Making Sims Affordable

AUSTIN, TX — On September 7, Redbird Flight Simulations, Inc. logged the delivery of its 100th Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD) to Full Motion Training, LLC, a Southwest flight training provider. With a number of its founders coming out of Dell computers, Redbird follows the company’s model when going to market — integrating technology already available to produce highly functional simulators (‘sims’) at a price many flight schools can handle ... and market. What began as almost a dare among founders has grown into a legitimate company that seeks to make simulator training affordable — at a profit — and thereby expand the attraction and affordability of learning how to fly.

The company was founded by nine former Dell computer and Pepsi executives, a number of whom are pilots.

Charlie Gregoire, vice president of sales, marketing, and services, relates how his father, an accomplished pilot, got them into this endeavor. Relates Gregoire, “He came back from his King Air initial training and started telling us about the sims. And then we started thinking about our flight training. Why, if sims are such a good idea, doesn’t every school have one?”

That led the company to create a flight simulator line that is affordable. Comments Gregoire, “It started as an intellectual experiment. Can we do this? If we build something nobody wants, at least we have a sim we can play with. At the very least, we were going to originally build at least nine sims — one for each partner. And then we’d disband if nobody else wanted it.” Those nine simulators have yet to be built for the founders.

“We just delivered our 100th unit; 103 and 104 are on the floor right now being detailed — they’re for the Air Force.”

The founders started their venture in 2007 and brought the first prototype simulator to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture that year. Relates Gregoire, “Based on the feedback we heard at that AirVenture we decided we needed to form a real company and stop being nine guys in a barn.”

Primary customers for Redbird Flight Simulations to date have been civilian operators; however, the company has projects for both the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force. “FAA flies King Airs for flight checking and they’re looking for sims for those,” explains Gregoire. “We’re building some custom King Air C-90 GTX sims for them. They’re also looking at the FMX for some of their light twin training as well for their flight check pilots.

“Mostly it’s flight schools, universities, private pilots. For the price point, why not?”

The FMX - Technology Evolves

The “flagship” model of the Redbird family of simulators is the FMX, a full-motion Advanced Aviation Training Device that is delivered with one cockpit configuration for some $60,000, according to Gregoire. The cockpit is interchangeable for other light aircraft cockpits, ranging from a Cessna 172 Cardinal (from which the company gets its name) to twin piston configurations and now King Airs.

Comments Gregoire, “FAA changed the way that they certify flight sims. Until about 2005, they were certifying what were called PC ATDs, which were the very basic desktop with a joystick plugged into your computer. Then they had what they called flight training devices, from levels one through six, and a level seven for helicopters.

“And then full-flight simulators, levels A through D. These are the ones that you see at the airlines, at FlightSafety.

“Really the term simulator, in the eyes of the FAA, is talking about the big level A through D multimillion dollar units. We view simulator more as a generic term now; like Band Aid or Kleenex. And really, it was a generic term until FAA got a hold of it.

“It took FAA a long time to accept that technology was moving forward. But there was a band of people at the FAA that were pushing for FAA to get caught up with where technology is and what simulators really should be. Around 2005 they changed the way they did their certification and developed two new certification levels — the basic aviation training device and the advanced aviation training device. It allows for companies like ours that develop flight simulators; it makes it easier for us to get certification, and the certification takes into account what technology can now do.

“The FMX is above and beyond the AATD spec. There is a lot the FMX can do that the FAA never thought technology was available to do. In fact, most people in the industry didn’t think it.”

Price Points

Gregoire relates that when the company was developing its products, officials came across an industry article which suggested that full-motion flight simulation could never be affordable, at least not for a decade or more. “We took that as a challenge,” he says. “We knew we were developing a full-motion platform that was going to be affordable, but hadn’t openly announced it.

“To this day we have people who ask, how do you make it for this price? It’s the state of technology; and it’s the approach that we have to business. It’s the Dell model; it’s take the best of the best off-the-shelf components, integrate them, and develop something that can be much better for a lower price.”

According to Gregoire, Redbird could sell the FMX units for as much as $200,000, and while it wouldn’t sell as many it still would be profitable. The model, however, is to penetrate the market at a moderate price. “That’s our model — democratize the marketplace. The point of this whole thing was to get simulators out there.

“We’re seeing flights schools that previously did not have the means to buy a simulator at all buying our sims. And now they can add that value to their customers. And most flight schools are using the sim as a marketing tool as well.

“As a student, which school is more attractive — one with a sim or one without?”

Gregoire says that most customers first express disbelief at the price and the product, and are used to simulators costing as much as a quarter million dollars. He says, “In the case of some of our competitors, a stationary unit with one forward looking screen can cost $100,000. We’re giving you wrap-around visuals; an interchangeable cockpit; all this flexibility and a motion platform, for $60,000.

“Early on we had a bit of an issue with the psychology of the pricing — it must be garbage for $60,000. But then they fly it and buy it almost on the spot.”

The company is considering offering a financing program for flight schools, and provides marketing assistance. Having a simulator can be a marketing edge, says Gregoire.

“Financial institutions are pretty tight with their money; and flight schools often aren’t a prime candidate for financing. Some are. They’re like other small businesses,” he explains.

“There are places out there that will finance these kind of sims but the interest rate is pretty high. It’s often a better option for people to find financing on their own. In the next year I think we’ll probably start offering something through this company. We’re a relatively young company; we can’t take on the kind of unsecured credit that would be required, or to push the quantity to offset the risk.”

PROMOTING THE INDUSTRY

In line with its mission to make learning to fly and stay current more affordable, Redbird Flight Simulations has become active in aviation associations. It recently became a member of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and supports the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, as evidenced by its participation in this fall’s annual convention. The company also supports the University Aviation Association.
Says Gregoire, “We’re doing something that’s really moving general aviation forward. It’s really promoting the growth of general aviation.

“With the state of GA today, a lot of it comes down to the cost of operating aircraft; of people learning to fly. The reason our pilot population is decreasing is because the salaries aren’t going up for professional pilots, and it’s getting more expensive every year to fly. Expenses aren’t going down.

“We’re bringing the price for training down. This is all about making aviation more accessible.

“We actually care about general aviation. If you look at the state of general aviation in other countries — like Europe with its user fees — without organizations like GAMA and AOPA the U.S. general aviation industry would quickly get to that point too. User fees would just kill us.”

Redbird is exhibiting at the 2010 AOPA convention, and Gregoire says the annual National Business Aviation Association meeting is on its 2011 target list. The company hasn’t entered the turbine arena yet, but it remains a possibility.

Explains Gregoire, “We wouldn’t limit ourselves; we’ll develop what people are asking for. The FMX was developed as a single-engine piston aircraft trainer primarily. As we get into larger aircraft we’re developing new sims for those. Stretching something from a 172 to a King Air essentially makes a mediocre King Air sim; and we don’t want to make mediocre.

“As we get into larger sims like the King Air or a Citation or Gulfstream, we’re building cockpit-specific sims that are specific to that cockpit.

“Every time we build a new panel we submit for certification. The TDs — tabletop displays — are certified as basic aviation training devices; the FMX, the SD, and the LD are AATDs. The King Air will be an AATD as well. “

Cockpit-specific sims are more expensive than the existing FMX, but are still less expensive than other units on the market, according to Gregoire. Besides the King Air Simulator for the FAA, Redbird is developing a Piper Meridian/Mirage matrix, cockpit-specific simulator that it is building for a training school in Vero Beach, FL, near the Piper factory.

The company is willing to work with customers of new models when it comes to research and development costs, if there is a market for more units. “If you want a sim for a Beechcraft Starship, we might have to have you cover all the R&D costs,” comments Gregoire.

Among other products, Redbird offers the XWind Crosswind Trainer which simulates winds up to 30 knots. It is currently developing the Parrot, a fully integrated artificial air traffic control simulator to facilitate pilot/ATC communication.

Explains Gregoire, “It’s an add-on that will work with all of our sims, including the very first ones we ever sold. It’s another computer, essentially, that networks with our sim computer, and we install some software on that to handle the communications.”

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