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Redbird's Training Evolution

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When I attend conferences and seminars like this week’s Redbird industry training meeting, I always groan when the schedule is passed out. I’m 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, what’s Redbird up to here in San Marcos? It’s 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 instructor’s time rather than the student’s, rote, check-box learning that jumps through hoops we should have ditched years ago and training airplanes that should have been scrapped before that.

It’s 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 Redbird’s idea gel. One is affordable simulator technology that’s 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 that’s 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 won’t 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. (They’ve got a little work to do on the branding of this; the briefings I heard didn’t make this especially clear. They’ll 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, I’m 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. It’s 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, it’s 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 NAA—not 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 we’ll know if this is true or if inevitable human idiocy will reduce Redbird’s carefully conceived training theory to just another idea that seemed good on paper.

But I’ll 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, I’ll wager.

The interesting experiment will be how Redbird’s training concept fares in the wider world, where it can’t 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 that—that is, better training materials and support and the means to measure training progress—can only improve things.

While I see how Redbird’s training delivery concepts—however they evolve—can yield better trained pilots and should reduce the drop out rate, the larger challenge remains sales and recruitment. It’s true that simulation itself may become the end rather than the means and that’s 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 I’m incorrigibly old school. I won’t be happy unless I’m promiscuously spewing burnt hydrocarbons from here to there.

I’ve always seen recruitment, retention and ongoing participation as distinct problems only loosely related. Both are daunting and I don’t see ready solutions. I simply don’t buy that nudging the accident rate from 1.2 to .99—a 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 they’re suddenly ready to push the button because they’re 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 yesterday’s 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 Continental’s Rhett Ross props for pursuing an innovative idea in an industry that’s anything but. We’ll see how it pans out in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, Redbird’s initiative counts for its own innovation, more evolutionary than revolutionary. Sims for GA training aren’t 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.

Comments (9)

I for one think Redbird is on to something here. It took me nearly two years to get my private pilot; some of that was due to work requirements interfering with me having fun, but weather and mechanical issues consisted of the bulk of the remaining reasons for my lengthy training. If I could have instead spend the lousy weather days in the sim, I have no doubt that I could have completed the training in half the time (and for a lot cheaper, too).

The other half of the equation that I don't hear as much about is recurrent training (even if "recurrent" just means every other year during a flight review), and simulator use. If primary flight training can be time-and-money reduced through simulator use, why couldn't it also benefit the flight review and IPC?

The only downside to simulator training is that it takes an instructor (or flight school that develops the curricula) who really understands what can and cannot be effectively taught in it.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 24, 2012 4:19 PM    Report this comment

The one thing as a professional pilot I have disliked is training(recurrent or otherwise) in a sim. The fun of flying is not there especially because having a bad training session could cost you your job and the training is always rushed and only the minimum required to pass. Looking at it from the company standpoint this is understandable since they are the ones paying for it. If GA used sim based training for those who are 18-25 year old who are planning to fly for a living then this might be a good idea. But for those who are 30 to 40+ who are getting into aviation just for their private and are doing it as a hobby for fun I have serious doubts on whether this will work to get more customers to complete or even to get started. As a civilian flight instructor you have to ensure that the student is actually enjoying what they are doing otherwise they will not complete the course. After all that is what they are paying for. I just don't see that happening in a sim using military or airline style training for the weekend flyer. The other item is cost. If it costs the same or more than doing the training in an airplane you will have a very tough sell. My company had a cost dispute with a sim training provider. They wanted more for sim training than it cost to fly the airplane. So for 2 years my company did all(pt135)training in the airplane until an agreement was reached on cost.

Posted by: matthew wagner | October 24, 2012 5:08 PM    Report this comment

Sim training can make for effective avionics training - an area that deserves attention. You don't need a real aircraft to learn advanced button-pushing.

Posted by: Larry Anglisano | October 24, 2012 8:20 PM    Report this comment

Off-airport recruitment works. The best promotion my flight school ever did was putting one of our trainers 9and several staff) in the food court of a local regional mall.

Sim training works – IF the sim is sophisticated (read: “expensive”).

Will off-airport sim training be a winner? I suspect that it will. Of course, there is a tempting Dark Side to all of this: sim time as a surrogate for flight time. Inevitably, some people will be satisfied with just driving a sim, and will spend little or no time above the Earth. Is that just a new slant on a harmless hobby? Could be. And it’s certainly a way to keep those sims busy 24/7, which can be awfully appealing to the sims’ owner/operators. It comes with a concern for “trained” but not certificated enthusiasts temptations to attempt aerial joy rides. It also comes with government concerns about terrorist actions.

It’s the Law of Unintended Consequences. Don’t take it the wrong way. I’m an engineer. I can’t help but do a failure-mode analysis on everything I encounter. ;-)

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | October 25, 2012 6:41 AM    Report this comment

Seems to me like a great idea with a good deal of potential and it may truly be a better method. In my case it wouldn't have worked. I would have had a hard time coming up with the lump sum and no way I could have taken 21 days off to do it. Plus pushing and pulling knobs levers and such in a sim was not what I would have been interested in. Doing it in a tired old taildragger, lessons in fits and starts, was a longer drawn out process, and perhaps more expensive in total - but wow, it was fun. I learned to do rolls before I could land. Frequently a lesson would take us to another airport, include lunch, look at airplanes, talk to other pilots. The syllabus included a weekend fly-in and flights in several different types. I can see finishing a sim session with a feeling of accomplisment and a lot of satisfaction from doing well, but not a stupid grin from seeing the world upside down or from hearing the buzz of grass on the tires as the old Luscombe settled in to a smooth three-point landing.

Posted by: Richard Montague | October 25, 2012 10:31 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Montague's post is exactly what I was talking about! Well said.

Posted by: matthew wagner | October 25, 2012 6:04 PM    Report this comment

I'm with Matt W. on this. I believe Redbird's program would be most attractive to the 18-25 year olds with little patience, lots of their parent's money and time to take off to push through the process. I just sent a 55 year old candidate for his private yesterday and I can pretty much guarantee (based on his shyness toward the Garmin 530 in the trainer) that he would not have done well in a sim.

However, I think (read - not sure) the instructor would be able to log only dual given in this environment. If so, that means the time-builders would be going somewhere else. I consider that a good thing.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | October 26, 2012 8:05 AM    Report this comment

I'm not sure if it's me that's wrong, or some of the other commentators here, but my understanding is that Redbird's model isn't *exclusive* use of a simulator; it still involves flying the real thing. My understanding is that the use of the simulator is just a supplement for teaching the concepts, and then going out and practicing in the real thing.

To me, it simply makes sense that you would learn the basic concepts in a sim without the distractions of noise, heat, cold, scanning for traffic, listening to the radio, etc. You can break down tasks into more components in the sim than you can in the real thing, and then add them back on in layers as it makes sense. When you finally step in to the real thing, it's simply a matter of transferring those skills over and fine-tuning them.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 26, 2012 8:26 AM    Report this comment

I started flying in 1990 because I liked the view from a buddy's airplane. A sim would have held no more allure for me than a Ferris wheel. I scrounged up $60 a week, on average, for the year it took me to get my private's certificate, and put the long x-country and the check ride on a credit card. If I'd needed any more money I'd have had to walk away.

I did borrow $2,500 a couple years later to get my commercial certificate and multiengine rating, but by then I was committed to flying.

Redbird's program sounds great for a youthful demographic seeking a structured, academic program. But a lot of us became instructors, airline pilots, et cetera by biting off whatever we could afford to chew at the time.

I'm not sure that says anything about our flying -- other than that we really wanted it.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | October 27, 2012 6:17 PM    Report this comment

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