Pilotage, Inc. has none of the atmosphere generally associated with amateur flying: the grease-stained tarmac strip and the pungent smell of gasoline. Instead it is redolent of elegantly coiffed women and sizzling pizza. Pilotage is, in fact, a very smart shop located in a rear courtyard of a tiny suburban shopping center at 186A Skokie Valley Road, Highland Park, Ill. and dedicated exclusively to the needs of amateur pilots.
They come to Pilotage by the score and write in by the hundreds for flight jackets, flight helmets, flight cases and flight chronometers ("There are only two other places in the Chicago area where you can get chronometers like these," says Founder-Proprietor Bill Bennett, an ex-sportswriter), for flight charts, flight computers, map lights and flight logs ("We're working with an airline pilot on a design for a jet-age flight log"), for earphones, boom mikes, wind socks and captain's chairs ("For an extra $5 we put your plane's identification on the back"), for books, games, LPs, jewelry, and portable radios ("With this model you get a directional antenna, aviation weather forecasts, and you can tune in on tower talk. Even when they're at home or in their cars, a lot of pilots like to hear the tower talking to pilots"). There is an almost baffling array of exotica aimed at the flying buff—from a special windshield cleaner to special sunglasses.
Bennett is a slender, candid, somewhat diffident man who took up private flying only a couple of years ago even though he had flown all over the world on business and pleasure trips. It wasn't until he started taking flying lessons that he became aware of the almost exponential growth of aviation. In four years there had been a doubling of what the Federal Aviation Agency called "general aviation local operations"—i.e., private flying and instruction at FAA tower-operated airports—and by 1977, the FAA estimated, that figure would probably quintuple.
There was evidence of an increasing awareness of this market: two new publications devoted to sport flying had started and Abercrombie & Fitch had included four aviation items in its latest catalog. At the same time there were few places a flying buff could go to get everything he needed, "as boating enthusiasts do, or sports-car rallyists."
"I was impressed," says Bennett, "by all the stuff available for pilots and the fact that there was practically no place around for them to buy it."
He decided to start a place—"I always wanted to run my own business"—but not at an airport. "You don't have to go to a golf course to buy golf equipment," he says. "You don't have to go to the waterfront to buy boating equipment. One of the largest marine supplies stores in Chicago is miles from the lake." Moreover, an airport location would not help at all in one aspect of the business—"the mail-order potential here is fantastic." And finally he suspected what the airport might do to the personality of his shop. "Most airports are cold places. You can't even find people to talk to at a lot of private airports." He wanted the store to be "a center for fun—a place to come in and chat and talk flying." So he looked for a congenial spot away from an airport and near an expressway. He found it just a few hundred feet from where Edens Expressway ends its run north from Chicago and merges with Skokie Highway.
At the age of 43, Bill Bennett decided to put his life's savings into the venture. ("My wife had a full-time job as a chemist so it wasn't as if we couldn't eat.") He took out ads in flying publications and in the Chicago Tribune. And he hung up the name in foot-high letters at the top of the store. "Pilotage," he explains, "is simply an historic form of air navigation. You use ground references—a railroad, a toll road. It comes from the days when there were no air maps, only road maps. You'd get up in the air in New Jersey and follow the New York Central and Santa Fe tracks to California." Bennett used pilotage in building his inventory. "I made a lot of mistakes," he admits, "because there was nobody around to tell me what was good and what was not."
Today he has an inventory of hundreds of items, ranging in cost from 10¢ (for an out-of-date air chart "that can be used as wall decoration for a recreation room") to $129.95 (for the top-of-the-line radio). It includes everything from pemmican (for survival kits) to a Human Element Range Extender (a portable plastic urinal), from a Snoopy doll in goggles and soft flying helmet (for chasing the Red Baron) to such book titles as Medical Aspects of High Altitude Flight and Planes of the Royal Air Force Since 1917 (at a hefty $17.50 a copy).
The shop has given Bill Bennett a great deal of pleasure. It has given him the joy of ownership: "I like to come in and vacuum the floors, because it's my shop," he says. It has given him the pleasure of authority: "I think I know more about certain aspects of flight merchandising than anybody else. I can tell you what are the best materials to get for flight instruction when even an instructor might not know; he won't have seen them all." It has failed to give him only one thing: the time to go out and enjoy flying. "I haven't even gotten my private pilot's ticket yet," he says with a frown. "Just too busy around the store."