Originally from Miami, Danny Perna, Founder and CEO of Epic Flight Academy, was inspired by his father and grandfather – a retired Air Force Colonel – to pursue aviation. After high school, he spent some time backpacking through Europe and exploring Costa Rica before enrolling at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. After earning his Aviation Mechanics license, Perna accepted a position in Boca Raton working as a mechanic for a charter operation. Two years later, in 1998, he was back in Daytona with a plan to start his own business.
“My wife and I found a small plane that my father helped us finance,” Perna said. “It was $13,000 and we started out by leasing it to an aviation school in Daytona Beach. A year later, we took the aircraft down to New Smyrna Beach and partnered with a company called Vintage Props and Jets. They were shifting operations to focus more on their charter trips to the Bahamas, so we managed the flight school portion of the business. After about a year, we bought the flight school and branched off on our own.”
Perna credits his wife for coming up with the name of the company after seeing an ad for Epic Travel Tours in the Pennysaver. From 1999 to 2007, they ran the business as a small mom and pop operation. They originally focused on training recreational aviation enthusiasts before realizing that training future commercial pilots was the smarter business decision. When the financial crisis of 2008 struck, and the U.S. market took a major hit, Perna made another key business decision.
“We decided to go international,” he said. “We reached out to students in Nepal, Vietnam, Colombia and Brazil, just to name a few. At the time, I did all the traveling for the company. I was doing training seminars around the world and the business was growing.”
In 2010, while Epic Flight School was continuing to increase enrollment and adding planes, Perna met and became a mentee to Lonnie Poole Jr. – the founder of Waste Industries. As Perna shared, it was a bit of a turning point for the company.
“He took me under this wing and mentored me in all aspects of the business,” Perna said. “Believe it or not, there are a lot of similarities between the waste industry and flight training – especially when it comes to the heavy usage of equipment and billing procedures. When he came on, our ‘mom and pop’ type operation shifted to one with more of a corporate mentality.”
From 2014 through early 2020, Epic Flight Academy more than doubled in size. From customer service to employee culture and everything in between, all aspects of the company saw growth and improvement. The company implemented a 401(k) plan, employee benefits, profit sharing and increased their fleet size to 24 airplanes. At their peak in March, before the pandemic stuck, Epic Flight Academy recorded 4,000 flight hours in a single month and employed 160 people.
“There are probably around 3,000 flight schools in the U.S. and another 5,000 worldwide,” Perna said. “In terms of volume, Epic is number two in the world when it comes to being found on the Internet. Our exposure and ability to be discovered on the Internet is a big reason for our success. We put a lot of time, money and energy into making this happen.”
Perna continued, “A friend of mine – with a very successful .com business – came on board and, together, we hired a full-time coder, a social media expert, someone that does nothing but produce YouTube videos and many other team members to support this side of the business.”
Epic Flight Academy is able to take someone with zero experience – even those who can’t speak English – and train them to have the minimum requirements by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly as a co-pilot for any major airline. Once the student graduates, they would train for an additional six months with the airline before flying with passengers. In addition to working with students with no experience, Epic is also very well-positioned to accommodate foreign students.
“Most of our foreign students probably start their search for a flight school by first deciding on which country they want to get trained in,” Perna said. “Once they decide on the U.S., they look at which state they prefer. Many choose Florida for the good weather and flying conditions. If they go with us, we send out the documentation needed to issue a student visa. At that point, depending on which country they’re coming from, there’s a 50/50 chance they’ll be allowed to come to Epic to train. Once here, we do everything possible – including providing housing accommodations – to make their experience a good one.”
Perna added, “A lot of these kids come to us with limited worldly experiences. Some can be challenging to work with, but three years later when they’re flying a jumbo jet from Singapore to L.A., it’s one of the most rewarding feelings in the world. Our students don’t come to us like they’re going to a college to ‘find themselves’. They have a passion and a desire to be here. We’re giving them a chance to pursue their passions and to better their lives.”
Looking ahead, Perna and his team are focused on three main initiatives. The first is to maintain the current volume of the flight school. The pandemic certainly took its toll on enrollment, but numbers are increasing and Perna feels confident that, within 24 months, air travel will be back to normal and the demand for pilots will increase. Epic is also weeks away from launching their Aircraft Mechanic Program – a project four years in the making and one that has a personal connection for Perna.
“I’m really excited about this,” he said. “It can cost in excess of $75,000 to become a pilot. The tuition for the maintenance school is only $20,000 – a much more affordable option for many students. Even with everything that has happened due to COVID, airlines and the aviation industry are growing. Between supersonic air travel, increased automation and technology in aircrafts, SpaceX and a new aviation company in Melbourne looking to hire 700 employees next March, the demand is there for aircraft mechanics.”
The third initiative is currently classified as ‘top secret’. What we can disclose is that Epic is on the cusp of revolutionizing how they train their future pilots. Stay tuned for more!
What advice does Perna have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Starting and growing a successful business is about mastering your craft on a scale that you can deal with,” he said. “If your goal is to grow a million fish – be a master at growing one fish first. Get the beta perfect and then it becomes easier to grow towards perfection. My last piece of advice comes from my grandfather who had a list of 18 steps needed to be successful. Number one on the list was ‘never give up’. Number 18 was ‘never ever give up’.”