The audience watching the big reveal at the Aerospace Center for Excellence adjacent to Lakeland Linder International Airport in Lakeland, Florida, on February 8 and 9 was augmented by another 600 people who participated online (in-person attendance was capped because of coronavirus restrictions).
The free annual event for flight training professionals was created by Redbird Flight Simulations, and has grown into what is probably the largest gathering of its kind in the country. At the closing banquet, AOPA announced the national 2021 Flight Training Experience Awards winners for best flight school and instructor.
The In the Pattern flight school in Denton, Texas, won the top award as the best overall flight school in the nation—and also was the winner in the Central Southwest Region. Meanwhile, Ambyr Peterson of Minneapolis took home the top honor as the nation’s best certificated flight instructor. She was also the Great Lakes regional winner. For complete details on the national and regional winners, see “Difference Makers” in the March 2022 issue of Flight Training magazine.
The flight training conference included more than 30 breakout sessions, nine guest speakers, and socializing. The event had shifted to a virtual format in 2020 and 2021.
AOPA Foundation Senior Vice President Elizabeth Tennyson announced an initiative with Redbird Flight Simulations that supports the Foundation’s High School Aviation STEM Curriculum for grades 9 through 12. The interactive simulator-based situations are designed to make science, technology, engineering, and math learning more realistic for high school students. The curriculum is available to school systems for no charge and currently is in use by about 10,000 students in more than 322 schools in 44 states. In the 2021–2022 school year, 20 percent of the students were female, and 40 percent of the students were people of color.
AOPA Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden, a Piper Super Cub devotee and former U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds lead, spoke about pilot decision making during one of the general sessions. McSpadden explained why good pilots sometimes make bad decisions in the air. Many poor choices are a product of how the human brain works and responds to uncomfortable events. Under stress, the brain has to shift gears quickly and doesn’t always do so successfully.
AOPA Senior Director of Flight Training Technology Pablo Maurelia showcased the web-based AOPA Flight Training Advantage adaptive training system (AFTA). The iPad app for flight instructors and flight school owners helps CFIs teach more efficiently and keeps students motivated and on track during the training process. Students benefit from a web-based portal that is linked to the CFI’s app—making it easier for students to prepare for the next lesson and to understand their progress.
The app was designed to keep records, reduce instructor turnover to benefit students and flight school owners, provide transparency between student pilots and instructors, and foster more consistent training overall. Maurelia said the AFTA app can help students save significant amounts of money and time by concentrating on the skills that need the most work rather than taking a scattershot approach.
Outgoing Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In Inc. President and CEO John “Lites” Leenhouts welcomed the educators to the Aerospace Center for Excellence, stressing that the learning center for almost 500 Polk County youth relies on funding from the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo. The students follow five tracks of learning that can lead to careers in flying, engineering, avionics, drone operations, or aviation maintenance. “We’re not teaching youth to fly but rather that you can fly,” Leenhouts said. The campus is also the home of the Lakeland Aero Club, a 65-member after-school program for aspiring aviators.
Redbird Vice President of Marketing Josh Harnagel described highlights from the 2021 State of Flight Training survey that is designed to benchmark the industry. The results indicated flight instructors charge an average of $65 per hour; single-engine training aircraft rent for $150 an hour; multiengine aircraft rent for $330 an hour; and flight training devices like a Redbird FMX full-motion simulator average $85 per hour.
FlightAware founder and general aviation pilot Daniel Baker delivered a keynote speech. He explained how his company’s flight tracking service helps families meet arriving GA and airline passengers by predicting their arrivals to FBOs and commercial air terminals. However, that just begins to scratch the surface of what FlightAware can do with the ADS-B information it gathers from its global network of receivers. The company has grown dramatically in recent years and was sold last year to Collins Aerospace, a subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies. As when first sampling ADS-B data around 2008, Baker said that concentrating on the long game is a successful business strategy and encouraged flight schools to do the same, looking to the future instead of focusing on profit and loss “for the next quarter.”
Inside the Aerospace Center for Excellence, the flight school owners and CFIs gathered under a canopy of historical aircraft hanging from the ceiling including an inverted Rans S-9, an Aerosport Woody Pusher, an Anglin Spacewalker II, a Boeing Stearman Model 75 biplane that is a flying advertisement for Red Baron Pizza, and others. An Ercoupe 415-C, a Dyke Delta, an Aeronca LB, a CP30 Emeraude, and a half-dozen other aircraft framed the flight training professionals who renewed old acquaintances and made new friends.
Redbird President and COO Charlie Gregoire thanked attendees. “It really means a lot to us as a company and being able to do it in person.”
In another keynote, Cirrus Aircraft Customer Experience President Todd Simmons said, “Flight training is a lifetime commitment, a lifestyle.” More than 10 years ago the company introduced the Cirrus Approach training system to train pilots how to properly use the company’s whole-airplane-parachute approach to safety. He said the marriage of aircraft safety technology and ongoing flight training enhances pilot safety overall and sets a culture and adherence to a safety management system as pillars of safety. Simmons said Cirrus also provides pilots of pre-owned models “transition training at no charge” because “it’s the right thing to do.”
He also shared a personal experience about a backcountry accident in a modified wide-body Piper Super Cub at a one-way Idaho airstrip that nearly killed him in 2018. “Our airplanes can take us to places that only these airplanes can go,” but pilots must look out for what Simmons calls “the normalization of deviance.” The experienced backcountry pilot said a last-moment decision to make a 60-degree turn from the final approach during a “no-return, no go-around” commitment to land at the Dewey Moore airstrip led to “two tons of load” on the airplane about 60 feet above ground level.
Looking back, Simmons said he “had normalized one of the most challenging strips” because he was “so comfortable as to become complacent. I had every opportunity to rethink” the approach to the airstrip he had not previously visited. The accident tore a wing from the aircraft, severed fuel lines, crushed the cabin, and seriously injured him. He was airlifted to a hospital with facial and leg fractures and remained in intensive care for two weeks.
Simmons stressed that good instruction and adherence to safety standards may help aviators avoid “normalizing” risky behavior. “Surviving that means that I’m the luckiest person here,” Simmons said. He advised pilots not to “lower your standards” in any scenario, whether it’s flying to an unfamiliar airfield or flying a different aircraft.
Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and Walter Desrosier, GAMA’s vice president of engineering and maintenance, updated the audience on the state of aviation fuels, including sustainable aviation fuel—jet fuel created through renewable resources—and unleaded avgas. Eliminating lead from avgas is a priority for the GA community, but the transition from 100LL must be done in a safe and responsible way that provides a fuel that is safe to use for all GA piston-powered aircraft.
The Redbird Migration audience had the opportunity to listen in as Flying magazine presented a live “I Learned About Flying From That” podcast hosted by producer and airshow announcer Rob Reider. During the podcast, Reider interviewed Redbird founder Jerry Gregoire about two in-flight incidents that caused him to leverage cockpit resource management. “It takes a lot to share those experiences,” said Editor-In-Chief Julie Boatman. “None of us are super pilots,” reminded Boatman, “and if we share” what is learned with others, “we can teach something … and help demystify flying.”