A Texas flight school and an Iowa-based instructor were named the national winners of the 2023 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards during Redbird Migration 2023 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
The annual gathering of flight training professionals held April 11 and 12 was highlighted by the two big reveals: In the Pattern of Denton and Granbury, Texas, was named the nation’s best flight school, and Bryan Gutraj, who is the senior flight instructor at the University of Dubuque in Iowa, was named the best instructor.
In the Pattern operates two locations with 25 airplanes and 37 employees, who all embody a customer-first philosophy. Co-owners Sherman Gardner and Darren Gardner, and Chris Webb, attended Redbird Migration and accepted their national award on behalf of the school—for the second time, since the school was also recognized as the nation’s best in 2022.
“It’s not just about flying airplanes, it’s not about getting ratings,” said Darren Gardner. “It’s about building relationships and doing life together.”
Gutraj, the national instructor of the year, was described as “professional, knowledgeable, and patient” by his students who participated in the survey.
“Never stop learning,” said Gutraj when asked about advice for others who want to pursue flight instruction. “Just soak up as much information as you can.”
Earlier in the week, these award-winning instructors and flight school employees sat in sessions with industry and education professionals.
It was the twelfth annual Redbird Migration, and the event has grown since its inception. This year was the first time that content and sessions were added specifically for school districts and high school and middle school educators that use aviation to teach science, technology, engineering, and math.
“A lot of them have never even been in a small airplane,” said Redbird Vice President of Marketing Josh Harnagel. “They’re tasked with using aviation and the things that it can do to teach these concepts and I think it’s really helpful for them to understand the ecosystem that is around aviation and maybe get some tips from actual flight instructors who have been doing this a long time.”
Presentations and panels from industry leaders and breakout sessions for concentrated interests fostered conversation and collaboration regarding real-world problems plaguing the flight training industry.
Each year, AOPA invites students and pilots who have worked with any school or instructor in the preceding 12 months to share their experience in the Flight Training Experience Survey. The AOPA You Can Fly team uses the data to identify successful practices, and where flight schools have opportunities to improve. Responses to the survey are also used to identify the best of the best in flight training.
The distinguished and regional award winners from the 2023 Flight Training Experience Survey are recognized at Redbird Migration, and the top instructor and top school in the nation are announced at the event.
“Your dedication, your passion, and your perseverance is raising up the next generation of pilots,” said AOPA Vice President of You Can Fly Programming Dan Justman in an introduction of the regional winners. “You are making a difference and together we are all making more pilots.”
Youth education was a recurring theme in this year’s conversations at Redbird Migration. Early in the event, Redbird announced Eric Crump as the newest addition to its board of directors. Crump is the executive director of the Aerospace Center for Excellence in Lakeland, Florida, and will bring valuable insight into K-12 education and outreach to the board.
“Redbird has become the de facto standard in aviation focused on K-12 Career and Technical Development programs across the country,” said Crump in a Redbird press release. “I’m looking forward to helping the company develop even more effective and powerful tools to aid primary and secondary schools in meeting the increasing demand for skilled talent, both in the aviation industry and outside it.”
Redbird also works closely with organizations like AOPA and the Experimental Aircraft Association to promote youth outreach and education. EAA’s new Pilot Proficiency Center was the location for the event, and AOPA’s You Can Fly team was on site to present on our AOPA High School Aviation STEM Curriculum and the benefits of standardization of flight training and as well as the business applications of AOPA Flight Training Advantage (AFTA)—the digital adaptive flight training system for students, CFIs, and flight schools.
The event also offered the opportunity to connect with industry professionals and get updates about what is being done to protect and preserve general aviation in our nation’s capital.
Everette Rochon, manager of the Training and Certification Group in Aviation Safety at the FAA, emphasized his intentions to work with the “lightest touch possible,” and “engage with industry before rulemaking,” during a presentation about FAA priorities, key strategic objectives and goals, and the highest rulemaking projects of the agency.
AOPA President Mark Baker spoke on a panel presenting on the Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions (EAGLE) initiative. As co-chair of EAGLE, Baker provided an update on progress that has been made since the initiative was launched in 2022, along with the challenges associated with the transition.
“This is the biggest challenge I’ve seen in my 40-plus years of flying,” said Baker. “It’s one that we all want to solve.”