Published: December 28, 2021 | Updated: December 21, 2021

Northern Air continues to soar

A Cessna Turbo Skylane N4809R.

A Cessna Turbo Skylane N4809R.

Dave Parker is a hard man to pin down. Literally. He had his pilot’s license by age 20. At 24, he built his first airplane, and with a twinkle in his eye, describes it as ‘something kinda special.’

Dave grew up and got a ‘real’ job, promising himself that flying would remain a hobby. Whenever possible, he snuck in his very favorite thing, training young pilots.

Flying over beautiful Boundary County, he realized that while he was working as a Heavy Equipment mechanic, he was trying to eke out as many opportunities to take to the air — and he was getting paid to do it.

Clear as the skies around him was the opportunity before him, and Northern Air took flight. But, to do things right, he would need decent runways. The local airport needed some TLC, so he became the airport manager. If you run an airport, have a few planes of your own, and operate a flight school, it makes sense to have your own aircraft repair service too.

While Dave’s had his share of ups and downs with his four businesses wrapped into one, he is incredibly grounded in optimism.

When it rains, he shines

When asked about the greatest challenges he has had while running Northern Air, Dave is hard pressed to come up with any. He has definitely had some tough times, he admits, but quickly adds, “I generally don’t spend too much time worrying about things that have already happened. I try to just handle things as they come up, then move on and forget about it.”

There was that time he gambled on the purchase of an older aircraft, not even sure he would be able to get a loan for the repairs. “There was a concern that if I didn’t get the money to get it to safe and useable standards, that it would be a huge strain on the business,” Dave said. The wager paid off. He not only got the needed funds for the repairs, but was also able to get the repairs completed just before one of the highest fire seasons on record.

Another challenge came when all three of his flight instructors left for the Missionary field within just a few months of each other. The flight school was doing very well, their graduates were landing jobs and they began earning a national reputation for top trained pilots.

“I knew they wouldn’t stay forever, Dave said of his team, “but I didn’t plan on them leaving all at the same time.” Because flight instructors can be hard to come by in the small town of Bonners Ferry, Dave became the sole flight instructor for the next eight months.

Not only did he keep the flight school running, he even ended up getting a Gold Seal Award from the FAA for passing 12 pilots with a rare 100% pass ratio.

In reflection, Dave says, “There has always been a steady stream of challenges, we just would consistently attack each as it arose and move on. I take about 5 minutes to digest challenges, make sure we learn from it as a business, and then not relive it. Perseverance is definitely a must for any small business owner.”

When to persevere and when to pivot

Knowing when to persevere through a difficult challenge or pivot away from one, into a new direction is the golden question for every leader. “I don’t think I have really pivoted away from challenges, but I have certainly, at times, moved a bit to the left or the right,” says Dave.

He will tell you that the best move he made was to follow the advice of a friend that referred him to North Idaho College’s Small Business Development Center for business coaching. Dave describes the business as doing ‘well enough’ before coaching. “But when I look at my business on paper, at the Profit & Loss sheet, how the business has changed over the years, and the changes in the people around me, I’d have to say that my SBDC coach, Bill Jhung, was the biggest factor in our success.”

It was during coaching sessions that they would tackle challenges together, deciding whether to move a bit one way or another, always keeping an eye on the big picture and company goals. He estimates that “If SBDC didn’t come along, Northern Air would be 1/4 of what we are today.”

Business takes off

As Dave’s leadership skills grew, his business and staff soared. A well led team allowed him to focus on areas of business most important to him. “The part of my job — no, my life, that I enjoy most is the flight school. I love seeing the growth in a student from the first time in a cockpit to the moment they achieve their first solo flight.”

Back in the days of tandem-trainers and no aircraft intercoms, Flight Instructors sat in the cockpit behind student pilots. Because the roar of the engine drowned out Instructors’ voices, they would tugs on the rookie’s shirt tails to command attention before giving instructions. A longstanding tradition includes having the Instructor cut the back out of a newly soloed pilot’s shirt, signifying that the student has learned enough to fly on their own. It’s a tradition that Northern Air still follows; students’ shirt tails are tacked up on the school’s ‘Wall of Fame’ along with their pictures.

Mastering the self-talk

Most of us would be embarrassed to be caught talking to ourselves. But flight instructors teach students to talk to themselves as a way of cementing in what they have learned, to make necessary actions second nature under pressure.

It’s the love for those students that made Dave do some self-talking right into the purchase of a $40k Cross-wind Simulator. “I had seen this machine that I just had to have. There were only about 30 in the world, and I was desperate to get one. I found one in Germany that was too expensive to get here, and a brand new one in Missouri that they had never gotten to work.” Dave drove to Missouri, hauled the broken machine across the country, replaced a defective part and got it working.

“It was a lot of work for a machine that I would never recoup my cost from.”

He figures he makes less than $100 every time that machine is used. “But it helps us produce the very best students by helping them learn how to land in a crosswind. It’s one of the hardest things to teach and one of the most dangerous things to deal with,”, he says. “I can teach a student more about landing in a challenging crosswind in an hour than some pilots will learn in a lifetime.

Leading others to new heights

Dave will tell you he’s not a great leader, but then, that’s what great leaders say. His motto, ‘lead with your head, love with your heart’ has been proven to be the best course of action for him. He loves being able to see something in someone else, to nurture it and develop it into something bigger.

He has built a successful business, one that is profitable and brings value to his community. In addition, he has trained some fantastic mechanics and pilots. Some of his students have gone on to fly for the air force and major commercial airlines. Other graduates include an astrophysicist and a nuclear scientist.

Yet, he feels the greatest success comes when he is able to help someone just become a better person, to see them get something from aviation that took them to another level. “Aviation can give a student some decision-making skills and confidence they’ve never had before. When they fly a traffic pattern in Spokane airport – mixing with the Airline aircraft -- they know they can do anything.”

“You can make the mistake that you are just supplying information and they are becoming a pilot, but it is much greater than that. We can light a fire that will last a lifetime.”

Parting advice

His business advice to others? “Do what you love, because if you don’t love it, you won’t persevere”. Dave truly enjoys teaching kids how to fly, and to see the passion they develop for it. He loves listening to the recording of students in the cockpit during their first solo flights, listening to them talk to themselves, as they battle their fears and triumph.

“It’s a privilege to be a catalyst in someone’s life — I could do that all day”, says Dave. “Often when we get to work at something we love, it seems that should be enough, we could be happy with that — who wouldn’t be, right? But my [SBDC] coach taught me that the bottom line is important too, and that making a profit is not a bad thing”, says Dave.

“I was able to make the right moves in a challenging industry, it’s amazing how the little things can make such a big difference”, he says. Those ‘little things’ netted dramatic growth in all four segments of the business. Not bad at all.

Want to learn more about managing your business? At the North Idaho College Small Business Development Center, our mission is to help your business thrive and grow. No cost, one-on-one coaching in Leadership Development, Strategic Planning, Budgeting, Digital Marketing, e-Commerce, and other tools are available to take your business to the next level. Contact the NISBDC at 208-665-5085 or

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Katrina Boyer is the marketing assistant for the North Idaho College Idaho Small Business Development Center.

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Courtesy photo

Northern Air owner, Dave Parker and his kids.


Courtesy photo

Student Jeff Gutshall completes his first solo and has his shirt tales cut off.


Courtesy photo

Zach Love’s first solo.


Courtesy photo

Shirt tales hanging in the Hall of Fame.