Lots of fun, little sun at SNF 2011

Rain, powerful thunderstorms, a tornado, and upwards of 60 damaged or destroyed airplanes. Those were the headlines from this year’s Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In and Expo that concluded this past Sunday in Lakeland, Florida. And while the tornado was certainly exciting, it overshadowed the rest of what turned out to be a highly successful event.

Often at these events, most things related to flight training are completely shoved aside by the products and gadgets on exhibit. This year was a major exception. I thought the flight schools, flight training-related businesses, and flight training events were a huge player.

At the top of this list is what I think will be a major force in the training industry in the coming years. It’s called GIFT, or Guided Independent Flight Training. GIFT is a joint venture between Redbird Flight Simulations, Cessna, and King Schools. It takes any Redbird simulator, including the full motion version, and incorporates self-study material from King. Students get a personal card that’s slotted into the sim. They can then choose which lesson they want to work on. A King Schools video comes up, the maneuver is demonstrated, and then the student gets to try the maneuver in the exact same spot as it was just shown. After the maneuver the software grades the student in relation to the practical test standards.

Start to dream a little and the possibilities for this type of technology are endless. Simulators have always represented a cost-effective and useful learning tool, but how to integrate them into a school’s curcillum has been a stumbling block. Using GIFT takes that guesswork away, and allows for schools to standardize the initial stages of pilot training. I can imagine a student not touching an airplane until they were able to make it all the way through the GIFT sessions with passing standards. Sound crazy? Airline pilots don’t touch an airplane until they have 150 people behind them. And the military uses simulators extensively. Why not with initial pilot training?


It’s always fun to search for products at shows, but with the bad economy the pickins were slim this year. Duracharts was one of my favorites. They look like a standard FAA sectional, but they’re extremely durable and difficult to tear. If you haven’t experienced it already, you’ll notice your sectional start to tear along the seams long before the chart expires. And forget it if it gets wet. Duracharts, however, had a sectional hanging up that went through the hurricane and it looked practically new. A little laundered, maybe…

Fixing flight training

One of the more prevalent discussions with colleagues throughout the show was on how to improve the flight training experience. Cessna, Redbird, and King Schools are doing their part with GIFT. But other companies and organizations are working hard as well. Sporty’s Academy has a new website dedicated to supporting AOPA’s flight training retention initiative. And with a dropout rate of less than half the national average, they are well qualified to speak on this. Sporty’s has also introduced a finish-up course, they’re holding more open houses and aviation camps, and they do a great job of recognizing solo students. All are wonderful efforts that will help drive flight training forward.

SAFE, or the Society of Aviation Flight Educators, held a breakfast and talked more about its seminar, coming up this May. SAFE is still a small organization, but it’s moving the conversation forward in the right direction. The seminar is abpout how to improve the flight training process, and I think it will be a hit.

Finally, AOPA held a few events around the retention initiative, including a reception for readers of the new Flight School Business newsletter. If you haven’t seen it, check out FSB. It’s a bi-weekly newsletter dedicated to serving the needs of flight school owners, managers, chief flight instructors, and the businesses that support them. You can subscribe for free.

I came away from Sun ‘n Fun feeling extremely optimistic about the flight industry’s ability to make training better through the use of community, better value, and better supported flight schools and instructors. Let’s hope we can keep this momentum going.

Anyone else go to the show? What did you think about it?

–Ian Twombly

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