For Central Flying Service, a 75-year milestone beats being known as the globe’s biggest FBO
Soaring into Central Flying Service at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, a stone's throw from the Rockies-fed Arkansas River, a single word comes to mind: colossal.
Covering 77 acres, the fixed base operation is perhaps the world's largest. Spread across its landscape are 21 hangars sheltering 558,000 square feet of aircraft storage space.
But ask Richard Holbert, President/CEO for Central Flying Service, about those facts and he'll tell you the far bigger feat is reaching 75 years in business – owned and run by the same family.
"Being in business all these years, serving repeat customers, growing our capabilities and employment opportunities – that counts far more than any other measure," says Holbert. "In an industry with so many ups and downs, our 75th anniversary is a tribute to our hard-working employees and the loyal customers who continue to believe in us."
Central's longevity, says Holbert, has a lot to do with attitude. "We serve a lot of corporate flight customers, and the bulk of our fuel sales goes into turbine aircraft," he says. "But it's our mission to welcome everybody, no matter what size aircraft they pull up in."
Of course, customer-focused attention may come naturally from an FBO in a state boasting the motto Regnat Populus – "the people rule."
Logging more than longevity
At Central, pilots have the run of the roost, so to speak. It's been that way since Claud Holbert founded Central Flying Service in 1939 as a flight school (with a single fuel pump), preparing pilots to serve the Air National Guard and a looming overseas war.
"Flight instruction has always been a big part of our company's DNA," says Richard. "Financially, it's a small contributor. But, it is a defining feature of what Central Flying Service stands for."
For an FBO logging almost 460,000 hours of flight training, that may be an understatement. It also means a lot of pilots can trace their FAA license back to Little Rock.
Claud Holbert himself logged a staggering 50,000-plus flight hours, piloting everything from the dainty Curtiss Jenny – its thin strips of spruce and ash baled together by wire and turnbuckles – to brawny jets before his passing in 1983. The senior Holbert was the state's first civilian type-rated jet pilot. Younger son Richard earned a commercial pilot's license at age 18. Elder son Don, Central's Chairman, is a rated helicopter pilot. All three Holberts were inducted in the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame, Claud in 1982, Don and Richard in 2006.
This family knows aviation.
And they take flight training seriously. Central's FAA part 141 school features a 12-aircraft fleet with Beechcraft, Cessna and Diamond piston-driven planes run by 10 full-time flight instructors. Flight instruction at Central Flying Service has always been tied to an accredited college degree program, these days through Pulaski Technical College.
Everything is bigger in … Arkansas?
Everything at Central Flying Service seems to be done in a big way. And not just its self-proclaimed Greatest Cheeseburger in Aviation History, which is a mouthful, speaking or chewing. "We make sure our recreational pilots get their money's worth for that $150 burger FBOs are known for," jokes Holbert.
A "mere" five hangars are dedicated to maintenance, focused on jets like Beech, Citation and Hawker. Some 60 technicians handle everything from major engine overhauls to tweaking flight performance. Jet maintenance alone is a $15 million piece of business for Central Flying Service – one reason 123,000 square feet of space is devoted to that specialty.
"We're known for being able to reduce downtime and cost," explains Holbert. "To accomplish this, we utilize the latest equipment and keep our technicians up-to-date with training."
Central's turbine technicians average a minimum of 10 years' experience repairing light and heavy jets.
On the propeller side, another several dozen techs service all-things prop-driven, from King Air twin-turbos to smaller Skyhawks. Holbert says prop specialists average of 15 years experience at Central, a factory-authorized service center for Beechcraft, Cessna, Diamond and Cirrus piston aircraft.
A 19,000 square-foot hangar handles interior modifications plus installation and service for all major avionics brands. Heavy airframe work, interior design, refurbishment, custom painting, even sheet metal work for regional airlines … very few jobs are too big for Central Flying Service.
Then there's CFS Charter, an FBO-owned fleet featuring three King Airs, a Mitsubishi Diamond and two Beechcraft Barons – plus 10 pilots to fly those jets and twin engines.
Aircraft sales round out Central's full-service approach. A team of four full-time sales pros work with customers on acquisitions, brokerage, aircraft management and market analysis.
Farming trusted wings
But at its core, Central is about line service. And fuel, something the FBO doesn't plan to run out of anytime soon. Two fuel farms can store about 110,000 gallons of Phillips 66 Aviation Jet A and avgas underground.
Central leverages the Phillips 66 Partners-Into-Plane program to contribute to its bottom line. An automated Internet-based pricing and invoicing system, Into-Plane qualifies commercial and high-volume aircraft operators who negotiate bulk fuel pricing directly with Phillips 66.
"We dedicate five fuel trucks for Into-Plane fueling, which contributes about 10 percent of our fuel sales," explains Holbert. Central Flying Service also runs an airline fueling subsidiary called "Airport Services, Inc."
With a competitor on the airfield, Holbert says his team works hard to garner loyalty, providing always-on 24/7 line service, insisting on NATA Safety 1st-certified training, aiming for 10-minute "quick turns" and offering WingPoints® Rewards for fuel purchases with points immediately redeemable online for gift or debit cards.
"When your company's been around for 75 years, you know a thing or two about treating customers right," says Holbert. "Keeping that customer base loyal has enabled us to capture two-thirds of the fuel sales on the airfield. It's our privilege to serve so many repeat customers."
And while the FBO's big size and big offerings surely help, when it comes to Central Flying Service's success, Holbert circles back to what his dad began 75 years ago.
"It goes back to flight training and logging hours in the sky," Holbert says. "Central has been run by pilots for 75 years. We understand pilots. Then layer in flight instruction as an intrinsic part of your culture. You're sharing the hallways, hangars and ramps with students who are thrilled by the experience of flying."
For more about Central Flying Service, visit www.central.aero.