Is Redbird Just Plain Better?

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What do you get when well-funded individuals who made their fortunes as corporate efficiency experts apply themselves to the mission of improving flight training? You get Redbird.

In five years since its birth, Redbird has gone from zero to number one in its market niche. It has put more than 300 active-motion flight simulators into general aviation pilot training centers. It has introduced a compelling price for performance argument within the flight training segment. And it has wrapped all that in an attractive package that doesn't just improve learning efficiency for students, it also draws more of them to flight schools. It's not just a simulator; it's a sales tool. And with it, Redbird is on its way to creating the perception that if you're not offering a Redbird simulator, you're behind the curve. If that feeling becomes pervasive, Redbird won't just lead the market, it will be the market. Maybe it already is. Whatever the case, where Redbird is may not be as important as where it's going.

Last month, Redbird invited 250 flight school and industry heavyweights from across the country to its San Marocs, Texas, flight training and research facility for "the biggest flight school conference in the country." Those in attendance learned the results of programs run by Redbird that integrate concepts the company believes will further improve the efficiency, cost effectiveness and profit margins for initial flight training operations. The lesson to learn about Redbird is simple: this is not just a simulator company, and the people behind it aren't just technical engineers. Think of Redbird a targeted continuous improvement program for the aviation training industry.

Redbird was formed from a group of high-powered executives who rose through the ranks of corporate problem solving. Owner Jerry Gregoire cut his teeth at Pepsi, where he and his team became experts in outbound logistics. They were tasked with delivering goods from distribution centers to tens of thousands of business locations, twice weekly. Those businesses didn't function without the shipments and the company couldn't run without cost effective deliveries. The team's successes there are no small thing. When products changed (and they did, frequently) so did warehouse content. That changed not just how the deliveries were packed and sent but the it sometimes necessitated physical changes to infrastructure at the facilities to which they were delivered and the training of personnel there. Gregoire's team didn't just make it happen, they kept it profitable. Gregoire ended his career at Pepsi as chief information officer in New York. ... Then he moved on to take the same position at Dell Computer.

Gregoire's time at Dell was marked by one major theme -- growth. The company underwent rapid and massive corporate expansion during his tenure. At Dell, Gregoire and his team -- most of which he brought along from Pepsi -- were responsible for efficiently integrating the new systems that not only allowed for consistent management of the company's enormous expansion but again provided the channels that made it possible.

But while all this was happening, something else was developing. Gregoire's lifelong interest in aviation was blooming. His business success had earned him the financial compensation he needed to progress through the ranks of aviation. He'd started in ultralights back in 1973, when that was all he could afford. Now, he flies a Cessna Citation. And with Dell behind him he would finally merge his passion for aviation with his hard-earned business abilities. It may seem to be the story of a successful business man turning to pursue his interests in aviation, but because of his experience that's not all that Gregoire was bringing to the table. Gregoire's team solved complicated problems quickly, efficiently and in a manner that wasn't just sustainable but could serve as building blocks for the next change, whatever that might be. It was made up of people who were, in practice, rapid prototypers and development specialists. In essence, they were all people who solved existing problems through invention. This is the founding context for Redbird.

The motivation for the business came, in part from Gregoire's personal experience. Rising through the ranks of aviation, at one point he found himself flying King Airs. His choice for recurrent training was Flight Safety International, which he still uses for that purpose. One day while sitting in the King Air simulator, Gregoire noticed that the visuals really weren't impressive ... especially in the context of the simulator's $7 million price tag. And it's his next thought that matters. "We could build that for about $1500 dollars," Gregoire imagined of his team. "Why is their system so rotten?" Gregoire had set himself a challenge: "How do you solve for these problems at a low cost?" He began working that challenge in 2005.

"We all sat in this little workshop. The goal was, 'can we build a full wrap-around full-motion sim that can be put in a classroom for $50,000?'" That was key. Up until that time, says Gregoire, "there were no sims being built for ab initio training -- every sim on the planet was a facsimile of something that could be used to teach instrument training." At the time, the idea of putting a motion-enabled simulator into an average flight school was completely out of the question. But two years later, Gregoire's team, the beginnings of Redbird, had a couple of prototypes sitting at booths at AirVenture Oshkosh. "The things were just masonite and bondo. We came back with so many pre-orders it amazed us ... because ... it still didn't really work that well." That would soon be resolved.

Today, Redbird's FMX is the largest selling simulator in history, with more than 320 units delivered worldwide. "What we did was we hit that sweet spot in the market." The simulators are simple, effective and, according to Gregoire, haven't yet broken down in the field. They also don't really have any competition in their price range. The visuals are good, with multiple flat screens providing a wrap around virtual environment that lets pilots look from wingtip to wingtip and everywhere in between across a horizontal plain. The geography can be linked to display real world "home-base" environments. The seating is comfortable -- the cabin is spacious, but not egregiously so. And motion in the sim is simple but effective. It can't honestly be called exceptionally realistic, but it arguably delivers a sense of motion relevant to the flight experience. More important, it offers motion that is unmatched at the simulator's price point. And that brings up a key to the Redbird equation. Redbird isn't perfect, it just does things better.

This is a company that gets things done quickly and does the job well. But is the Redbird simulator the ultimate sim? No. For many operators, it's the practical, affordable, reliable, effective and upgradable option that's available right now. It's also better than anything else in its price range and in the real world all that may prove "ultimate" enough. In practice, the controls are generic but can be configured to match a client's specific desires and fleet. All components necessary to meet those desires can be developed, created, quality controlled and delivered by Redbird in a very compressed timeframe. There are no outside contractors; the inside talent is that good. What's more, the system will see continuos improvement, and "everything we build will be backward compatible to the first machine we ever shipped." Redbird is seeking to keep its customers by providing the channels for clients to upgrade their purchase as product development improves. It's a philosophy of keeping customers by looking out for them. It's also company policy.

Redbird is among the few companies you'll call that will never dump you into voicemail. "You will talk to a human being the first time you call," says Gregoire, "If the phone rings more than three times, every single one of our 56 employees runs to pick up the phone. That's the culture. That's what's driving our growth." And the company is growing.

As the sims took shape, Redbird began to apply its history in efficiency modeling to the simulator environment -- they focussed on flight training and flight schools. The company sought to acquire data and streamline every aspect of business relevant to initial flight training. They approached four major flight schools and asked to set up research facilities. "It was a huge gift. We were going to send our equipment and personnel to the equipment and some experiments," Gregoire said. The results of the inquiry weren't good. "Two of those schools told me to 'pound sand' and two said, 'That's great, send us your equipment and personnel and a quarter million dollars and we'll do it.'" Gregoire reassessed. Aside from the $250,000, he was concerned that the money would only guarantee "they'd just feed me the results I wanted." And, so, Redbird Skyport was born.

Redbird's Skyport, opened about one year ago (2011) and became the company's state of the art facility for initial flight training and research. There, Gregoire's team continues to explore the role of simulators in initial flight training. "Simulators can be used for primary training ... for learning skills on the ground and then taking those skills into the airplane," says Gregoire. The company says it has now developed methods at its San Marcos "Redbird Skyport" facility that compete with traditional pilot training methods in time, cost and results. "AOPA raw data shows that flight training costs an average of $13,600 per student, with flight schools making $1,300 per student." With the training methods developed at Redbird's Skyport, Gregoire says, "we can bring the price down to under $10,000 and be making $2,200 per student -- that is a terrific reason to move to this process."

Redbird says work at the Skyport has so far shown that student pilots flying a Redbird program can and do graduate with less than half the flight hours of traditional schools. "They're still getting about 85 hours, which is the national average, but it's combined airplane and simulator time." That holds costs down. And through the simulator, "they're experiencing things they couldn't get in the real airplane and graduating far more skilled." All that benefit is won by the student. On the flight school side, the company is applying its facility with critical number crunching logistics to organize every asset in the flight training environment from aircraft utilization to refueling to aircraft maintenance and cleaning, to -- and this is critical -- how instructors teach. "Understanding your assets and cost and utilizing the asset to the absolute maximum is where the profits are," Gregoire says.

Redbird is on the move. It's not perfect. But it is better than the other available options and is always working to improve. In an imperfect world that may be as close to perfect as you'll find. And at worst, it means Redbird could lower the cost and improve the flight training experience for a new generation of pilots. At its best, it could improve aviation for all of us.