Simulation and the Future of Flight Training
When flight training pioneer Al Ulestchi, who founded Flight Safety International, died last month at the age of 95, it occurred to me that his legacy can be summed up with one concept: You can train pilots to fly real airplanes in the real world by using a flight simulator.
As it turns out, you can, in fact, train them really, really well. You can, in fact, train them to do all kinds of things that are impossible to do safely in a real airplane. At Flight Safety and a small number of its competitors in locations around the world, this is done every day. It simply works.
It’s also cheaper. A lot cheaper. A lot. So in case you missed it, the deal is this: you get great training (arguably better in many ways than that conducted in the real airplane) for less money. As fuel prices rise, sims become a better and better deal. Al Ulestchi figured this out about fifteen minutes into his plan.
What nobody else has figured out until recently is that it would work for little airplanes too. That is until Jerry Gregoire, chairman of Redbird Flight Simulations, came along and did the math. While he might not have been the first one to figure out that the numbers added up, unlike everybody else who came before, he did something about it, designing and building a full-motion flight simulator that works really well. More remarkably, he did it for approximately one-fifth the price of the training airplane it would replace. (At Flight Safety, interestingly, many of their Level D simulators cost more than the airplanes they’re made to replicate.) The Redbird FMX is a three-axis advanced flight training device with full visuals, and it can be made to replicate just about any airplane in the world. (I just saw the first King Air 350 model coming along the other day. That is, for the record, not a little airplane. Redbird is growing.)
In any case, big or little, the principle is the same. Ask a representative gathering of light airplane pilots what their biggest concern is about flight training and they will tell you right off the bat without blinking an eye that it is “cost.” Gregoire and his team set about to do something about that, too, creating an FBO in a box. Located in San Marcos, TX, (KHYI), Skyport is an attractive, modern, comfortable, well-equipped and well-staffed facility (just those things make it worthy of high praise) with a difference. Half of the facility is dedicated to flight training devices, many of them full-motion platforms. The idea, which Gregoire shares freely, is this: use the sim to get better at flying instead of the airplane and you save money and turn out a better pilot.
Skyport also happens to be a laboratory, and Redbird’s crack team of statisticians (who also set up and tear down sims, cobble together prototypes and come up with wild ideas, some of which they haven’t shared with anyone yet), set up experiments to test every bit of the flight training process. The results for the most basic question are already starting to come in.
Does simulator use actually turn out pilots faster and cheaper?
The answer to that seems to be resounding “yes.” In the first year since Skyport opened its doors, the average time it has taken a customer to get his or her private certificate is just under 40 hours. That is just over half of the national average. Skyport and Redbird have done that by using advanced flight training devices — that’s right, sims, high-quality, low-cost sims--and pairing it with great in-airplane instruction. Skyport director of flight training Roger Sharp says the sims make a huge difference, one that he can see on every maneuver the customer does. They come to the airplane already knowing, essentially, how to fly it.
The second part of the question — are they better pilots? — should probably answer itself. They got their ticket in less than 40 hours. They didn’t do that because they were struggling. Oh, and it cost all of them just a hair under $10,000 to do it.
With avgas prices through the roof, student starts at an all-time low, and people wondering what we do to get people flying, it seems to me the answer is clear. Let’s start using flight simulators.
I have no doubt but that Mr. Ulestchi himself would agree.