FlightSafety International

One of the greatest ideas in aviation.

(January 2012) The history of powered flight is short. So short that A.L. Ueltschi has lived during most of it. Ueltschi is, of course, the founder of FlightSafety International. The company is perhaps one of the most emblematic of the exponential growth of aviation; as airplanes became more sophisticated and pilots were asked to understand and do more than just manage a stick and a pair of rudder pedals, FlightSafety grew along with the challenges.

Ueltschi was an entrepreneur from the get-go. Born the seventh child to a farming family in Kentucky, he got his life course changed by listening to a vacuum tube RCA radio as the flight of Charles Lindbergh was detailed with scratchy updates. He and Lindbergh ultimately became friends, but he didn’t know that in 1933 when he soloed in an OX-5 Waco. He didn’t know that when he opened a hamburger stand across the Kentucky River from a popular outfit called White Castle so as to finance his aviation addiction. Soon Ueltschi had a few more stands manned by high school classmates. Hamburgers were to figure again in FlightSafety’s history many years later. This time Ueltschi made a deal over hamburgers and cherry Cokes with another familiar name: Warren Buffet. But that is much later in the story.

With money from burgers and a loan from a fast food customer, Ueltschi bought a Waco 10 for $3,500. He was 18. After a brief and unhappy experience with college, which served only to emphasize the young man’s ambition to be a full-time pilot, A.L. became a barnstormer and ultimately landed a job as chief pilot for Queen City Flying Service in nearby Cincinnati. After 2,000 hours of all kinds of flying, he struck out for the airlines, landing at Pan American World Airways.

It was at Pan American that he became a personal pilot for its founder, Juan Trippe. Ueltschi wrote, “In my wanderings, what I especially valued was the time spent just observing Mr. Trippe and his associates. Listening as these men, some of the most successful businessmen alive, negotiated business deals, argued politics, forgave slights, planned new ventures, and worked out financing strategies, was a business school education of the highest order.”

It was, though, an experience while he was in Cincinnati that persuaded Ueltschi that simulation training in airplanes might have an advantage over training in real airplanes. While instructing a Civil Aviation Authority (the forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration) inspector on the fine points of aerobatics, he turned an airplane upside down (a Waco!) and promptly fell out. After deploying his parachute, he made three important conclusions from the mishap:

1. Training in an airplane can be hazardous.

2. When the unexpected occurs, take appropriate action in a timely fashion.

3. If at all possible, be lucky.

While at Pan American, Ueltschi noted that corporate pilots had no training opportunity equivalent to that enjoyed by airline pilots. Hence the idea for FlightSafety Inc. was birthed. Juan Trippe was encouraging, but not investing. Trippe’s friend, the famous financier Bernard Baruch, told Ueltschi, “You’ve got a good job at Pan Am, and you might lose everything.” He listened to the man but did not heed the advice.

So in 1951, with a $15,000 mortgage on his house and a 200-square-foot room on the third floor at New York’s LaGuardia Airport Marine Air Terminal, FlightSafety took wing — sort of. The wings were Link trainers. By 1955, FlightSafety had made a profit of $277.41. Today, after getting real simulators that reproduce with fidelity the cockpit of real airplanes, opening training centers all over the world and developing several safety training side ventures, FlightSafety International, as it is now called, is big business.

Warren Buffet and Ueltschi shared those hamburgers in 1996, and FlightSafety ended up as part of the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio that year. Today the organization provides 3,000 courses for pilots, technicians, flight attendants and dispatchers at 43 learning centers. Pilots are trained in 140 different airplanes in 300-plus simulators and advanced training devices all over the world.

Ed Klonoski is the center manager at FlightSafety Atlanta. A tall, welcoming, handsome man with an open face and an open door, he sits right off the main lobby in a glass office. His description of the operation of just one center gives a hint as to what happens everywhere in the FlightSafety world. There are 17 simulators and 64 instructors at his facility. Training for Citation 500 series, CRJ 200 and 700, Dash 8 (100, 200 and 300), EMB 120, Jetstar (!), King Air 200-300 and Learjet 31, 35, 45 and 60 series is conducted there, and each airplane type has a program manager. The simulators and their handlers work hard: 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Sixteen full-time technicians keep those boxes working. They work three shifts seven days a week, 365 days a year.

At any given moment those 17 sims have a small number of open discrepancies that demand technical intervention, which happens quickly for client convenience and obvious economic reasons. Each simulator is preflighted every day. Level C simulators faithfully reproduce the feel of the real airplane flown at night. They are giving way to Level D, daylight-visual-cue-capable instruments. Klonoski is especially proud of the new King Air 350 simulator — it’s electrically, not hydraulically, driven and much smoother.

There is an air of friendliness about the Atlanta Center; no doubt Klonoski’s the boss for a reason. He said the key to success is to pick the right people. All instructors are highly experienced aviators who find a steady job and a chance to get home every night to be very attractive after corporate careers. “We hire for attitude,” he said. “If we pick somebody who doesn’t work out, we sit down and examine why. Same for a good hire. What did we do right?”

Business is off, no question about it, but Klonoski has seen signs of a rebound. The military contracts help — especially those King Airs going to Iraq and Afghanistan. Every morning at 9 at every center there is a CARE meeting. This is a ritual familiar to all customers, who head for the coffee and donuts while the instructors huddle. At these meetings every “screw-up and good thing” gets discussed. A major sticking point with customers is an unexpected schedule change (hence those round-the-clock technicians). “We are professional people helping professional people,” Klonoski said.

The hardest part of his job, he said, is dealing with entities that don’t quite understand what it is that FlightSafety does. That said, he had high praise for the FAA and his director of standards, the corporate officer tasked with the FAA interface. The recent well-intentioned but not quite right intervention by Congress in the wake of the Buffalo Q400 crash is an example of outside regulation. “Congress mandates full stalls,” Klonoski said, but we don’t want to teach how to stall; we want to teach how to recognize the regime and to recover. The difference is subtle but real. We don’t want anybody to get to the stick shaker in the real world.”

In full disclosure, I have been a FlightSafety client for at least a decade. I got my Cessna 500 rating in Atlanta many years ago and a Lear 31 rating, ATP and Part 135 check ride there this past year. My good friend Doug Commins is an instructor on the Lear 45 at Klonoski’s place. In addition, every spring I have driven over to Lakeland, Florida, to relearn the intricacies of the Cheyenne turboprop that my wife and I own. Too bad this center closed recently, but the obvious decrease in volume over time made it inevitable.

What I have seen on each and every interaction is pretty much what Ed Klonoski expressed. The people bend over backward to meet your scheduling needs.

They are professional, able, interactive, fun-to-be-with folks. CARE rule No. 14, Klonoski told me, is “Make it fun, make it better, make it happen.”

The Lakeland crowd, where the King Air 200, Cheyenne and Meridian sims used to live, was always a welcome sight for me each spring. I consider many of the instructors to be friends. Don Leum, whom I have known for more than a decade and who was the director of standards in Lakeland, was my initial instructor in our airplane. An F-16 driver, he has a knack for crystallizing the essential things you need to know.

Recently, in the real world, I started a descent into bad weather in the Cheyenne. As I maneuvered toward mountains and an ILS complete with procedure turn, the left engine had a prop over speed. I’ve practiced this in the simulator countless times. It is all very different in the bumps, with red on the radar. But I ran the checklist, concluded that I could keep the engine running, informed Boston Center and flew the approach. I swear I could almost hear Don Leum’s voice over the headset. Good thing A.L.Ueltschi was thinking ahead.

View our FlightSafety photo gallery.

Send reader mail to: edit@flyingmag.com or P.O. Box 8500, Winter Park, FL 32789.

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