Redbird: Filling the Vacuum
I’ve attended enough shows like Sun ‘n Fun and AirVenture to have to have inoculated myself against reading too much into trends and events that occur over the course of a week. And we’re but one day into Sun ‘n Fun, with another five to go. Nonetheless, as far as new developments are concerned, I think we’ve pretty much seen the lay of the land; we know what’s coming. So the rest of the week is mood sampling; plumbing the depths of mass opinion for that elusive thing we might as well call confidence. I’m not sure I’d know if I saw it and wouldn’t necessarily trust my judgment if I did, so I’m not a huge fan of journalistic throwaways like “the mood was upbeat.”
But there are a couple of things worth a comment. First, if there’s a current and consistent newsmaker in general aviation, it’s Redbird. Last summer, they announced a bold program to re-engine Skyhawks with diesel engines and last fall at the company’s annual Migration training project, they gave us a glimpse of a new game-dynamic-based training program to be used with Redbird’s line of moderately priced simulators. Here at Sun ‘n Fun, Redbird has painted in some of the details with the Flying Challenge and they showed off a new helicopter simulator (video) which I spent 30 minutes crashing on Monday, much to the amusement of Roger Sharp.
I think what I’m seeing is that Redbird is rushing in to fill a giant vacuum. Cessna hasn’t been interested in flight training for five years, at least, and although other companies are doing credible components of training programs, none are as potentially vertically integrated as Redbird, from basic training materials, to simulators, to actually building airplanes. Of such stuff are empires made.
I’ve stood on the sidelines for two decades now and patiently given lip service to programs like Be-A-Pilot, Young Eagles, AOPA’s Mentor idea and endless youth outreach efforts, a couple of which are going on here this week. We all know none of these work to produce significant new pilot starts, nor are they likely to, probably for several reasons. One of those is that broad outreach efforts like these don’t really qualify the prospects but have tended to assume—wrongly—that any kid or person exposed to aviation will suddenly be seized with an unquenchable desire to become an aviator.
But here’s where the Flying Challenge may be different. It does qualify prospects, in a way, by potentially attracting those who are interested in competitive games, in things technical and in machines in general. Flying may actually be peripheral to the process and that’s okay because in the subgroup of people animated by such things, there may be a higher percentage of people who actually want to learn to fly. From what I’ve seen of Redbird’s TRACE technology, it’s bright and shiny enough to be intriguing, engaging and effective. When I was instructing primary students, I always felt that with the right resources, any reasonably able person could largely teach himself to fly, with the instructor intervening only as a problem solver and coach. With the outlines of TRACE more than faintly visible, you can see how that might work. I like where that's going.
Second, kudos to Bonnier for cross marketing the contest to its other audience interest areas—motorcycling, boating, outdoor sports. This follows that most basic idea of marketing—try to sell to people who have money. This just feels more potentially potent to me than watery “outreaches” to subgroups who may or may not be interested, but simply lack the wherewithal to do anything about it even if they are. That may very well mean that the 13-year-old girl who wins the challenge goes back to skateboarding after a moment of glory on the stage at AirVenture. The fact is, no one really knows how this will play out, but it’s the best idea I’ve seen lately and I can’t wait to see what develops.
One large unmentionable object still bobs in the punch bowl. Once the would-be, exquisitely trained and prepared pilot has a fresh certificate, can he or she afford to stay in the game? Can even half the hes or shes afford this? Again, we just don’t know because we have no idea what kind of demographic this contest will draw from. Further, the industry hasn’t figured out how to make flying significantly less expensive than it is now. Yes, the Redhawk reverses the ever upward trend and at least offers some relief from escalating costs. But if it’s the difference between $169 and $139 per rental hour, is that enough?
Beats me. But I guess we’re about to find out.