Minnesota aviation soars on the beating wings of thunderbird

According to centuries-old Native American lore, there is a powerful, shape-shifting bird that beats enormous wings to build thunder and stir the wind.

A mere 11 miles from downtown Minneapolis, the legend of the thunderbird lives on, shaping the winds of general aviation in the upper Midwest, while teaching thousands of mortals to thunder into the heavens on the wings of nearly every aircraft made.

Thunderbird Aviation, roosting at both Flying Cloud Airport (FCM) and Crystal Airport (MIC), has spent 51 years adapting and diversifying to take advantage of aviation industry volatility.

As proof, the Thunderbird team tripled fuel-sales volume during the past three years, a time when general aviation across the country struggled with layoffs and the decline of flight activity, revenue and aircraft orders.

"It's about diversification, not putting all our eggs in one basket, and knowing when to take risks," explains Nancy Grazzini-Olson, Thunderbird Aviation's president and daughter of founder Albert Grazzini. "Our team believes in looking down the road to anticipate changing customer needs."

Four years ago, in the grips of a debilitating downturn for general aviation, the Thunderbird team saw opportunity instead. The Phillips 66®Aviation-branded dealer made plans to invest in a new, multi-million dollar executive facility at Flying Cloud Airport.

"Considering the industry climate at the time, it was a big risk," says Grazzini-Olson, "But, everyone here believes in taking a leadership role."

That "build it and they will come" foresight paid off when the executive facility opened a little over a year ago, drawing a flock of new customers.

It's just one of many flight paths Thunderbird Aviation has charted over the years to stay one step ahead of industry trends.

Foresight and risk-taking

Thunderbird had built a global reputation for flight training, when the housing bubble in 2008 brought general aviation to its knees. Aircraft sales and flight training stalled as loans dried up. And Thunderbird changed course.

"We saw an opportunity to focus aggressively on parts of the business that are more infrastructure-based, such as the fuel side," explains Grazzini-Olson. "Our team believed it was the right time to build a first-class facility that would reflect our prime location near downtown Minneapolis."

The FBO then doubled-down, expanding its King Air charter fleet, commanded by four pilots. Meanwhile, Flying Cloud Airport launched a runway expansion to accommodate larger aircraft, such as Gulfstream G4s.

Thunderbird also leveraged Phillips 66 Aviation's Partners-Into-Plane contract fuel program to cultivate business, says Christopher Cape, general manager and chief pilot for the FBO. Partners-Into-Plane features more than 300 preapproved members, including major and regional passenger and cargo airlines, air ambulance, fire fighting and other specialty operators.

"It's a competitive advantage," explains Cape. "The program enables us to do business with marketers and corporate flight departments all with one screen. We find that Into-Plane brings in a lot of traffic."

A culture built to adapt

This FBO has always nurtured a culture that encourages flexibility and diversification – whether led by founder Albert Grazzini, who passed away in 2010, or his daughter Nancy Grazzini-Olson, Thunderbird's president since 1990. Thunderbird's new executive facility at Flying Cloud is itself a model of flexible design, built to meet the needs of a varied customer base, from corporate fliers to flight students.

"In front, there are three stations, so customer service representatives can serve both corporate customers and flight school students at the same time," explains Cape. "Every person that does business with us has a dedicated area, but the interior design itself is flexible, allowing us to adjust as customer needs change."

Team members are encouraged to tackle multiple duties, no matter their job description.

"At some organizations, everyone has a certain job title and they only do that job, but here every employee is cross-trained," says Cape. "There's no set role, no staying within the boundaries. When that's ingrained in people, it breeds a certain personality. They are willing to go the extra mile for the customer."

So if it's snowing, or the ramps are busy, everyone chips in.

"Our flight instructors don't just watch line guys pull out planes; most of them are NATA Safety 1st-trained, so they can go out there and help," Cape explains. "Our customer service reps don't just stay at their desks. They go out and marshal airplanes."

It's no coincidence that Cape and Thunderbird's operations manager Laura James are also pilots and flight instructors, with thousands of flight hours logged between them.

"Our team understands pilots," Grazzini-Olson says, "Everyone is focused on providing the most relevant experience for each customer."

On the winds of change

In 1951, Albert Grazzini bought the flying club at Flying Cloud Airport and developed that asset into a full-service FBO by 1962, offering a large-scale fleet renewal program, airplane rental, aircraft sales and – what would become a world-renown skill for Thunderbird – flight training.

When piston aircraft sales started growing during the 1960s, Grazzini pursued and acquired a Piper dealership. At one time, red and white Cherokees and Comanches filled Thunderbird's ramps. Flying Cloud was the nation's seventh busiest airport by 1967.

Grazzini diversified in the 1970s to meet rising demand for corporate aviation. Thunderbird earned one of the first FAR Part 135 Air Taxi Certificates, building a fleet of 100 aircraft.

But a decade later, soaring fuel prices and interest rates put the brakes on corporate aviation. Thunderbird Aviation refocused on flight training, just as commercial airlines began a wave of pilot-hiring.

Nurturing the nest

Now, Thunderbird is poised to take advantage of a new law requiring 1,500 hours of air time for commercial airline pilots. The FBO is vigorously promoting flight training, believing it offers distinct advantages as an official aviation training provider for Academy College – a fully accredited, 77-year-old college headquartered in Bloomington, Minnesota, and a sister company of Thunderbird.

"If you go to the approved aviation program at Academy College, you can earn your college degree with lower flight times," explains Cape. "And people can get loans."

Thunderbird's Crystal Airport location is the FBO's hub for flight instruction, where budding pilots can get a two- or four-year aviation degree. There's even an accelerated training program, Fast-Trac Express, that can take someone with no experience to a multi-engine commercial pilot in as little as three months.

With a fleet of 32 airplanes – including Warriors, Cadets, Archers, Cessna 172's, Arrows and Seminoles – Thunderbird boasts the largest flight school in Minnesota, drawing students from as far as Africa.

"You can get about every rating for an airplane there is with us," says Laura James, Thunderbirds' chief fight instructor and Academy College flight training manager. "We have graduates that have gone on to aviation careers all over the world. Commercial, cargo, business, air ambulance; you name it, Thunderbird graduates are flying it."

Thunderbird flight schools are Part 141-certified and VA-approved, with an examiner on staff and an FAA testing center. You can get certified as a student, sport, private, commercial or air transport pilot; obtain instrument and multi-engine ratings; or pay it forward and become a CFI-instrument, multi-engine or a certified flight instructor.

To fill the pipeline of future aviation professionals, the FBO runs its Young Flyers program – with summer camps, one-day events and workshops – to get youths excited about aviation.

But, whether it is flight training, infrastructure or charter, Grazzini-Olson always circles back to Thunderbird's employees.

"It's our team that allows us to readily adapt and keep our customers excited about returning," says Grazzini-Olson. "Everyone here seeks to be a leader in whatever they do, whether that's maintenance, fueling, handling aircraft, teaching future pilots or contributing to the design of our facilities. That keeps us consistent and enables us to grow during downturns."

In an industry with lower profit margins and more risk than the restaurant business, Thunderbird's ability to adapt and diversify is becoming as legendary as its namesake.

For more information, visit www.thunderbirdaviation.com.