Welcome to “Path to Your Dreams,” the blog series about fascinating and inspirational stories for young pilots trying to figure out their career path. We have talked with an eclectic group of pilots from various walks of life in aviation, to learn about how they followed their dreams in aviation. Here’s a new exciting installment to the series!
The pilot: Jeff Simon, Pilot; Licensed A&P/IA Mechanic; Founder of SocialFlight.com and Host of the SocialFlight Live webcast; Owner of a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 and a Titan T-51D Mustang (currently under construction in his living room in Massachusetts).
The dream: To become an aircraft owner & mechanic and inspire others to follow suit.
The path: Jeff Simon grew up building model planes and staring with wonder at overflying aircraft, but he never set foot on a GA airport until after college. His aviation journey began after meeting another pilot at work. Fascinated by his coworker’s tales of recreational flying, Jeff jumped at the invitation to take a flight. According to Jeff, that first flight “flipped a switch” and there was no looking back. Within days of that first flight, he began taking lessons and learning everything he could about general aviation.
As fascinated as he was with the act of piloting an aircraft, he was equally enthralled with the airplanes themselves. Having grown up working on cars and nearly everything else mechanical, he wanted to understand as much as possible about aircraft ownership and maintenance. Jeff learned about the different aircraft types and began connecting with owner’s groups for different aircraft makes and models. It was becoming clear that his next goal would be owning an aircraft, but the cost of ownership seemed daunting. The solution: find a way to do as much owner maintenance as possible.
Jeff’s research into aircraft ownership and maintenance lead him to learn about everything that an aircraft owner can do themselves; from owner-assisted annuals, to preventive maintenance tasks that an owner can do all by themselves. He became an expert on how to save money by performing the thirty-two FAA-permitted preventive maintenance tasks. However, he also learned that owners are allowed to do nearly any other maintenance task, as long as it is done under the supervision of a licensed mechanic who inspects that everything is done right and signs the logbook to certify the work.
For an aircraft owner, it’s a way to save money. For the mechanic, it’s a way to scale their expertise across more aircraft. That gave Jeff a path to afford plane ownership. He bought an airplane and started working with mechanics. “I was just dying for knowledge. Whatever they would teach me, I would learn it and swing a wrench.”
Learning quickly led to teaching, Jeff says, “Every time I learned something, I had this burning desire to pass that knowledge on. And I think this is something that’s very common to pilots and others in aviation: this wonderful drive to be a mentor for others.”
Like many people, Jeff had gotten his pilot’s license by watching King Schools aviation videos (available only on VHS at the time). Inspired by the King videos as well as the PBS home remodeling series “This Old House,” he hired a production company and created a video series called “The Educated Owner,” teaching aircraft owners how to maintain their planes, how to hire and work with a shop for the annual inspection and other maintenance. The videos took off worldwide and are still selling well today. The video series led to writing for several aviation magazines, including AOPA, where Jeff has a monthly online column on aircraft maintenance to this day.
Meanwhile, Jeff continued to swing a wrench on his own airplane, until someone came up to him and said, “You could be using this experience to become a licensed FAA mechanic.” Jeff quickly discovered that the FAA has two paths to qualify to be an FAA Aircraft and Powerplant (A&P) mechanic: You can go to school full time for 18 months to two years at an approved school, or you can qualify using 30 months (~5,000 hours) of documented experience working on aircraft.
“We are really just stewards of these aircraft. Many planes in the general aviation fleet are 50 years old or older. They’re going to outlive us, and someone else will fly them after you. Every plane’s logbook tells a story that goes back to the day is came out of the factory. As an aircraft mechanic, you’re in the logbook: you become part of the story.”
Jeff’s years of experience working on his own aircraft and learning from mechanics allowed him to document all of the required time in a formal “experience logbook”. This, coupled with a recommendation letter from a mechanic that he had apprenticed under, met the requirements for the FAA to sign him off to take the formal written and practical exams to become a licensed A&P mechanic. Three years later to the day, Jeff qualified and took the exam to receive an FAA Inspection Authorization, adding “IA” to his title. He could now perform Annual Inspections, Major Repairs and Alternations.
During all of this time, Jeff maintained a “day job” to earn a living as his worked towards eventually working in aviation full-time. His engineering background, coupled with his aviation knowledge, landed him a dream job in the avionics industry working on synthetic vision and GPS systems, rising to become Director of Strategic Marketing for Honeywell’s general aviation business. Along the way, he maintained his own company, Approach Aviation, inventing and certifying several products such as an extended baggage STC for Beechcraft A36 aircraft.
Jeff found his greatest passion when he created SocialFlight.com, a web and mobile app that motivates pilots to fly more. SocialFlight maps out tens of thousands of aviation events, destinations and the ubiquitous “$100 Hamburger”. SocialFlight also sends out personalized emails to every pilot, making sure that they know about everything aviation that’s happening around them. SocialFlight has turned into a resounding success, reaching nearly 200,000 pilots. According to Jeff, “If pilots know that there’s an antique aircraft fly-in or a pancake breakfast happening nearby them this Saturday, they’re much more likely to head to the airport rather than mow the lawn.”
Today, SocialFlight is Jeff’s full-time job, and he is passing his love of aviation on to his two sons, Jake and Ben. Both boys have become pilots, and Jake recently got his A&P license as well. And, of course, they are helping him to build that Titan T-51D Mustang in the living room.
Looking back, Jeff says his love affair with working on aircraft started a little bit out of necessity and a lot out of love and passion. “When you work on an airplane, you are contributing to something that is critical to the safety and lives of everyone who touches it. A car can break down by the side of road, but there is no ‘side of the road’ in the air. Every time you put a note in that logbook, you’re becoming part of the history of the aircraft that will live on long after many of us are gone. It’s a humbling responsibility.”
Most memorable flight: “One of my biggest thrills was teaching my boys and being qualified to sign off on my son’s logbook and help him become an A&P. That, and building a replica warbird [the T-51D Mustang] in my living room.”
Flights on the bucket list: “I look forward to meeting someone who became an aircraft owner or a mechanic because of something I taught or did. I want to inspire people. To show them that everything is possible.”
Advice for other dreamers: “What’s your goal? If you want to quickly make this your full-time profession, schools are the way to go. If you have more time, the experience path is great. You get real-world experience you wouldn’t get in a classroom. So, log everything you do on a plane. Someday you may realize that you have the hours necessary to take that next step and get your license. Earning it is a real honor and a privilege. And I would never have been able to do all these things in aviation without the skills to do the work myself.”