Training provider FlightSafety International is benefitting from the boom in business aviation travel as well as a strong upturn in regional airline training, according to CEO Brad Thress.
“The amount of business aviation travel resurged since the middle of the year,” he said. “And it caused our business to climb to serve those folks. It’s still a little light from international clients, due to travel restrictions [for pilots needing to come to the U.S. to train]. But there is strength in business aviation.”
That strength is causing challenges not only for FlightSafety (Booth 645) but also for clients, in that the ranks of pilot and instructor candidates are thinning. “We’re seeing this tremendous churn among our customers about how is the industry going to get pilots,” Thress said. “It's starting to be much more front of mind for flight departments and regional airlines.”
However, FlightSafety has the advantage of being able to hire instructors who don’t need to hold a medical certificate. Many are able to work part-time, for example, after retiring, Thress said, “and a lot are on their second or third career for us. It helps a little bit, but it’s still very challenging to get qualified folks.”
FlightSafety is making sure its employees are compensated at the midpoint of competitive market rates, according to their experience level, Thress said, adding that people don’t leave the company because of money, with quality of life the more important factor. But given the high volume of work available, some employees choose to take on extra work, and FlightSafety offers them a premium to compensate for the effect on their quality of life.
On the technology front, FlightSafety continues to explore new training tools, many of which it is developing at its simulator manufacturing facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. One of the more interesting efforts is FlightSafety’s support of a study commissioned by the CitationJet Pilots Association (CJP), which was conducted by research firm Presage. The study was designed to evaluate some new concepts in stabilized approaches and landing overrun prevention for the typical owner-pilot CJP member who flies a CitationJet or other single-pilot jets.
“Our focus is safety-oriented,” Thress said. “The Presage study, where they're looking at the statistics of what people do to hurt themselves, it's [often] a landing event. For our rotary-wing customers, it's inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions.”
Delivery of training to counter these problems comes in the form of a library of materials that instructors can draw from and “spotlight” courses honed on the areas that need work. This also includes FlightSafety’s one-day advanced training—for example, the Rejected Takeoff Go/No-go course. “We call it precision delivery,” Thress said.
Training methodology is getting an update, too, with new tools such as FlightSafety’s mixed-reality simulation. Mixed reality works on desktop computers that run fixed-base trainers and motion-based platforms or even on a laptop. The trainee wears virtual-reality goggles that are fitted with external cameras so the pilot can not only see a view of the simulated outside world but also their own hands and any controls, buttons, and knobs in the training device.
FlightSafety is currently running a mixed-reality T-6A trainer for the U.S. Air Force, where the pilot sits in a cockpit equipped the same as in the real airplane. “You can do your whole mission, sit with the squadron [all in simulators], and fly every aerobatic maneuver," Thress said. "If it's a formation flight, you can get a buddy and you can link together and fly formation. It's a way of doing a much more sophisticated rehearsal than we used to do when we would sit in the corner of the hanger and chair fly. It has proven to be a good tool. Now, that's not an FAA-certified application, but I think you'll see that spill into more schools in the future. We’ll probably go ahead and bring it straight into the learning centers.”
While these tools won’t replace FlightSafety’s well-known graphical flight simulator devices used by pilots to learn avionics, mixed-reality devices will help supplement this training. “There’s a big move to get some of the Level-D training out of Level-D simulators and into flight training devices,” Thress said. “You could do engine starts, checklist procedures, stuff that a lot of times you do it in the simulator, but instead in a flight training device for credit. Then we could make more efficient use of our Level-D devices. I think that's supported by the regulators.”
This technology is also useful for maintenance training, he said. “We’ve received our first EASA approval on some PT6 engine training where you can do the practical training in virtual reality. It’s just one class. But our foot's in the door with the regulators on proving some of this virtual reality technology.”
With half of production at the Broken Arrow facility for military programs, FlightSafety has produced some interesting simulation products. One is a combat rescue helicopter equipped with more than 20 projectors, allowing an entire crew to simulate all aspects of a mission in the cockpit and cabin of the helicopter, including door gunners. Another example is a KC-46 tanker simulator with both the flight deck and a separate boom operator station, connected so pilots and boom operators can train together.
Technology isn’t just important in the devices used for training, however. “In a broad sense,” Thress concluded, “the other thing we're working on is the customer's experience. We want everything about dealing with FlightSafety to be easier. So we're streamlining our invoicing and our contract process. Now you get a short, brief contract. We developed an enterprise-wide scheduling tool so if you're calling about G650 training and Savannah is booked, you can see what's available in Dallas. We're trying to give our folks more arrows in their quiver to make sure we're doing the best by our customers that we can.”