Redbird: Hacking Away at the Barriers

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As if everything in aviation isn’t hard enough to get done, it’s grimly amusing how we’re able to make it harder yet. Just ask anyone trying to get a simple cert project on the FAA’s agenda, much less getting it approved. Even the stuff that should be simple and quick, isn’t.

That came to mind yesterday when I was interviewing Brandon Seltz for this video on Redbird’s developing TRACE/GIFT technology for self-guided aviation training. This package, which comes out of the gaming industry and will be used in Redbird’s sims, has been in the works for a couple of years. For cripes sake, it’s just a video game, so where the hell is it? Redbird’s Jeff Van West, my former colleague, kinda rolled his eyes when I asked. He opened his laptop and showed me a task matrix of the sort game and software developers use to track the gazillion steps necessary to get to a working product. And even then, the damn thing might not work and may require more debugging effort.

Specifically, the way Redbird has conceived it, TRACE technology is a flexible platform that has to tie together the sim’s dynamics and graphics with video, audio and an effective, interactive syllabus to jolly the would-be pilot along in the sim without too much intervention from an instructor. Really. How hard can this be? See above. It’s aviation.

Ignoring the whine with the cheese here, is this a good idea, to basically assume you can just throw a student into the sim and have him or her essentially self-instruct? Personally, I think it’s a terrific idea because I’ve always felt that the actual act of flight instruction is way overrated in difficulty and ultimately delivered unevenly. For some percentage of people who want to fly-and I don’t know what that percentage is-learning it just isn’t that hard. Flying an airplane just isn’t that hard, despite our persistent efforts to make it so. For some percentage-again, no idea-learning to fly will be challenging and for some smaller percentage, almost impossible. They may not be candidates for self-guided learning and that’s okay. There are and there will remain other options for them.

But for a good self-learner, the GIFT idea-that’s guided individual flight instruction-is…a gift. For all its challenges, rewards and successes, some flight instruction can be drudgery, blathering through the same old doctrine and dogma with the same tattered training materials and inconsistent delivery and feedback. A nicely constructed sim-based computer learning system would be a blessing and a relief. That is, if it works. My definition of “works” is something like this: The student plows through the four forces, straight and level, turns and steep turns, stalls and landings in the sim, flies for four hours in the airplanes and then solos. Or six hours, or whatever. Just something less than the 20 hours it now requires some students to reach that goal.

Redbird insists it has proven that sim-based instruction yields more effective training in the airplane and a shorter, less expensive route to the private pilot certificate. However, Redbird’s Roger Sharp concedes that the company’s Skyport facility in San Marcos, Texas hasn’t been through a full generation of CFIs in teaching with these methods so there are shortcomings and bugs to be worked out. And, of course, the whole idea has to be fielded as a done-deal package to the Redbird sim schools that wish to deploy it.

Coming next is what Redbird calls the Connected Flight School, which it envisions as kicking the network idea up to the next level. To demonstrate that, Redbird cranked up the hangar door as a Redhawk taxied in and in a few moments, the airplane was automatically dumping its flight, engine and maintenance data into a network (still under development) that would eventually tie the entire school’s data generation into a master hub that could monitor maintenance, handle billing, track training, manage video and audio training records…you can see the possibilities and how they might help control costs, improve efficiency and encourage consistency in training. Running on a tablet, TRACE can even read QR codes on the physical airplane and lead the student through pre-flight, complete with video vignettes explaining it all. As an instructor, I’m not feeling the slightest bit useless, thanks.

The potential impact is obvious, but the actual impact not so much and may be well into the future. Redbird has more than 1000 sims in the market and it shipped 332 last year. Part of the reason it’s holding the Migration event this week is to show off what it has done during the past year and to pull the curtain back on what’s ahead. Redbird customers and the press are here to see all this. Good stuff as far as that goes.

The challenge it faces is staying on track with all these ideas and turning them into actual, marketable products that schools capable of investing in the Skyport idea can make work. With the Redhawk program inching forward and these tech packages at the breadboard level, the parts and pieces of a flight training evolution are in view. Now, can Redbird and the industry stitch them all together to make an impact? To me, that’s as big a challenge as finding the students to populate the sims and airplanes.

I’m not convinced that any of these initiatives fundamentally reset the economics of flight training, although they clearly help flatten the cost escalation. That’s a start. For the second year in a row, we’ve been hearing about marketing aviation to the millenials and eventually the digital natives, the newest generation. I’m just not so sure we’ve found the spark that will ignite significant interest in flying in those generations, if indeed it’s there to be ignited at all. But this much seems fair: If those generations are going to develop an aviation interest, the stuff Redbird is proposing, at least conceptually, ought to appeal to them. If it doesn’t, I’m fresh out of ideas.

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