Aviation innovators present at flight training pre-Summit event

Companies pitch concepts to improve GA access

October 10, 2013

Eight aviation innovators used the speed dating concept—nine minutes to pitch their product—at the Flight Training and Pilot Community Summit, hosted by Ian Twombly, editor of Flight Training magazine. Below is a summary of six of the eight presentations; two other innovators make the case for their apps in "Five aviation apps seen in the AOPA Summit exhibit hall."

Rod Rakic, co-founder of OpenAirplane, said his concept was simple: making aircraft easier to rent. “We wanted to give pilots easy access to aircraft, via their mobile phones, tables or desktop computers,” he said. “OpenAirplane is a universal checkout standard that’s been vetted by insurance companies.”

What inspired the concept, said Rakic, was a survey done in the fall of 2011 that asked if pilots would fly more if OpenAirplane existed. “Ninety-six percent of those surveyed said yes. Fifty-six percent said that a day-long checkout was too hard, and another 28 percent said it’s hard to find aircraft,” he said.

Since launching in June, 4,000 pilots have signed up and 22 locations are live, including AOPA’s home airport, Frederick Municipal, said Rakic. “We have another two dozen airports in our backlog,” he said. “We’re getting close to have critical mass to make a compelling case for pilots to fly with us.”

OpenAirplane is based on the reputation system, said Rakic. “When a pilot flies an aircraft, they rate and review the operator and the aircraft. This will help better operators draw more customers,” he said. “And operators can rate the pilot. It’s all about reputation, because a rising tide raises all boats. OpenAirplane is bringing operators new customers with flying that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Next up was Eric Radtke of Sporty’s Academy, who discussed his organization’s customer-centric approach to pilot training. “In the September edition of Flight Training magazine, Ian [Twombly] wrote a column called the ‘Big-Tent Theory,’ saying we need aviation evangelists and general aviation ambassadors” to bring in more pilots, he said.

One way Sporty’s is doing that, said Radtke,  is by offering modular pilot training, which breaks down the process into more manageable pieces: the first solo, becoming a sport or recreational pilot, and then the transition to private pilot. “We also offer finish-up programs, where we take a person who started the process but didn’t finish and build them a custom program.”

Sporty’s came up in an era where customers lined up for training, said Radtke. “We didn’t need to advertise, but we also lost perspective, because if someone dropped out, there were people ready to step up,” he said. “So we needed to look at everything we were doing, and part of that was listening to what our customers wanted and understanding their motivations.”

So Sporty’s set out to design a more appealing and diverse product.  “For years, we had this one product that took this much time and cost this much money. But not everyone fit into that box. So we now do smaller, more manageable segments and we champion recreational and sport pilot certificates,” he said. “And we focus on the first solo, because if they do that, they are less likely to drop out.”

Some of the success Sporty’s targets is to get an individual to a certificate level so they have some of that fun they sought in the first place, said Radtke. “We also make a great effort to celebrate the milestones, because it provides confidence and motivation to continue.”

Roger Sharp of Redbird Skyport said his message was simple: “Flying is easy, but we make it hard.” There are some things that just can’t be fixed, like the dreaded knowledge test, he said.

“You just need to take a few days, close the door, put in the John and Martha King DVD, learn, then take the test and forget what you learned,” said Sharp. “We simplify the process. We don’t have to make the argument about how flight simulators decrease the time to learn,” he said. “These devices can speed up the process and offer better retention. We can develop higher motor learning skills by using these devices.”

And there’s a strong financial incentive, said Sharp. “Flight simulators can reduce cost of training. We have a training facility in San Marcos, Texas. Let’s get together and make flight training as easy and fun as possible,” he said.

Kevin Smith of PilotEdge said his company was created to help student pilots with their biggest fear: talking on the radio. “People are not becoming masters of the radio. You can use sims for IFR to shoot approaches all day long. Students say they love flying in the simulator, but they are terrified to fly out of Santa Monica Airport,” he said. “You can listen to LiveATC, but it’s not the same as doing it live. There really isn’t a training module that focuses on radio communications.”

Smith said the problem can be solved by helping students become more proficient by actually flying in the system. “But doing that costs a fortune. A sim works, but what if you could use that and bring in real life?” he asked. “We bridge the gap because we don’t use recordings or voice control. We use real people to deliver ATC commands to folks in the simulator.”

Students put on their headset, turn on the radio and start talking to a real person, said Smith. “So you’re not just practicing emergency approaches, but handling whatever ATC throws at you,” he said. “PilotEdge prepare you to fly in the system. We make students do it until they’re bored, so when they get in an actual aircraft, they can do radio communications easier, which lets CFIs focus on more important things.”

Tecnam CEO Phil Solomon, a CFI and operator of FBOs in Virginia and Florida, pitched his idea about how to get more twin time for students. He said the key is using light sport aircraft to save money and focus on enhancing stick-and-rudder skills, and then using the savings to reinvest into more twin time. “A Tecnam has an operating cost that is $136 an hour cheaper than a Piper Seminole,” he said.

The speed dating ended with Rick Matthews, CEO of the Aviation Access Project, a shared ownership management club that bills itself as an equity-based flying club. “AOPA’s 2010 flight training report was a must-read,” said Matthews.  “Those numbers stirred the souls of a lot of people, especially the 80 percent student drop-out rate. So we decided to band together to come up with solutions.”

The group, made up of seasoned industry people, came up with three goals, said Matthews.  “One, lower the dropout rate from 80 percent to 25 percent. Two, double the number of pilots, and three, restore the emotional satisfaction we gain in this industry by eliminating frustration points for customers,” he said.

The core element of the Aviation Access Project is offering managed one-eighth-share ownership, said Matthews. “We provide an aircraft at an FBO and create a flight center, a hub of positive aviation activity,” he explained. “Over time, we want to establish 1,000 hubs, which is how we plan to transform the industry.”

In less than a year, Aviation Access Project has already assigned 24 flight center licenses, said Matthews. “And we have pending list of 70 right now.”

Find out what the dream is of the guy coming into a flight school, said Matthews. “You need to know that and keep him in front of that dream and avoid confusing points of entry,” he said. “We have found a way to attract hundreds of new people to aviation in conjunction with flight schools. We want to work together and elevate general aviation.”