Atlanta Investors Buy Florida Flight School to Train Foreign Airline Pilots

Oct. 3, 2006
Flight Training Services International bought the Commercial Airline Pilot Training school and its facilities at Flagler County Airport near Palm Coast, Fla., from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

After two decades as a military pilot and airline flight instructor, Shawn Raker has helped found a start-up flight training firm he says has developed a quicker and better way to teach new pilots to fly jets.

Raker and a group of Atlanta area investors recently formed Flight Training Services International, purchased a Florida flight school and acquired a fleet of technologically advanced aircraft to teach up to 400 new pilots a year.

The bulk of FTSI's students will be prospective airline pilots from China, India and Europe, Raker said, and the company is exploring proposals to build similar flight schools is Asia and the Middle East.

"When you look at Boeing and Airbus aircraft delivery schedules, two out of every three new airliners are going to overseas carriers --- especially Asia and the Middle East," said FTSI President and Chief Executive Raker. "Those countries don't have the pilot work force we have in the United States. They're going to have to train their own pilots, so we expect the majority of our students to come from overseas."

Raker, 38, is a former U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules pilot and Delta Air Lines pilot and instructor.

Raker said the school will lead students through an intensive, 14-month "total immersion" program that makes extensive use of computerized cockpit simulators and prepares them to go right to work for airlines. All flights will be videotaped with audio recordings, and flight data will be recorded and reviewed on personal computers.

Traditionally, prospective airline pilots learned to fly in the military, or they gained years and thousands of hours of flight experience teaching others to fly, or flying corporate aircraft or cargo.

FTSI students will begin flying single-engine Cirrus planes equipped with "technologically advanced avionics," and they'll quickly move through aerobatic, multiengine, turboprop and jet aircraft.

When they finish, each student will have an FAA type rating that qualifies him to fly planes ranging from air taxis to airliners. Raker said his company plans to charge between $80,000 and $100,000 per student. FTSI will also train corporate pilots and pilots learning to fly a new category of "very light jets" designed to be used as air taxis or private planes.

FTSI bought the Commercial Airline Pilot Training school and its facilities at Flagler County Airport near Palm Coast, Fla., from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. FTSI is private and wouldn't disclose financial information. Its headquarters will be in Cobb County.

Florida's sunny weather and high-volume air traffic control system make it the most desirable location for training, Raker said.

Living in the United States and talking to domestic air traffic controllers will help flight students improve their English skills to international standards. English has been the international language of aviation for more than 50 years.

Raker said the U.S. military has shown that students can learn to fly technologically advanced aircraft in complex missions with fewer than 500 hours of total flight time. Under its former owners, the flight school pioneered efforts to convert graduates to airline pilots with as little as 225 hours of focused training.

Dave Huser, vice president of Chicago-based American Flyers, said dedicated students going through a realistic, well-structured training program can become qualified pilots in a short period of time.

"Lots of flight hours don't necessarily get you a better pilot," Huser said. "If you've got a good system and motivated students, you can produce quality pilots pretty darn fast. They'll have good systems knowledge and good training, and their practical experience comes after they get their ratings. It's no different than a doctor who operates under the supervision of more experienced surgeons. These recent graduates aren't ready to be captains when they finish their training --- but they are qualified to fly in right seats as co-pilots."

FTSI has ordered 30 Cirrus aircraft with options for 20 more as well as numerous full-motion flight simulators valued at more than $15 million. The school is expanding its hangar and flight simulator buildings in Florida.

"If you do a good job screening applicants and then you put them through a well-structured, fast-paced program, they learn sound procedures from the start," Raker said. "When they get to the airlines they have a very high success rate because the training doesn't come as a shock to them."

Raker, a Boeing 757/767 first officer, said he examined the best practices of military and airline flight training and created a hybrid that aims to replicate the best of both.

"It's a leap of faith to start a totally new company with a brand new approach to training pilots," he said. "But we have a system that works. There's tremendous demand for it, and we have a great team that can replicate our program all over the world."

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