Finally, a New Take on Flight Schools

By Scott Spangler on August 14th, 2012

Discussing the dismal number of student starts in the 1990s, my Flight Training magazine coworkers and I wondered how flight schools located where the nonflying public congregate, like shopping malls, might fare. Learning about two new aviation education efforts at EAA AirVenture 2012, we’re about to find out.

AV3-019_thumb[1]Zulu Flight Training, a subsidiary of Continental Motors, just opened in a mall in Spanish Fort, Alabama, not far from Mobile. Its partner in the program is Redbird Flight Simulations, which provides the latest in advanced, full-motion simulators. Whether pursuing their private pilot certificate or instrument or multiengine ratings, students will be introduced to—and practice—all key flight skills in the sim before getting into an airplane.

With ground and simulator school conveniently located, students are more likely to show up for lessons. “Our goal is to provide a consistent, structured and stress free environment at a set price to help people obtain their pilot’s license whether it is for a career or pleasure,” said Zulu Chairman Rhett Ross. That includes full disclosure of all course offerings and services to ensure that the curriculum or price never surprises students.

Zulu  also offers proficiency training, and other pilot courses will be announced in the coming months, Ross said. As the pilot location proves itself and resolves inevitable kinks, Zulu will expand to other locations around the country. To help celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Piper Cub, Redbird simulated it with motion. It’s been awhile since I flew a Cub, but its response was spooky accurate. All it really needed to complete the simulation was a fan-blown slipstream through an open door.

To provide the complete educational benefit of simulator training, Redbird Flight Simulation, partnering with Bad Elf, King Schools, and Jeppesen, introduced Cygnus, which connects the student’s iPad electronic flight book (EFB), such as Jepp’s Mobile FliteDeck, ForeFlight’s Mobile Pro, or Garmin Pilot, to the simulator—and it’s simulated location. It works hand-in-hand with the Bad Elf’s new GPS Pro, a 66 channel WAAS compatible receiver.

At the light-sport aircraft end of the aviation spectrum, Flight Design USA has been focused on increasing the number of places where people can learn to fly. As of AirVenture, it has a network of 31 Flight Design Pilot Centers equipped with modern CT-series light-sport aircraft for training and rental. Each of them employs training materials that Gleim created specifically for Flight Design.

The network’s newest members include North Coast Air in Santa Rosa, California; Southwestern Aviation, outside of Bensen, Arizona (30 miles east of Tucson International); and Hampton Airfield in Northampton, New Hampshire, a unique full-service school whose fleet ranges from Cubs, Champs, and LSAs to a IFR-certified Cessna 172.

It will be interesting to follow both Zulu and the Flight Design efforts to see how well they are received. Certainly they will not immediately reverse the declining pilot population or solve all the challenges that face every flight school, but it’s a start that’s been a long time coming. –Scott


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14 Responses to “Finally, a New Take on Flight Schools”

  1. Tim Busch Says:

    Good article Scott. I’ve been on this soapbox for over 10 years now and it’s just starting to feel like there is some traction.

    It will come slowly, but we plan to mainstream aviation. We use Flight Design aircraft, the Gleim Sport Package and their X-Plane CTLS simulation to create an affordable and exciting way to start flying. Clients learn quickly in minimum time with a complete simulation course.

    Getting into non-aviation venues like malls is a great way to reach the public, because they certainly won’t go to the airport on their own.

    Fractional ownership will help, but we also need volume production to get the cost of aircraft down to an acceptable level.

  2. Matt Fen Says:

    Great concept, but like many concepts, I unfortunately and regretfully am skeptical about its outcome.
    During another substantial economic downturn I was part of a auto manufacturer that cooperatively partnered with a major automaker to open showrooms in major malls in hopes of at least creating interest in the cars. It failed miserably on all levels.

    Later in life, I was part of a fitness device mfg that had a difficult to sell product. Its one you had to see, touch and hopefully experience to understand and believe worked, which it truly does.

    However, again the approach ultimately failed. Malls have an absolute ton of foot traffic, but they can’t overcome costs to consumers.

    Often times they also, due to their feast or famine traffic, can’t maintain customer service levels in their merchant stores.

    On a given day in the Apple store, one of America’s great success brands, but like a flight school requires interaction nearly all the time…you’ll see an abundance of “Apple Associates” standing about with too much time on their hands. The other times of the days, they actually put out three and four greeters who do little more than schedule in your name for the next available “Apple Associate”.

    Given those three situations, each with a problem that can be overcome if you have the money to do so, I can’t see this working or a flight school with the funds to throw at overcoming the reasons it shouldn’t work…though I will be the first to cheer on their success.

    Bottom line, if you make flying affordable and flight related careers attractive once again, you’ll have more pilot applicants than you know what to do with.

    While many are working and making lucrative salaries in this day and age, few are trying to figure out what to do with a “extra” $20 to $70K, which would be the cost of learning to fly. Likewise they are focused on paying for $3.75/gallon gas, not $5/Avgas.

    Prove me wrong! I’d be the first to say thank you. Btw I think we have a truly perfect place for a mall location right here in good old Farmington CT.

    Thank you

  3. Jeff Owen Says:

    This is not a new concept. Back in the 70’s Cessna opened a number of “Hangar One” stroes in retail locations to have better access to the population who rarely get to the airport and when they do they are usually greeted with a less than user friendly environment. I am not saying that what these people are doing has been tried before. Quite the opposite. I applaud efforts to carry the message to where the people are as opposed to trying to get them to the airport. Many opine about the cost of learning to fly and cite it as the major reason why people do not get involved. They may be right to a degree but avbiating has never been particularly inexpensive. When I learned to fly in the early 70’s, my PVT cost me about 24% of my annual income and $1,000 more than the first new car I bought the next year so by comparison it may well have been more expensive than it is now. Sadly mainstrean GA may not be achievable by everyone and this has given rise to other alternatives to get airborne recreationally. We need to concentrate our efforts in paralell tracks for people in every economic strata. While not a popular statement, the notion that everyone can afford to learn to fly a high performance glass cockpit airplane for peanuts just isnt realistic. Sad but true. Let’s encourage those who can afford it to participate and ocntinue to work on aviating options for the less monied so as not to exempt them from flying. There is no easy answer but these guys are certainly doing their part by taking flying to the people.

  4. tigerpilot Says:

    Unfortunately the most practiced maneuver is going to be crash and burn. Flight schools at airports have a hard enough time and they have aircraft that prospective students can see and touch. People get excited watching others take off and land, not flying a high-end toy. Having a sim in a shopping center will be a novelty for a while-a short while.

  5. David Carter Says:

    I’ll be the second, it appears, to cite high costs of aviation as being one of the primary stifling forces keeping the pilot population down. I’m 24 yrs old. I’ve had my license since age 18, but I haven’t been able to afford to use it since age 19. There is nothing I would love more in the world than to spend my day in an airplane, but I simply can’t afford it. I ran out of money with only a few hours left to my instrument rating, and if I could, I’d go all the way through commercial, multiengine, helicopter, glider, etc.

    I already have student loans from my Mechanical Engineering degree that I was getting at the same time, and which I completed, at the cost of flying (but which I have yet to find a job using, 2 years later…). The idea was to make engineering pay for flying, but so far, that’s not working, either.

    If it didn’t suck so bad to be a regional pilot, I’d take out the loans and fixate on a career in aviation (which was my original plan, anyway). But when I found out, halfway through college, about how a regional pilot basically lives in his airplane for 10 years because he can’t AFFORD to get out of it, that killed that dream, for me… Stories of pilots sleeping in their airplanes, trying to catch enough winks between shifts… (And I heard something about “crash-pads”, 20 pilots crammed into a one- or two-bedroom apartment because that’s all they can afford. Just a place to “crash” before they go flying again).

    I like flying, but I don’t want the dream to be beaten out of me with a rubber hose, either…

  6. Douglas Hershkowitz Says:

    I understand the desire to bring flying to the masses, however, I am not sure it is feasible or even desirable. Why does someone think that someone who cannot find the time to go to the airport to learn to fly is going to find the time to go to the airport to actually fly after they “learn” to fly in their local mall. My mall btw is three times as far from my house as is the airport. In any case, I would propose that much less time is spent “traveling” to the airport than is doing the other flying related things. In which case this is just another example of false economics.

    Furthermore, I personally do not want to share the skies and possibly my life with someone who is so rushed that they cannot take the extra 15 or twenty minutes to drive to the airport. If they cannot afford that time where else are they cutting corners.

    That being said where this may be successful is in getting people to use the flight simulator as a source of entertainment in the video game style. Add a shoot them down fighter plane scenario and you may have more “clients” than you know what to do with.


  7. Ben Says:

    I applaud the efforts being made to promote General Aviation. Even if they don’t succeed, they are doing something. That says a lot and it they do succeed, eat your words.

  8. Lou Fausak Says:

    When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton supposedly said, “Because that’s where the money is.” It seems to make sense that looking for flight student candidates at a mall is reasonable: “… because that’s where the people is … “.

    I’ve been a flight instructor since the 70’s. I’m still amazed that people in and around Dallas ask me where to go at ‘the airport’ to find out about flight training. ‘The airport’ they’re referring to is, of course, DFW. They’re just not aware of the many, many airports in the area that fit their needs.

    I’m not convinced that having a flight school that uses a sim at a mall is a viable business proposition; however, using a mall to prospect for potential students is a great idea! How else can you get those folks who have ‘learn to fly’ on their bucket lists out to the places where flight training actually happens?

  9. Anthony P Says:

    Some very valid points here but I think for those who believe a retail outlet won’t work, you’re skipping over a very important part of the sales equation: simple exposure.

    Before the argument is met that most people won’t be able to afford flying, you’ve got to open up the universe of prospective students who CAN afford it. Or, you have to inspire more people to want to MAKE it happen.

    Right now, for the industry, where is the exposure? It’s not good enough for an FBO to run a website or banner ad, or offer a discovery flight. No one is watching. The people who are have tried it. And that market has dwindled.

    A retail location gives someone never exposed to GA a chance to get inspired. To touch. To feel. To ask questions. A chance to be sold. To go beyond the home video game and see it’s there for them. You get them from the mall to the airport.

    You may not get people in droves, but this is a long-term proposition– and you’ll definitely get more people to GA than that banner ad or unseen listing in a magazine is doing now.

  10. @williamAirways Says:

    This idea is the equivalent of selling steaks to a crowd of vegetarians.

    We live in the world of the Internet now. Those who want information on how to be a pilot can easily find it. I think they call it “googling” or something… *sigh*

    Over and over again, you hear about the cost of flight and the dismal career outlook as the two key recurring talking points on why people don’t get involved with flight training. How many more times do we have to vomit the same lines before everyone in the industry recognize this and move on?

    You don’t sell a $16,000 private pilot certificate to someone looking to buy a pair of $20 jeans at Old Navy. There’s a reason why they’re buying a pair of $20 jeans vs. a pair of $400 jeans from Zegna. Plus, most malls are just “hang outs” for kids with nothing better to do but pass the time with their friends. They’re not sporting a phatty checkbook looking to drop a truck load on something that takes a lot of STEM: study, time, effort, and money…in a mall.

    You want to capture the career type? Get the airlines to pay a much, much better salary. You want to capture the recreational type? Get the cost of flight down…way, way down. It’s just that simple. Not possible? Well, then you already know how this story is going to end.

    With avgas climbing past $8/gallon, plane makers jacking up the price tag, mechanics inching up their hourly rates, etc., we’re up against the wall when trying to compete against this whole big world full of many other endeavors of more affordable flavors. Better get used to it. Flying costs money…lots and lots of money of the disposable kind. Until the economy improves big time and everyone starts having lots of disposable income to spread around, I seriously doubt this mall idea will make any difference.

  11. Mal Says:


    As a former CFII who wonders where we’ll find enough pilot wanna-be’s to fill all those cockpit seats the FAA says we’ll need, I laud any idea to encourage folks to consider a career in aviation. (Note that I’m not talking about attracting recreational pilots–I’ll leave that to EAA & AOPA to figure out)

    But in my mind, the only way to attract new blood is to present aviation careers (not just pilots, BTW) as a viable career path in high school. The OEMs, airlines and the government needs to pony up and develop a joint effort to make this happen–or someone else will–like China or a Middle Eastern nation with the re$ources.

    Malls & aviation? Nice idea but no cigar.

  12. Anthony P Says:

    Having various industries pony up for a joint effort is an interesting and smart concept. Think of all the resources that will be spent on both the lack of new aviators and the efforts to attract new ones. Maybe if the airlines, OEMs and Gov’t all banded together to either bring down the price of entry or cross-promote, it’s a more efficient use of resources.

  13. Jason Says:

    Need to agree with Matt, flying needs to become more affordable, however I really do not think it will happen, as much as I hate to say it. Bottom line, the high price of avgas is the main reason GA is shrinking to only but a select few with the extra cash to fly.

    Dave is also correct, crap pay at regional airlines would give me pause about getting into flying to make a living.

  14. Mal Says:

    The crappy pay was the reason I left the regionals.

    LSAs offer a promising entree point for GA now, but when a basic Cessna costs more than my house, it’s not something I would consider.

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