The FlightSafety Academy in Vero Beach, Fla., has a reputation for highly trained graduates with the skills and knowledge to move into the right seat of turbine aircraft. Historically the emphasis has been on the regional airline market, but the post-9/11 environment had a devastating effect on the Academy’s enrollment.
Bill Wagner, chief pilot of Townsend Engineering and member of the academy’s advisory board, told AIN how the academy faced a critical period. “About two years ago Al Ueltschi, FlightSafety’s founder and CEO, attended an academy board meeting. We were discussing the profoundly negative effect 9/11 was having on the academy because the airlines were in such bad financial condition,” Wagner said. “Student enrollment, normally around 500, had sunk to about 250. There were no airline jobs to be had, so students stopped enrolling in the program.
“During a discussion of possible ways of dealing with the situation, I asked Al why the academy has never shown any real interest in corporate aviation and was surprised by his answer. He said they were interested but simply didn’t know how to approach the market.”
Jacqueline Gauger-Carlon, the academy’s marketing manager, said as a result of that conversation the academy developed the First Officer Program about a year ago. “We established a program where a student could apply to intern at one of four participating FlightSafety Learning Centers. There are now 15 centers participating,” Gauger-Carlon said. “The intern would relocate to the facility and within about four to six weeks earn second-in-command (SIC) qualification in one of the aircraft training programs offered at that particular center.” According to Gauger-Carlon, once qualified, the intern would then perform the duties of SIC when a FlightSafety client came alone for training.
Dick Skovgaard, the academy’s director/center manager, explained they changed the name of the program from intern to First Officer Program because students become fully qualified as SIC. “The term ‘internship’ carried a connotation that maybe they weren’t really qualified,” he explained.
According to Skovgaard, candidates for the program were originally academy graduates, but the demand for the SICs now far exceeds the supply so the academy allows individuals who have trained elsewhere to apply. “We require that non-academy graduates must do their CFI training with us, after which we put them through the normal screening we use to hire instructors,” Skovgaard explained. “Once they get through the screening they’re put on a waiting list to become an academy instructor and they are also eligible to go into the First Officer Program.” The academy has a provision for graduates of other programs that required their students to get a CFI as part of their program. “In that case a student can do his or her instrument CFI and multi-engine instrument CFI with us,” Skovgaard said.
Once they arrive at their assigned learning center, students begin helping out in various capacities and are paid $7 an hour. Their work schedule is built around their schedule attending the ground schools and observing simulator sessions. As they progress they get their own simulator training until they qualify as SIC. At that point they are bumped up to $14 an hour for all work done at the center, including flying in the right seat with clients.
“What is really helpful for them is that they sit through the initial and recurrent programs with the clients,” Skovgaard said. “They really get to know the aircraft very well. In addition, they get to know the clients very well. We’ve had several of our SICs get hired by corporate flight departments right out of the program. We clearly anticipate that the student and client demand for this program will continue to grow.”
Skovgaard said the academy is averaging between two and four students per month going into the program. “It surprises me we don’t get more applicants,” he said. “I believe they think it’s too good to be true. Not only don’t they pay for the experience, but they get paid for it. We could place 10 students a month with our centers right now, and that could easily increase as the program becomes better known.”
Matt Wagner, Bill Wagner’s son and a flight instructor for FlightSafety Academy, went through the First Officer Program before returning to the academy as an instructor. “I was at the Dallas center for about six months working with the Falcon 20 program,” he said. “What I took away from that program was a wealth of information. My IFR skills were very finely honed. I had the opportunity to see how things work in the big picture and get tips from many different types of pilots.”
The younger Wagner said he had about 900 hours of flight time, including 100 hours of multi-engine, when he went to the center. While he was there he picked up about 150 hours of Falcon 20 simulator time. “I figured I needed to build more multi time and took the opportunity to go back to the academy to instruct,” he said. “What I didn’t think of before going to the center was the effect it would have on me as an instructor. It’s greatly improved my instructing style, and I’m able to pass on some hard information about flying to my students.”
The elder Wagner pointed out that FlightSafety Academy is the only program in the world that can offer this type of program. “Only FlightSafety Academy has access to anything like the FlightSafety Learning Centers, where students can get qualified then fly in the right seat with professional pilots,” he said. “These individuals get hundreds of hours of right-seat time flying down to minimums every day with highly qualified professional pilots in the left seat. Everybody wins in this program–the student, the client, FlightSafety and corporate aviation.”