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Should You Sell Ongoing Training?

Pilots really will buy it

For years, marketing experts have urged CFIs and flight schools to build and promote ongoing training programs for certificated pilots. Not only would it make more proficient pilots, they claim, but it would also help to fatten a CFI's logbook and increase instructional income.

But will non-professional pilots really spend the money for ongoing training?

I own a small flight school in the Texas hill country, about 50 miles northwest of Austin. Starting in early 2007, we decided to find out if those marketing experts really knew what they were talking about, and built an ongoing training program for local pilots who had trouble maintaining IFR proficiency. Like most flight schools, we didn't have buckets of money, so we took advantage of every low-cost opportunity to promote our new program.

Now, after more than a year offering the program, we have 12 to 15 active Continuous Proficiency Program (CPP) clients, and most fly at least once a month. Not only does our program help make pilots and their insurance companies happy, it also helps keep our CFIs active.

We've found that most of our CPP clients fly in their own airplane and pay our CFIIs $50 per lesson hour (not just per Hobbs hour), making the average three-hour lesson about $150, plus whatever simulator time or occasional aircraft rental might be used. Total flight (or simulator) time averages about 1.2 to 1.6 hours per lesson.

One somewhat unexpected fact surfaced early--many of our clients were unable to start our CPP without some refresher work. To date, we've found that about half were unable to meet PTS requirements for an instrument rating without using the autopilot; roughly 80 percent didn't feel well-trained on their IFR-approved GPS unit; and none knew how to use the OBS function with their GPS, or how (or when) to suspend GPS waypoint sequencing on an approach. More than half conceded that they were not ready to fly an instrument approach in actual instrument weather.

Even for pilots who had retained their basic IFR skills, our ongoing training was needed for more complex avionics; WAAS approaches (did you know there are three distinct types of WAAS approaches?); and faster, more capable aircraft with glass cockpits.

The FAA has always encouraged ongoing proficiency training, of course, but only recently have insurance companies started to put teeth into that concept by dictating more training in exchange for affordable coverage. Clearly, the market for continuing education is growing.

In building our CPP, I planned the training around principles of the line oriented flight training (LOFT) that airlines use, making it as realistic as possible. We found that serious clients welcome this structured way to maintain their IFR proficiency. There were at least two must-do requirements for our program. First, it had to efficiently bring rusty pilots up to speed, and second, we had to promote it to prospective clients. Here are some of the things we learned in developing our program.

Step one: Consider the kinds of knowledge and skills required to successfully plan and execute a trip in weather, such as preflight planning, takeoff and departure, en route operations, and approach and landing. One basic task will be helping your client set his own personal minimums, because those are the basis for much of IFR risk management. Other tasks might include getting a proper weather briefing, realistic fuel planning, and handling complex clearances. We then put the tasks into a spreadsheet so we can easily track each client's progress. If you would like a copy of the form, drop me an e-mail.

Step two: Both normal and abnormal situations can arise in each phase. During departure, for example, can the pilot handle an obstacle departure procedure? Does he know how to load a flight plan into the GPS? If the client is struggling with basic "knobology," he or she will need specific training to be able to quickly extract the necessary information from the boxes. How about lost communications? Or a holding clearance at an en route fix with no depicted holding pattern?

Step three: For each task we identified what information and practice was needed. For some, it was dual instruction; for communications practice, programs such as Comm1 help to improve clearance copying. Several free interactive AOPA Air Safety Foundation online courses were useful to introduce concepts, expand knowledge, and provide starting points for discussions.

It is common to find a lack of basic scanning ability, and time spent fixing that pays big dividends when we move into more complex tasks. In fact, I found that explaining the need for this basic instruction prior to the first lesson avoids client disappointment when we had to spend time on the basics.

Step four: A regular training schedule for each client who commits to the program has worked better than randomly scheduling the next flight. I encourage my clients to set aside a specific day, such as the first Tuesday of the month, for the next lesson. I let him know that the date can be changed with adequate notice, but always try to get a commitment for the new training date. Also, if I haven't heard from a participating pilot for a while, I call or e-mail him.

In our CPP, each lesson is scheduled for three hours, and includes a preflight briefing, the flight in either the airplane or simulator, and a postflight review. We try to make each of the scenarios realistic, rather than creating a nightmare situation of, "there I was with an engine failure in a thunderstorm when my radios quit." Of course, weather also dictates some of what we do. If we catch a good IFR day, we will fly as long as possible in actual conditions. For most, this is a real highlight, since most have had very little actual "wet time." Actual IFR is a great confidence builder.

Our plan covers all CPP tasks within 12 sessions. By doing so, our clients constantly meet or exceed the legal currency requirements for IFR. More important, regular practice maintains a higher level of instrument competency.

Many of our clients are interested in learning better engine management techniques, such as lean of peak operations. And we've found that almost all need help in understanding weather. Here's a hint: Make your client give you a weather briefing after he has self-briefed on the computer. It will help him organize the data and form a clearer idea of what is really going on. This is appropriate for all instruction, including primary students.

So, how did we get clients through the door for our CPP program? Starting early worked best for us, beginning as soon as the potential client starts working on an instrument rating. We stress the need for continuing education from day one. But our single best source of CPP participants comes from instrument proficiency checks and flight reviews, which often uncover the need for remedial training. Obviously there are pilots who do not think they need to participate, and others who know they need to, but can't or won't spend the money.

This part of Texas is fortunate to have a fairly affluent pilot population, which certainly helps. But regardless of the market composition, building business is mostly a matter of relationship building; regular follow up via personal contacts, e-mails, and phone calls; and making the training process a fun and educational experience. Much of our advertising is by word of mouth, and we've found the old saying about "a satisfied customer is your best advertising" is true.

I've also had great results with an electronic newsletter, which is very inexpensive and effective if you offer real value, meaning interesting articles (no spam), useful tips, and ideas. It is also a great way to recognize clients' accomplishments and promote upcoming events. Don't miss an opportunity to include testimonials from participating pilots. Let them share the benefits of your program through quotes and photos. If you would like to see our newsletter, e-mail me and I will add you to the distribution list.

Other ways to find new clients include getting involved in as many aspects of the aviation scene as possible. I'm an FAA FAAST Team member, and often participate at airport advisory board meetings and the like. They're all part of the picture.

Ken Wittekiend, a CFII and FAA FAAST Team representative, owns Promark Aviation Services in Burnet, Texas. He regularly flies a Beech Bonanza and a Piper Super Cub, and with more than 8,100 hours in his logbook, still enthusiastically instructs full-time.

By Ken Wittekiend

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