By Paul Bertorelli, Editorial Director
After a year of research and training at its San Marcos, Texas, Skyport simulator lab, Redbird Flight Simulations is poised to roll out a new simulator-based pilot training program that expands its business beyond sim sales and into the wider market of flight training delivery. The training could, in some iterations, be based on a fixed-cost, fixed-time model that Redbird says it has had success with at its San Marcos location. Redbird will continue to market its line of affordable simulators while a separate company called Redbird Media will produce training support and outreach materials based on simulator-centric training. The new system is called Migration and will capitalize on what Redbird has learned from a year of intensive research on simulator training methods at its San Marcos facility.
At the company's second industry training conference in San Marcos on Tuesday, Redbird CEO Jerry Gregoire told about 175 instructors, flight school owners and industry professionals that Red Bird's sim-based training will change the rules for how flight training is delivered to customers while at the same increasing the return on investment for flight schools, a critical part of the GA equation. Gregoire has long been a critic of an established flight training system that he compared to trying to make progress by "climbing up a mudslide." In a day-long event introducing what will become the Migration method, Gregoire said current flight training is a game rigged against the student because it depends on instructor and equipment availability, not the would-be student's convenience or desires. The drop out rate is horrific, said Gregoire, and seems to be getting worse.
Redbird developed the underlying concepts at its Skyport lab and for its version of the training it used a fixed-cost model of $9500 for either private or instrument rating, with the training completed over a three-week period. Typically, a student spends two dual sessions a day of about an hour-and-half each, plus solo sim sessions. Aircraft sessions are scheduled as the simulator program progresses. Students can fly as much solo sim time as they like on the way to the rating. As the ideas behind the training filter into the wider market under the Migration nameplate, the program will be based broadly on Skyport's training findings, but it will up to individual flight schools to decide how fixed costs are set and whether the fixed-time model will be followed. The training materials will allow some flexibility.
Redbird's chief instructor Roger Sharp told the group that in some 10 months of operation, the lab tested a number of assumptions designed to improve the student's training experience, including the design of the building itself, how people learn -- or don't learn -- the sometimes daunting technical details of flying and how sim time can best be integrated with actual aircraft time. Redbird found that much of what pilots are forced to learn is useless rote-and-repeat knowledge designed to meet outdated FAA standards of what pilots are supposed to know. It has stripped down and simplified the delivery of required knowledge for the ratings.
One novel idea: The instructors aren't hourly employees, but full-time, salaried professionals with benefits. Sharp conceded that this definitely raises overhead, but he insists that it pays off in a higher margin for the flight school on both the simulator and aircraft investments. The lab has graduated 41 students, including 20 private pilots. Sharp said as a group, these pilots have had a 97 percent first-time pass rate on checkrides and have completed their training in an average of 38 hours for those who pursued the program full-time. The national average is 62 hours.
The Migration system will be rolled out to all comers by Redbird Media, headed by Jeff Van West. Although developed on Redbird simulators, the system can be used by any school with adequate simulation. The Migration training materials aren't available yet, but are expected to be in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, Continental Motors has already launched its own simulator-based training initiative called Zulu. Continental CEO Rhett Ross summarized this for the conference on Tuesday. Although it's not yet using the Migration system, Ross said Continental's initial experience has proven one thing: A simulator business can be placed off-airport in a shopping mall and draw both walk-in traffic and regular student trade. Ross said the storefront location spares the student a long slog through traffic simply for a one-hour flight lesson. The Zulu store has a spacious storefront in downtown Mobile and three Redbird simulators. It also has two glass-panel 172s for flight training. Ross said Zulu capitalizes on the fact that flight training simply hasn't kept up with customer expectations and he believes clean, modern facilities and full-time instructors can reset the rules. "We have to look at flight training differently," Ross said. "The customer is different today."