John Stonecipher empowers veterans to launch careers that take them sky-high. Literally.
Stonecipher, president of Guidance Aviation, was honored Tuesday by the Small Business Administration, receiving its 2013 Person of the Year Award. He was selected for his work in helping to train veterans as professional helicopter pilots at his Prescott, Ariz.-based company, which he founded in 1998.
Stonecipher's love of things that soar started when he was a child.
"I was little boy, 4 or 5 years old, growing up in Pasadena, Calif., and the Pasadena Police Department flew red helicopters," Stonecipher said. "I used to look up in the sky, and basically told my dad that was what I was going to do when I grew up," he said after the awards ceremony in Washington.
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Guidance Aviation, which has a waiting list, has partnered with the local community college and is the exclusive training program for the Professional Helicopter Pilot Program at Yavapai College. The two-year career school combines classroom time, work in flying simulators and at least 200 hours of hands-on flight time.
The school boasts a 90 percent job-placement rate for graduates. They go on to be helicopter pilots for a variety of programs, including emergency medical service programs, charter tours and transport for workers on offshore oil and gas rigs.
The school typically has 120 students—more than half of them veterans. Under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, any veteran serving for three years after Sept. 11 is eligible for full tuition reimbursement, in addition to a book and living stipend to attend school.
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Veterans "are perfect for helicopter pilots," Stonecipher said. "They have seen a high-pressure environment. They are tried. They are tested. They are true. They have been successful in that kind of an environment, and those are the kinds of people that are attracted to aviation."
Though not a veteran himself, Stonecipher grew up in a family with a strong tradition of supporting service members. "I am very proud of the fact that we can give back to those who have served us so well and protected our freedom," he said.
Not only do veterans take well to the helicopter training, but their skills are in demand. Not long ago, 90 percent of helicopter pilots were Vietnam War veterans, but they are retiring quickly, according to Stonecipher. "We have filled that void with [newer] veterans," he said.
Stonecipher started his business with one helicopter and no employees 15 years ago; he now has 16 helicopters, a handful of planes and 54 employees. Annual revenues in 2012 were just over $8 million. He expects to open a second flight school in Baton Rouge, La.
Stonecipher was also recognized for his generosity toward his community. Guidance Aviation has donated almost $500,000 to charity and public institutions and more than two dozen flights to various organizations. The school has donated a helicopter to the search-and-rescue team of the Yavapai County Sheriff: Three or four children went missing in the local region and the county did not have the money to buy a helicopter for rescue efforts, so Stonecipher gave it one.
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Stonecipher has also donated an airplane to an education-promotion effort called Think Global. The plane will fly around the world, making virtual command centers available for kids, getting them excited about science and math.
"When I was growing up, the shuttle program, NASA, was my big driving force to get me into aviation," he said. "That is what kept me extremely excited. Now that that has all been downsized, I feel it is my responsibility—being part of this industry—to give back to children."
Stonecipher was selected from the group of 53 state National Small Business Week honorees—one from each state and territory—from businesses ranging from beekeeper suppliers to nanoneedle manufacturers.
The first runner-up for the award is Noah Leask, president and CEO of Ishpi Information Technologies. The cyberdefense business in Mount Pleasant, S.C. does work for the Central Command and Department of Homeland Security. Leask, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is a service-disabled Navy veteran.
Kari Block, founder and CEO of Earth Kind Bismarck, N.D., is second runner-up. Block developed a biodegradable rodent repellent made with ingredients that include corn cobs and essential oils. Married to a farmer, Block wanted to make a repellent that was safe for use around children and pets. She hires employees with developmental disabilities to assemble and package the products.