When I attend conferences and seminars like this weeks Redbird industry training meeting, I always groan when the schedule is passed out. Im the poster child for a bored audience member and you never know how these things are going to flow. I figured Redbird was dialing my number when they were describing the need to hire full-time instructors incapable of being distracted from the students needs for even a moment. My attention span, on the other hand, makes a gnat look like a meditating monk.
Cutting to the chase, whats Redbird up to here in San Marcos? Its trying to pull together some of the industry players and get their attention with a new, intense simulator-based training method that it hopes will address all of the standard ills we all complain about: Crappy customer service, training based on the instructors time rather than the students, rote, check-box learning that jumps through hoops we should have ditched years ago and training airplanes that should have been scrapped before that.
Its quite astonishing that it took this long to get here, here being the realization that the way we train pilots is, on the whole, ludicrous and we need to find the will to improve it. On the other hand, several factors had to come together to make Redbirds idea gel. One is affordable simulator technology thats good enough to do the job, the other is a driving force with the vision to marry the technology to the potential market. That would be Redbird CEO Jerry Gregoire.
Over the past year, Redbird has been experimenting with training methods in its San Marcos, Texas facility and has settled on a system thats simulator heavy and promises a fixed cost to reach a specific rating in a fixed time; 21 days to be exact. They seem satisfied that the basic idea is good enough to disseminate in some form to the GA world at large. So there are really two ideas here: One is the San Marcos Skyport approach where the building is carefully arranged to be customer friendly, the cost is fixed ($9500 for a private) and the student shows up for a 21-day stint to do the training in one continuous gulp.
The second is what we can call the field deployment of this concept; a detailed, sim-based set of training materials intended for flight schools that have or are willing to invest in simulation and can benefit from what Redbird has learned in San Marcos but who wont necessarily follow the Skyport script to the letter. This work is being done by my former colleague, Jeff Van West, under the Redbird Media imprimatur. The outreach system is called the Migration method. (Theyve got a little work to do on the branding of this; the briefings I heard didnt make this especially clear. Theyll get to that.)
First, the Skyport version. Chief instructor Roger Sharp ran the numbers for us and concluded, not surprisingly, that simulator based training is far more effective than they had originally thought it would be. Stipulating that this is true, Im not surprised, either. Further, the intense, uninterrupted flow of training to completion has always been accepted as the most effective way to learn anything. Few industries or disciplines do what we do in aviation: expose the student to bite-sized blocks of training over a period of who knows how long and then rely on the student to hang it all together. Its a terrible way to do business with predictably horrible results and little chance of growing pilot numbers.
With the training community struggling to reduce fatal accidents, its reasonable to hope that the Skyport method can turn out a better, safer pilot. I can see two reasons for this. One, before Skyport accepts a student for the fixed-cost deal, they provide a free screening to weed out those who Navy instructors call NAAnot aviation adaptable. Second, anyone who signs up for a 21-day commitment and writes a check for $9500 is demonstrating a purposeful level of commitment that shows serious engagement. It may be a leap, but I think this has to produce a more proficient, safer pilot. Five years from now, maybe well know if this is true or if inevitable human idiocy will reduce Redbirds carefully conceived training theory to just another idea that seemed good on paper.
But Ill bet not. People who self select and commit to achieve difficult goals tend to be better at whatever task they set up to accomplish. It follows that they get the group DNA out of the shallows and community performance improves. The proof of that is that members of the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association have a measurably lower accident rate than non-members. Same thing here, Ill wager.
The interesting experiment will be how Redbirds training concept fares in the wider world, where it cant control everything down to the temperature of the room to the temperament of the instructors. What happens when this carefully researched and conceived trained method meets that swelling wave of mediocrity we know as the general aviation training community?* Will it be dilluted to the level of ineffectiveness? Well, look at it this way. Redbird already has 700-plus simulators in the market, merrily perking away with training syllabi not necessarily related to the sophisticated findings of the San Marcos simulator lab experiment. One instructor I met here, Louie Hilliard from Lubbock, Texas, told me his Redbird simulator was the best investment he ever made. Any step up from thatthat is, better training materials and support and the means to measure training progresscan only improve things.
While I see how Redbirds training delivery conceptshowever they evolvecan yield better trained pilots and should reduce the drop out rate, the larger challenge remains sales and recruitment. Its true that simulation itself may become the end rather than the means and thats one version of where GA is headed. In other words, your flying consists of sim work, no actual commission of lift. Better than no involvement at all, I suppose, but Im incorrigibly old school. I wont be happy unless Im promiscuously spewing burnt hydrocarbons from here to there.
Ive always seen recruitment, retention and ongoing participation as distinct problems only loosely related. Both are daunting and I dont see ready solutions. I simply dont buy that nudging the accident rate from 1.2 to .99a laudable goal itself-- is going to somehow attract swarms of people whose hearts were, heretofore unknown to them, beating with the latent desire to slip the surly bonds and theyre suddenly ready to push the button because theyre stastically less likely to be killed doing it.
One Redbird-related proof-of-concept that shows promise is Continental Motors Zulu project. As I mentioned in yesterdays reports, Continental has set up a storefront simulation store to attract street traffic or anyone else interested in flying who the company thinks might find a store or mall location more convenient than trekking to an airport. I like this idea and I give Continentals Rhett Ross props for pursuing an innovative idea in an industry thats anything but. Well see how it pans out in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, Redbirds initiative counts for its own innovation, more evolutionary than revolutionary. Sims for GA training arent new--although using them for primary training is a twist--nor are packaged training systems intended to offer a standardized framework a revelation. What is new is sophisticated sims that are affordable and training methods built specifically around simulation, deemphasizing the airplane, and making the entire package friendly, affordable, accessible and customer-centric.
You can call that whatever you like, but I call it an encouraging start.
*hyperbole warning light. We know this gross, unfair and over-the-top statement doesn't apply to every flight school, but you get the point.