flying that could be improved on and his guidance on both was clear and welcomed.
If you can go there, Sporty’s Flight Academy is ready for you. It has more than 10 Master Flight Instructors who have at least two years and 1,000 hours of flight instruction time.
By the time I am free to chat with Shevers, I have had ample opportunity to talk to his instructors and staff about the company and the Man.
Hal Shevers sits comfortably at his desk, a large window on his right frames the fleet of Cessnas of his flying school, while the glass partition on his left lets him see the key staff of his other operations.
This is a man who has been honoured by his peers in aviation, who is doing what many of us dream of – earning a living while doing what he loves best, helping others to fly.
As the evening settles outside, I wonder if things have always been this good and ask: “Has there ever been a dark period for Sporty’s?”
He shifts uncomfortably at my question, though he answers with a trade mark forthrightness.
“Yes. Last year. I had to let some people go,” he replies, the sadness palpable in his voice and eyes.
I am surprised by the fact that Sporty’s had a setback, but more with Shevers’ reaction to the lay-off. Many of the head honchos I have interviewed over decades as a journalist treated staff as mere factors of production.
We talk a bit more about this. It turns out that Shevers has always considered his staff as partners. “Everyone is a shareholder,” he had told me, proudly. A walk through his building shows his efforts to make the work environment pleasant: games in the warehouse, Segways for getting around effortlessly, a barber shop, and so on.
So when business took a dip and some re-organisation was necessary and he needed to end a relationship, it pained him. Reading between the lines, I formed the impression that he was also hurt by the response of the retrenched staffer to the termination news.
Not for him the easy come, easy go attitude of some bosses. In fact, relationships of all kinds matter deeply to him. Including those with his customers.
Flashback to 1961: Hal is a certified flight instructor (CFI). He is always on the lookout for ways to help his students achieve their goals more efficiently. He discovers a radio which can pick up traffic controllers’ communications and obtains a supply for his students, literally selling them out of the trunk of his car.
Quickly, other equipment and tools follow and soon he is as deeply involved in sales of pilot supplies as he is in flight instruction. That was the origin of Sporty’s Pilot Shop, at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, in 1961. He subsequently moved it to Clermont County Airport, now also known as Sporty’s Airport, a short distance away.
The purpose-built warehouse-cum-office in which I am doing the interview is relatively new, completed in 1990, and is a testimony to the vision of Shevers.
Today, his store bills itself as “The World’s Largest Pilot Shop”. It is no idle boast. Its impressive catalogue has practically everything an aviator could need and is the first stop for many pilots. Once it went online (http://www.sportys.com/pilotshop), pilots the world over, particularly those in countries with aviation communities too small to justify local aviation shops, suddenly found a new friend.
Its popularity can also be attributed to Shever’s buyer-friendly philosophy.
“From Day One, I offered a no questions asked refund guarantee,” he says proudly.
You can see this on the website and in his print catalogue. It is remarkable in its brevity, devoid of the arcane caveats you see in American terms and conditions.
“If for any reason you are not 100% satisfied with your purchase, let us know — we will make it right. If you would like a refund or exchange, please return the product on a timely basis in the same condition in which it was received. That’s it — no fine print and no hassle.”
Shevers has even taken it a step further: Getting personal. He promises, in a sidebar on his website, to personally “intervene” if you feel hard done by Sporty’s.
I have made use of this policy and can attest to Sporty’s fidelity to the claim. A clock I bought online did not work. One quick phone call was all it took for Sporty’s to send me a new one without even asking me to return the defective unit.
Shevers’ business has done well. Well enough for him to own a couple of cool aircraft for fun flying, including a twin-engined Piper Aztec and a Cessna S550 Citation jet. He has had the Aztec for decades and it is his favourite. Age has not diminished his love of flying. In fact, when I met him, he was recovering from a heart operation and was eager to get back to the left seat again.
Sporty’s Pilot Shop, the little back of the car operation that he and his wife, Sandy, started over 50 years ago, has grown to include a training institution (Sporty’s Academy Flight School), a fixed based operation (Eastern Cincinnati Aviation), an electronics unit (Cincinnati Avionics), and a distribution (Sporty’s Cessna Sales).
The latest addition is a homestead, Sandy’s Airpark at Sporty’s. This is a 13-acre residential airpark at Clermont County/Sporty’s Airport in Ohio, a short taxiing distance from the office building. Phil Boyer, former chairman of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, owns a home there. Sites start from US$250,000 and completed houses with hangars cost from US$600,000. It is a pleasant location and easy to get to.
In 2007, Shevers was inducted into the National Association of Flight Instructors Hall of Fame for his significant contributions to aviation education and flight instruction. In 2011, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) gave him its President’s Award. He is deeply moved by these tributes from his peers.
He is vocal about what aviation needs. And one of those things, he feels strongly about is the need for an FAA which is both more aware of the importance of the General Aviation community and willing to do something about the diminishing numbers of Private Pilot Licence holders.
“Put me in charge of the FAA and let me make changes and I will sort it out in 60 days.”
He also has quite a few bones to pick with the other folks in Washington DC too. He feels that the Administration needs spine. At lunch one day, he called me to join him and his instructors and repeated to them what he had told me about Lee Kuan Yew’s willingness to make tough decisions which may not be easy to sell, which he thought the US administration lacked.
“Remember Michael Fay?” Shevers asked then, referring to an Ohio native, who gained international notoriety in 1993 when he vandalised 18 cars in Singapore over a 10-day period.
The teenager was sentenced to six strokes of the cane, four months’ jail and a Singapore $3,500 fine for vandalism and possession of stolen goods. The corporal punishment was later reduced to four strokes after then President Bill Clinton made an appeal to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to go easy on Fay. This was an appeal Shevers felt should not have been made.
“He deserved the caning. I wish we could have it here.”
Just as he feels strongly about the importance of discipline for youths, he is as passionate about helping them achieve their dreams. He has contributed generously to programmes to give them a leg up in life.
His latest move is to make flight training more affordable through a project called Cessna 172LITE, which slashes training and rental costs down to US$99 per hour at his school.
What he has done is take a used Cessna 172, replace the engine with an overhauled one, repair or replace everything needed from the tip to the tail, including windows, cables, switches, put in new vinyl flooring in place of the old carpeting, and reduce the avionics to the six pack and a radio and transponder. The rear seat is removed to boost payload and cargo area.
If you like this and want one of these two-seaters for yourself or your club, he will sell you one. Initial prices mentioned were in the region of US$132,900.
This is huge jump from selling radios from his car boot. But spend a little time chatting with Shevers and you will know that it will not end here.
Copyright Paul Jansen 2015
See also: Sporty’s flight academy boss Eric Radtke says why his school has an edge over other training facilities