Leaders with the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics in Atwater are taking steps to leave financial troubles and legal battles behind and move toward a brighter future by improving education offered at the flight school and bringing in new investors.
Daniel Yoon is the former co-owner of the flight school who last month was sentenced to three years probation after accepting a plea deal to misdemeanor charges of forgery and falsifying documents in the name of his former business partner and current exclusive owner of the flight school and parent company, John Yoon.
Daniel Yoon and John Yoon are not related.
School officials did not mince words discussing their feeling over the departure of their former owner.
“Now that Mr. Dan Yoon is out of the picture, we can move forward with projects like acquiring aircraft, hiring instructors and bringing students back in,” said Bob Deklinsky, a business operations director at the academy.
The academy, also known as KS Aviation, specializes in training commercial pilots from Asia, particularly from China, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. The school, located at Castle Commerce Center, currently enrolls about 40 students.
The former business partners engaged in a court battle in which Daniel Yoon was accused of trying to seize control of the flight school while John Yoon recovered from injuries suffered in a 2013 motorcycle crash. The lawsuit is ongoing in Merced County Superior Court.
Efforts to contact Daniel Yoon were unsuccessful.
John Yoon placed much of the blame for the school’s recent troubles squarely on the shoulders of his former business partner.
The academy scrapped about two dozen aircraft that weren’t maintained properly while John Yoon was away from the company.
In January, employees received paychecks more than a week late while John Yoon waited for money from overseas, he said.
Now, the school is in the process of buying brand new planes, said Sanjay Akella, who was recently hired on as the academy’s chief flight instructor.
The school’s reputation with international airlines also sank, along with the quality of education students were receiving, school officials acknowledged.
“Our greatest frustration was we saw that resources and attention were not focused on the future of the school,” said Joshua Daniel, the human resources coordinator.
Hiring Akella demonstrates John Yoon’s focus on churning out quality pilots, he said. Since the beginning of the year, pass rates in classes have more than doubled.
“Sanjay is a really good pilot,” John Yoon said. “In all the world, you can’t find this kind of pilot.”
Daniel said the school received more than 30 letters of recommendation on behalf of Akella.
Akella, originally from India, first came to Sierra Academy in 2014 to log flight hours to become a flight instructor. Now he’s certified with the Federal Aviation Administration as the school’s chief instructor and is awaiting the immigration process to get a proper work visa, he said.
“I know the school, I know the place. I know what needs to be fixed,” he said. “For me, I don’t look at the business side. I care about certification from the FAA to keep Sierra alive.”
Hiring Akella was critical for the school since the aviation industry nationwide is facing a pilot shortage. Airlines currently are offering thousands in signing bonuses for chief flight instructors, leaving flight schools scrambling to fill the positions, Akella said.
Sierra is the prime location for a flight school, Akella said, because of the San Joaquin Valley’s mild and predictable weather. He logged hours in half the time at Sierra than what it would have taken at schools in Florida and Texas, Akella said.
John Yoon said he remains committed to giving back to Merced County. He hopes to attract investors for the school to renovate dorms and create more jobs.
“Sierra has been an integral part of Castle for several years now,” said Mark Hendrickson, Merced County’s director of economic development. “In that respect, it’s important for the community as their instructors and students have historically purchased goods and services, adding to the local economy.”
“We solved our problem,” John Yoon said. “Now we have to start rebuilding.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477