American Flyers

American Flyers Flying

(June 2011) A lot of pilots have heard the name American Flyers. After all, the company has been in business for more than 60 years. But not every pilot knows that the company has grown to the point that it today can provide just about every kind of flight training imaginable to just about every kind of pilot — from aspiring airline pilots to private pilot hopefuls. American Flyers prides itself on having a course to fit the bill. In the past few years, the school has come up with new programs that lower the cost of its flight training substantially. And while the flight training market has been tough these past few years, American Flyers has made significant investments in developing new courseware and other innovative training-related products.

American Flyers opened its doors in 1939 and pioneered the use of simulators.

“The big difference at American Flyers is that we teach on the ground and practice in the air,” says American Flyers CEO Don Harrington, who has been involved in pilot education for 45 years. “If airlines use simulators to train pilots flying 300 people around, why shouldn’t we?”

Most simulator training at American Flyers has been conducted in simulators produced by its sister company, SimPro, but there is also a Boeing 737 flight training device available for airline transition training.

Harrington acquired the school in 1980 through a company called Aviation Training Enterprises — a name that was dropped in favor of American Flyers. Through the years, the school has grown by acquiring several flight schools around the country.

The main focuses of the school have been to decrease the cost and time of becoming a licensed pilot and to increase the number of student pilots who complete their training, a number Harrington claims is about 50 percent nationwide but as high as 95 percent at American Flyers.

Taking advantage of advancements in computer technology, specifically in the video game industry, that have occurred over the past six or seven years, Michael Bliss, chairman of the American Flyers National Safety Board, developed an integrated system that uses the Internet and simulators to improve the way American Flyers teaches students who are pursuing private and instrument ratings. The three-layer system combines flight training, ground training and new computer software developed by Bliss through SimPro, called the Flying Professor Courseware (FPC). More on that in a bit.

Students can choose to do the flight training portion of the program at any of American Flyers’ eight locations or, if one is not available within close range, at a local flight school. The ground portion is completed using a newly developed, printed learning guide combined with a website:

The ground-training book contains neither colorful diagrams nor humor, but all the information required to pass the FAA written test is there with good illustrations that aid in the learning process. In addition to textual information and diagrams, includes short videos that explain the concepts, sample questions from the FAA test and quizzes to help the student keep track of his or her progress.

The third layer of the system is the new Flying Professor Courseware, which is integrated with Microsoft's Flight Simulator X software. Once the FPC is incorporated into the program, all the lessons required to pass the flight portion of the FAA's private pilot and instrument practical exams can be found in the Mission section of Flight Simulator. A virtual instructor introduces each lesson by telling the student what is included in the lesson and what ground lesson should have been studied prior to the flight. Instructions are also given throughout the lesson with guidelines for what the student should experience during the flight.

I tried out the FPC for the instrument rating and, though the Microsoft Flight Simulator is considered a game and not a true simulator (you can’t log any of the time spent “flying” it), I definitely felt that it was a valuable training tool. The lessons are very realistic and the flight control inputs are similar to other flight training devices I’ve flown. Best of all, you can practice at home at your own convenience.

The FPC is currently available only for the instrument rating, but the private pilot program is expected to be available in June. You can buy the Flying Professor Courseware for $150 and download it from the Internet if you already own a computer, Microsoft Flight Simulator X and the recommended flight control hardware. If you don’t, the software and hardware, including a laptop, rudder pedals and yoke, can be purchased from American Flyers for $1,295.

Students can also get unlimited access to FPC for $395 at the eight AF locations around the country and several planned AFX (American Flyers Extension) sites. To date, there is one AFX location at Chicagoland Executive Airport north of Chicago, but Harrington says there are about 100 potentially viable locations around the country. The AFX locations will be simulator campuses only, so the flight portion of the training would need to be completed at a local flight school.

American Flyers’ aircraft fleet consists of 75 airplanes. The Cessna 172 is the airplane of choice for the private and instrument training, the Cessna 172RG acts as the complex trainer for commercial ratings, and the Cessna 310 provides multiengine training at the Addison, Texas, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, locations. All the airplanes in the fleet have round-gauge panels.

“Glass is overrated,” Harrington says. “The transponder was more revolutionary. Before the transponder we had to do position reports. In the past 45 years, the transponder was the most important technological development.”

Although it may not include technologically advanced glass panels, the well-maintained older fleet, along with the focus on ground-based training, helps keep costs down. Harrington says that, using the Flying Professor Courseware, students can realistically complete the private pilot license in 35 to 40 hours, and he guarantees the new system will save students about $3,000 for a private and $5,000 for an instrument ticket.

To attract potential pilots into its program, American Flyers has created a free, virtual pilot course. The 10-hour program, which is available online, includes videos and quizzes, and upon completion of the program, each participant receives a wings pin, a decal and the learning guide for the private pilot course. Harrington projects approximately 1,000 virtual pilots will complete the program monthly.

Once you have your ticket, American Flyers’ commitment to making flight training easy and affordable continues with its recurrent training courses. Own an airplane and need a biennial flight review? A one-time charge of $75 and you’re set for life! For a mere $125, CFIs can renew their licenses for life with a simple online course. So far, 38,000 instructors have taken advantage of this service. I’ve personally used this program to renew my CFI for the past several years. While the course is simple — you’re essentially reading black-and-white pages of information — it gets the job done, and it’s convenient.

In addition to the training advancements made by American Flyers, a major investment in infrastructure also was made recently at the company’s Addison location, where its airline academy is located. A $1.5 million national maintenance hangar opened in February 2010 to support the entire American Flyers fleet for major maintenance. Once a year, each aircraft in the fleet will be flown to Dallas, where a team of mechanics will complete a full inspection and replace equipment as needed. The site is also leveraged as a training facility and provides internships for A&P students. While centralized maintenance might not seem financially viable due to the cost of long ferry flights, American Flyers’ students pay for the transportation of the airplanes while building valuable cross-country time. It’s a win-win situation for the school and its students.

The new courseware and the maintenance center are only a couple of American Flyers’ new initiatives. The company is developing a new iPad app, which will include aviation-related data such as lists of medical examiners and designated pilot examiners as well as instrument approach plates, to name a few.

With all these new programs in their budding stages, the thing that really makes Harrington’s eyes light up and raises the excitement in his voice to a whole new level is his soon-to-be-live website, The free site will feature aviation TV shows such as Sky King; movies like The High and the Mighty; airshow reports; narrated travel logs; and a pilot-targeted weather page based on The Weather Channel, which will highlight areas of VMC and IMC conditions around the country in a special briefing. Harrington also promises that the free website will contain no advertising, and he expects it to launch this summer.

The newly developed programs at American Flyers can potentially allow the company to grow once the recession is over. Only time will tell if the strategy worked. Harrington’s goal is to produce 12,000 well-trained pilots every year, a number far short of the 40,000 he claims finished their ratings in 1960. With the new GI bill coming into effect later this year, providing reimbursements of up to $10,000 for flight training, he may just reach that goal.

Training at American Flyers Ten years ago, I reached a major milestone in my flying career. I became a certified flight instructor. Initially, I tried to create my own training program and get the rating one-on-one with an instructor. It was a big mistake.Fortunately, I heard about and enrolled in the CFI course at American Flyers at the Santa Monica Airport (SMO). Its concept is simple but brilliant. A group of students get together for a month to help each other become CFIs. Mornings are spent in a classroom with American Flyers instructors, and afternoons are spent teaching each other. There was a sense that we were all in this together as I watched other CFI candidates struggle as much as I did. We supported each other through our training and all ended up with the coveted CFI certificate in our pockets. Today’s $2,995 tuition is money well spent.I was thrilled to return to the American Flyers office at SMO recently to get an instrument proficiency check. My instructor, Taylor Laverty, suggested we start out in the simulator. I jumped into the box that housed the SimPro 200, and Taylor put me through maneuvers, tracking radials and an ILS approach. It was great being able to see the flight track — horizontal and vertical — on the attached computer screen after the flight.It had been years since I flew a simulator, and the experience surely made me realize the value of using one as a training tool. While it would take about one hour to shoot three approaches in an airplane in the Los Angeles basin, we could probably shoot at least six or seven in the same amount of time in the sim.A couple of days later, Taylor and I jumped into a Cessna 172 to shoot a few practice approaches. After flying the touchy simulator, I felt rock solid in the 172 and Taylor signed me off for my IPC.
Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

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