Flight training professionals and general aviation leaders attending the virtual Redbird Migration said the overall flight training appetite remained strong despite coronavirus pandemic restrictions and an economic slowdown. Ideas, encouragement, and support were shared during online presentations, informal coffee breaks, roundtable discussions, and live Q&As.
Redbird COO Charlie Gregoire said the conference’s objective “was never really about teaching people how to fly” but to provide information, perspectives, and technical breakouts that might “spark a thought or an idea” on what a flight training organization could become. “There is no industry where people are more passionate about what they do.”
“I’m bullish on where this is heading,” said AOPA President Mark Baker during a State of General Aviation panel during which participants voiced optimism about a robust domestic flight training environment that is bouncing back after COVID-19 restrictions. He pointed out that “general aviation is doing well” and reiterated a previous observation that lately the nation’s airspace has been filled with “more Cessna 172s” than “Boeing 737 commercial airliners.”
Baker was joined by Women in Aviation International CEO Allison McKay, who said WAI members were “gobbling up” advances in technology that help lower aviation costs and increase safety. “If we can lower the price of training, you are going to get a whole new demographic interested and excited by the prospect of actually being able to complete their goal.”
Experimental Aircraft Association CEO Jack Pelton, General Aviation Manufacturers Association President Pete Bunce, and Helicopter Association International President Jim Viola joined the discussion led by Redbird Chairman of the Board and former AOPA President Craig Fuller. They spoke about K-12 STEM education, aviation opportunities for underserved populations, and international training.
“We’re getting a lot of people coming back to flying, and some of them with hefty ratings,” said Ned Parks, a former FBO owner in northeast Ohio who began his aviation career as a military helicopter pilot. “You can’t find enough airplanes or enough staff,” he said during an online coffee break attended by U.S. and European flight training educators.
“We’re seeing the same thing here in Miami. It’s nice to find that people are still confident in the industry and moving forward,” said airline transport pilot and Gold Seal Flight Instructor Felipe Santiago of Aviator Zone Academy at Miami Executive Airport. Santiago said the South Florida operation wasn’t affected by COVID-19 overseas travel restrictions because “100 percent of our students are domestic,” but he agreed finding suitable aircraft for the Part 141 school was a challenge. “We’re having trouble finding the airplanes that fit our training model.”
However, Corona, California, high school aviation teacher and band director Christopher Peterson sang a different tune. Peterson uses the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Curriculum for hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math instruction at Corona High School. He said the overall learning experience for young people “is tough” because students aren’t allowed on campus at all. The school’s Redbird Flight Simulations lab has been idle since March and “when we do go back, it’ll be masks, it’ll be shields … but it’s not going to look like regular high school at all,” he predicted. He was most concerned about high school seniors who are making life-changing college, trade school, or career decisions. “Most of the seniors said, ‘I just want to go back,’” but freshmen are handling online learning “just fine,” he observed.
European flight training appeared to be affected far more severely than activity in the United States, said Switzerland’s Jen Michel-Karr. COVID-19 travel restrictions between countries began soon after a pandemic was declared and stifled European flight training for most of the year. “We run a school similar to a Part 141 school and had to close down March 13, then things started picking up in early June, very slowly. People with COVID fatigue” relaxed during the summer and resumed some of their normal activities before a feared second wave of COVID-19 infections recently began. He estimated a “40 to 50-percent drop” in GA activity overseas and “things are not looking good at all for the next six weeks.”