Is this the formula for flight training success? Jerry Gregoire thinks so.
Photography by Chris Rose
When Jerry Gregoire and Redbird Flight Simulations first unveiled the FMX full-motion simulator to a skeptical flight training community five years ago, it was unlike anything that had been tried previously. This presented a problem for the company as it sought to create a market for a product that had already been designed, built, and offered for sale. The answer was to show it in action—prove it could change the face of flight training as we know it. Redbird’s Skyport laboratory concept was born.
The business of flight training is old. So old, in fact, that it’s a safe bet one of the Wright brothers would fit in perfectly with today’s corps of instructors. Other than learning how to use ailerons instead of wing warping, and a little new cockpit technology, Wilbur and Orville would do just fine. And this is a problem.
Not only has the method of instruction changed little in the past 109 years, but the flight school business model hasn’t changed either. School owners are forced to make what little profit is available through the margins of aircraft rental. The more the aircraft is utilized, the more the school makes, regardless of the tool’s merits for that particular lesson—which is unfortunate because the airplane is a terrible classroom. It’s loud, it can make students sick, and for those new to the game, it can be scary. It’s also completely unforgiving.
Simulation, on the other hand, is quiet, safe, and has a magic Pause button. Airlines and the military have been using it for decades, in part because it’s less expensive but also because the positive transfer of learning has been verified with study after study. Devices for the general aviation market were hampered by a lack of computing power and display technology. What was available was either motionless desktop models or very robust and impressive devices with equally impressive price tags. As computers improved, it’s no surprise that someone from the technology sector pounced on the market.
Driven. You only have to know one thing about Redbird Chairman and founder Jerry Gregoire to understand his entire business approach: He competes in auto endurance races with his sons. That competitive bent comes across in everything he does. Being in aviation is fun; winning is even better. But he’s not foolish. A common refrain of race team owners is that you have to finish to win—and it’s a philosophy that Gregoire carries over to his companies. Redbird and its new Skyport FBO and flight school in San Marcos, Texas, are in this for the long haul, and while he and the team are willing to take chances, they aren’t going to do anything stupid, either.
Gregoire honed his business skills through a variety of high-profile positions, most recently as the chief information officer at Dell Computers. Dell is where he put down his Austin, Texas, roots and where he, along with a cadre of advisors who have been together for more than 20 years, became hugely successful in the competitive, fast-paced technology world.
Along the way his love of aviation grew, and he bought a business jet. During one simulator session he had trouble with a circling approach (where you fly an instrument approach to one end of a runway and then circle to the other end or a crossing runway to land in visual conditions). The instructor explained a convoluted workaround that included flying a certain direction for a number of seconds before turning back for the runway, which was never in sight. And this was in a sim that cost millions of dollars. Like any Type-A personality involved in the technology field, Gregoire knew he could build a better mousetrap.
Redbird was born, and the company has seen great success with its relatively low-cost, full-motion devices. That wasn’t always the case, however. Gregoire says that when the device first came out, there was some question as to how marketable a full-motion simulator could be. “When someone looks at the price, they make a broad assumption that it must be a piece of crap for that price,” he said. Others would say the motion was distracting or unnecessary. So Gregoire embarked on what he calls a backwards business plan, justifying a market after the product had already been launched.
Birth of a flight school. The Redbird Skyport concept began somewhat selfishly, as business is often wont to do. In order to make a business case for the product, Redbird had to show that motion was relevant or better yet, game changing. Gregoire said he and his staff had a gut feeling motion mattered, both in reducing cost and increasing excitement for the learning process, but had no hard data to prove it. So began the task of designing, building, and operating a unique flight school that would directly answer those questions.
In a serendipitous moment, at the same Cessna was letting go of a bunch of talented people as the result of a corporate shakeup. As Gregoire says, Cessna threw good talent out with bad. Roger Sharp, a well-known rep for the Cessna Pilot Center program, became available, and Redbird tapped him to head the school. Interestingly, Sharp isn’t a “simulator guy.” He wasn’t an evangelist for the method, in other words. “I had trained in simulators,” he says, but he didn’t think of the tools as anything beyond an aid to the process.
From the outset, the Skyport training model was going to be different. Students work on a concept with ground school first, and only when they can explain the theory properly to the instructor do they get into a simulator. Here students become proficient in the maneuver or task, and then go to the airplane and use it as a transition device. If the Skyport was successful, students would earn a certificate in less time—and spend less money doing it.
But as the concept of the Skyport came together, a funny thing happened—the business case made itself. Redbird has sold hundreds of the devices to flight schools all over the country, both large and small. The company is profitable, and its brand has become easily recognizable. The vast majority of this success came well before to the launch of the school.
The method. From day one, the Skyport was a laboratory, although the extent of the experimenting has grown over time. “We wanted a changing human dynamic with the building,” Gregoire says. From the design to the construction, each element was studied. How fast could it go up? How modular could it be? And how much would it cost? At the same time Sharp was designing a curriculum that was simulator-centric, but also rewarding for the customer. Sharp often says that while Gregoire and company were busy having fun with the laboratory concept, he had to create an FAA-approved training program (Part 141) that serves real customers.
Being involved in previous 141 programs gave Sharp an appreciation for the shortcomings of traditional flight training. Because schools need airplanes flying to be profitable, and because flight training is done to proficiency, it’s been virtually impossible to offer a certificate at the same flat rate most of us are accustomed to paying for services. Boating, scuba diving, and other recreational pursuits have a price. Flight training has a range—an expectation that happens to almost always be off. It’s not the fault of flight schools. Charging a flat rate would be business suicide. What if a student flew 100 hours in the airplane?
Simulators make it possible. Give students as much sim time as they want, an asset that costs very little to operate on a per-hour basis, and they won’t need as much airplane time. The private pilot course at the Skyport is a flat $9,500. This is a beautiful marriage between the expectations of the customer and the needs of the business.
Intensive training is a core tenant of the program, although some students do go about it on a part-time basis. It’s long been known that the more students train, the faster they retain the information. To that end, a cynic would say Redbird is saving money by having people train in three weeks. But there’s no denying it helps the student as well.
Much of what’s unique and interesting about the program takes place in the background. The instructors are paid a salary, for example. Retaining professional instructors is essential for the model to work. Instructors looking to build time could be disappointed that simulators are so heavily featured. More than that, Sharp says, it creates a sea of at-the-ready resources for students. When the building was designed, CFI offices were purposely scrapped in favor of small tables in an open area, resulting in a social atmosphere that encourages mentoring and immediate student aid.
What those instructors are teaching would look familiar to any flight student in the United States. But how they teach it would not. Sharp said that although the Skyport requires a passing score on the FAA knowledge test prior to the start of training, incoming students have been woefully underprepared for the course. So Redbird developed its own materials breaking everything down into bite-size pieces (a regulation book that lists only those that apply to private pilots, written in plain language,for example). The student studies with the instructor, and comes to a knowledge proficiency level where he or she can relate the concept back. Then the student gets into a simulator, often alone.
GIFT (Guided Independent Flight Training) developed with King Schools, enables autonomous learning. Students watch a video of the maneuver in the simulator. They are then transported to the exact position of the demonstration and try the maneuver themselves. The simulator rates the performance and the student tries again. Only when the maneuver has been mastered do students go to an airplane.
It’s in this guided learning phase that Sharp thinks the Skyport can make the biggest difference. “There are some things that humans don’t do very well,” he says. “Instructors are highly motivated and intelligent people, but they don’t do rote and repetition.” Refining GIFT and developing even more technology centric learning is the Skyport’s next step.
After almost a year of refining the program and teaching people to fly, Redbird held a convention at the Skyport in October. What it found validates the method. The first 41 graduates passed their checkrides in an average of 42 flight hours, including those who flew part time (compared to an estimated 70-plus hours nationally). Sharp says that number is as useless as it is impressive. What Redbird is trying to develop is a way to measure the training events to proficiency—how many ground, simulator, and flight sessions does it take, and how can it be reduced?
As with any accelerated program, a common question about the Skyport’s method is the effectiveness of the instruction. Is it possible to be well trained in such a short period, and is training in the simulator a proper substitute for the airplane? Sharp counters that because the training is so efficient, it allows for additional time spent on tasks that go above and beyond the practical test standards. “I have instructors writing advanced training scenarios with the private pilot curriculum,” he said. “We’ll still have something for them [students] to do in the simulator that’s challenging and engaging.”
Legacy. Knowing there is a flight school that exists today where you can go to earn a private pilot certificate in more or less a guaranteed time for a guaranteed amount of money is not groundbreaking. In this way, Gregoire isn’t making new rules. What he is doing is adapting his technology background to aviation. Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t create the MP3 player, but they refined it and made everyone in America want one. IBM and others brought computers down to a price where almost every home now has one. And now, Gregoire hopes to make training affordable, but also reliable and efficient.
Skyport is Gregoire's legacy. At least he hopes it is. “A company like Redbird doesn’t live forever,” Gregoire says. But the Skyport does because it’s an idea. Ideas—be they financial information, business plans, flight training curricula, or even facility blueprint—are free and available to anyone. And that’s what gives the Skyport the opportunity to change flight training.
Flight school owners often are a closed group, thinking competition lurks around every corner. Skyport is different. The open sharing of information has the potential to prop up existing flight schools, and bring in new entities to the industry (Continental Motor’s Zulu flight school in Mobile, Alabama, is loosely based on Skyport). “Everything is for everybody,” Gregoire says. “While it sounds crazy, we don’t want to be in the flight training business. We’re not looking to compete with anybody.”
That’s also significant because ultimately the equipment doesn’t matter. A flight school owner could use any simulator and get the same or similar results. “We believe if the migration method gets widespread adoption, there will be competing methods that pop up,” he says.
Gregoire said he hopes the Skyport in San Marcos will be a certification center that trains others how to implement the model. It’s logical to assume that, if successful, there could be a chain of Skyports around the country. That’s not likely to happen, however. Because everything is open, school owners will have the opportunity to pick and choose what they like best. The Skyport’s successful laboratory studies could permeate the industry, which may lead to everything from an exact copy to simply a locally owned flight school that makes better use of simulation. As Sharp says, “Hopefully an instructor will never say, ‘There’s that box over there. Go use it.’”