Redbird Migration Looks Back at the Future of Flight Training

By Scott Spangler on October 23rd, 2017

For the past six years, Redbird, which has developed a family of aviation training devices, has sponsored a flight-training symposium attended by a hundred or more of the land’s leading aviation educators. Known as the Redbird Migration, in the past this flock congregated at Redbird’s roost in Texas. For its seventh season, it met in Oshkosh, hosted by EAA.

RB-1For many of the participants, it was their first time in Oshkosh outside of EAA AirVenture, and the dearth of aircraft, people, and traffic disoriented them. Fortunately, Sean D. Tucker, the keynote speaker at the opening dinner on Monday, October 16, helped acclimate them. And talking with the educators reacclimated me with a community I was once intimately a part of, which I found disorienting.

On one hand, they were exuberant about the future. With the airlines hiring and the entry-level positions now paying almost enough for students to repay their loans and put a roof over their head and food in the bellies, enrollments in their training courses was growing. And new and evolving technology (like a Redbird sim) enabled schools to make the most of their customers’ time and money.

At the same time, however, this migration was, for me, a groundhog day. Like the background soundtrack that provides continuity to a movie, the flight school educators discussed the same problems we were talking about nearly 30 years ago.

RB-5Their melody was the dearth of flight instructors. “If you can find them,” said one, “You can’t hang onto them once they have 1,500 hours,” said another, finishing the sentence with the ATP hours that is the portal to an airline job.

As was the case three decades ago, there really is not a shortage of CFIs, said John Gibson of the National Association of Flight Instructors during his breakout session, “Thriving Through the CFI Shortage.” According to the most recent FAA numbers, 104,382 aviators hold flight instructor certificates. “But only 29,000 of them are actively teaching,” he said, without defining “actively teaching.”

Subjectively, “actively teaching” could be a CFI who teaches part time, meaning he gives a buddy or two a flight review every couple of years. Or it could be a full-time teacher working on his or her 1,500 hours and ATP.

This is another aspect of flight training that has not changed with time. The flight instructor certificate is, without argument, aviation’s most difficult to earn. Once they have it, only under extraordinary circumstances will they let it lapse by not renewing it every two years. Nor will they eagerly roll the dice on their flying job with an FAA certificate action that stems from teaching.

Related to this, a number of speakers mentioned that while the number of students enrolling today is increasing, the number of student certificates the FAA issues is down over the past three decades, from low six figures to the mid five-figure range. The percentage of students who have started training but quit before earning their certificate has remained the same, between 70 and 80 percent. As I said, it was Groundhog Day all over again.

That these human resource issues are still the common denominator challenges facing flight training speaks to the elusiveness of their solutions. Economics is part of it, but the calculus of paying flight instructors a wage that makes it a career includes what students will pay to enroll in their courses and the cost of operating the aeronautical classroom.

RB-9Ultimately, the challenge is not economic; it is cultural. If you doubt this, look at the teacher shortage in our public schools and the decreasing number of students who are enrolling in college to earn a teaching degree.

Until we, as a nation, value teachers more than substitute parents and babysitters who are supposed to magically pour knowledge and skill into the minds of students who cannot take their eyes off the immediate pleasure they hold in their hands, I’m sure we’ll be discussing these same problems three decades from now. That assumes that we still need human pilots to fly aircraft in the future.

One of the speakers addressed this directly with a rhetorical question, about the reaction of passengers who see an artificial intelligence robot pilot in the right seat, or in both seats. After the murmur of “no way” quieted, he said that this generation, like the number of active pilots, is in decline. He guessed that the majority of passengers flying today wouldn’t give the sight a second thought, if they took the time to look up from their devices to peer into an open cockpit door.

Technology is changing the face of aviation, but this reality of progress has been the case since the brothers Wright first took wing. But change is never easy, especially when it replaces humans in their pursuit of something they really like to do. But it has been beneficial in many regards, and learning about its current contributions to the betterment of flight training more than offset the depressing funk of Groundhog Day I felt at the Redbird Migration. That will be the focus of an upcoming post. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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One Response to “Redbird Migration Looks Back at the Future of Flight Training”

  1. Rivegauche610 Says:

    Scott, I enjoy your columns. I’m 57 and pursuing the PPL after a 40 year hiatus. This is such an obvious economic issue seasoned with a pinch of attention-deficit-disorder (ability to pay attention to the demands of airplane instead of texts and FB posts yielding instant gratification). But were it not for the benefit of early retirement’s emoluments I could never afford it.

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