The words ‘perfect’ and ‘timing’ are not ones we hear very often when talking about doing business in a COVID-19 impacted world. But for Apurva Bhatia, Owner, and Chief Flight Instructor at Feilding Aviation, that was exactly what she thought when the opportunity to get involved in the start-up business came about in August 2021.

CEDA sat down with Apurva to talk about how she has successfully managed to start a business during a pandemic and what the future holds for her in Manawatū.

Sitting in the same hangar where Apurva, as a teenager, learnt to fly, she reminisces about full classrooms, and planes in the air from seven in the morning through to dark. With the determination she has already shown in her new role as Owner and Operator of Feilding Aviation, it’s clear she will get the training school to this point again.

“People thought it was difficult and stupid to start up in the middle of a pandemic, but because people weren’t travelling, they had disposable money and time. There were lots of pilots across the country who learnt to fly around that time – it did make a great Christmas present!”

Now, with the re-opening of international borders, Apurva’s focus for the business is on attracting students to learn and live in Manawatū.

“When we get NZQA approval we will be bringing in large numbers of students, and in particular international students. [Economically] this is great for the region as these students are going to live here, they are going to pay rent, eat and probably work somewhere.”

Apurva herself came to New Zealand in 2007 as an international student from India. At the time she dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot – “that’s where the glamour is” – and after successfully completing her license at Flight Training Manawatū, that was her next step. But with a 2008 recession and large reduction in pilot positions around the globe, Apurva changed course. She completed the instructor training and worked locally passing on her passion for flying for seven years. Since then, Apurva has gained experience as an instructor in Matamata and Gisborne.

“Now I don’t aim to go to the airlines, that doesn’t excite me. To teach people to fly, from the very first flight through to finishing their licenses is what I really enjoy. It is quite rewarding!”

Although moving back to Manawatū wasn’t her original plan, Apurva hasn’t looked back.

“It feels like coming home. There isn’t anywhere better to have this business.”

In large part, that is due to the nature of the flying community in the region who have been able to support Apurva in the last few months. Currently Feilding Aviation is a small but experienced team with Apurva, one other full-time employee and a casual staff member teaching. While this is small scale compared to some of the other flight schools across New Zealand, with the support of friends and the Feilding Aerodrome Committee, Apurva knows this is right for now.

“We know this area and people know us. We deliver quality training and I am confident our students are getting trained to a very high standard.

“Everything onsite is done with procedures and the way any professional, commercial sized flight school would run. We have implemented uniforms and maintain this level of professionalism across the board.

“Massey [Fight School] is also just down the road and we work really well with the team there, sharing simulators and assessors.”

In fact, the smaller sized operation works to students’ advantage when they choose Feilding Aviation, as they spend more time flying – making for great value for money.

“This area is a great place to fly. We don’t have a control tower telling us what to do so we spend less time holding or waiting on the ground.”

And if you want experience with a control tower?

“Our students can get experience with a control tower in Palmy, which by air is less than 5 minutes away.”

While Apurva continues to work with NZQA to attract international students, her key market for now is local hobbyist flyers and those looking to see out their dream of learning to fly for fun. There are very few (if any) pre-requisites to learning to fly and with guidance from a trained instructor, anyone can do it.

“As long as the person can reach the controls – and keep in mind we can use cushions when we need to – that is all that matters. The legal age requirement and medical requirements come in when you want to fly by yourself. So to have a private license and take your family out, you must be aged 17, but many start to learn at just 11 or 12 years old.”

The youngest Apurva has seen someone take the controls was around five or six years old.

Like her students, Apurva is always learning, and she is the first to admit that becoming a business owner has proved challenging yet rewarding. In the short time Apurva has owned Feilding Aviation, she has already learnt a lot, including how to do her own accounts, the importance of marketing and social media, and how to be comfortable networking with other business owners. Apurva knows there is going to be a lot more to learn but she is steadfast in her determination and passion to see the business thrive into the future.

“I had never thought about [becoming a business owner] but when this came up, I was never going to turn it down, it was like coming back home for me.”

Her advice for others considering starting a business they are passionate about is: “just believe in yourself and do it!”

“If you are onto it and do it the right way – not always the quick way – it’s actually not difficult.”

Feilding Aviation is a flight training organisation located at Feilding Aerodrome, five minutes from Feilding and 15 minutes from Palmerston North city, providing training courses for those looking to obtain their Private and/or Commercial Pilot License. Feilding Aviation also offer short, guided flights for those looking to experience the thrill of flying.

For more information about Feilding Aviation, visit their website or follow them on Instagram.

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