The Canadian flight training industry produced large numbers of pilots in the 1970s and 80s, but most of those students did not continue beyond a private pilot licence. Today, however, the ratio has shifted; the schools and instructors Iâ€™ve spoken with and visited are reporting that many more of their students are enrolled in flight training with the intent of pursuing flying as a career.
These commercial pilot students will require instrument flight rules (IFR) and multi-engine training that will be deemed relevant by the airlines and charter companies that will employ them after graduation. However, from what Iâ€™ve seen, the current training fleet generally does not appear well-suited for this role: many schools still operate legacy aircraft equipped with a hodgepodge of avionics.
The Old Style IFR Is No More
It used to be that most commercial IFR pilots began their flying careers as co-pilots on such twin-engine passenger props as the Piper Navajo, de Havilland Twin Otter or Beechcraft King Air, where they would become proficient shooting approaches using analogue avionics and mechanical flight instruments. Eventually, these pilots would work their way up to a Boeing 737 cockpit equipped with familiar-looking analogue flight instruments. Their transition training would generally go smoothly, as the differences in cockpit instruments were incremental.
Today, virtually all airlines operate electronic-flight-instrument-system-equipped aircraft. That means the IFR pilot skill of using a panel full of mechanical flight instruments is no longer as valued by the airlines as it once was.
Opportunities Amidst the Demand
The demand for quality flight training programs is increasing worldwide. In 2008, the International Air Transport Association stated that there is a shortage of licenced personnel around the globe: â€œTo meet projected demand in 2026, we need to train 19,000 pilots a year. The current capacity is about 16,000. If we do not act, the shortfall will be 54,000 in 2026.â€
As a result, there are real business opportunities for flight schools that are willing and able to make an investment in new technology so they can provide the type of flight training valued by operators around the globe. The number of foreign student pilots in Canada has already increased substantially over the years, to the point where they now represent a significant revenue stream for our flight training industry (see p.58, this issue).
Since most of these newly graduated foreign pilots will move on to a flight crew position with a major airline after returning home, the time spent training them to be proficient with legacy flight instruments and analogue systems is not good value to the international airlines that are ultimately sponsoring them. It just doesnâ€™t make sense to take students who grew up using computers, train them on old analogue equipment, and then send them off to work in a modern digital cockpit. Schools that can offer quality flight instruction in modern cockpits will likely win the lionâ€™s share of these new training opportunities.
The Replacement Aircraft Option
Most new light aircraft models now have glass cockpits. Among the more cost-effective options available are the Cessna 172 and Diamond DA40, which feature the ultra-modern Garmin G1000 integrated avionics suite, and the new Piper Archer, which has Garminâ€™s superb G500 flight display system (FDS). Each of these aircraft is ideal for the role of training future airline pilots, but at a capital cost in the $300,000 US range, they can be more of an investment than many schools can justify. (The less expensive Diamond DA20, offered with either the Aspen EFD1000 or the Garmin G500, is a worthy candidate, although some schools do prefer a four-place aircraft for their advanced IFR training. Plus, the DA20 is not approved for actual IFR flight, although it is fully capable for IFR training.)
The new Piper Seminole, meanwhile, is also equipped with the Garmin G500, and would make an excellent multi-engine IFR trainer. But, once again, at a capital cost starting at $600,000 US, itâ€™s beyond the reach of many schools.
The Upgraded Aircraft Option
The depressed worldwide economy has created a unique opportunity for savvy flight schools to purchase clean, low-time, mid-1990s aircraft at bargain prices. These fixed-wing ships are ideal candidates for glass-panel-system upgrades, and the avionics industry has recently introduced a flood of compelling new products to the retrofit market. As such, upgraded aircraft can now have virtually all of the operational capabilities of new aircraft, at a fraction of the cost.
Game Changing Products
Garminâ€™s 2008 introduction of the G600 FDS, followed by Aspen Avionicsâ€™ 2009 introduction of the smaller and cheaper EFD1000 system, and Garminâ€™s response to Aspen in the form of the competitively priced G500 FDS in mid-2009, represented the biggest changes to general aviation avionics since the advent of IFR GPS in the early 1990s. Each of these systems includes a solid-state attitude heading and reference system to replace traditional mechanical spinning-mass gyros, an air data computer, an electronic attitude director indicator, and an electronic horizontal situation indicator. Similar technology has commonly been installed in airline, corporate and military aircraft since the late-1980s, but it was previously far too costly for light aircraft to consider this option.
Glass Panel Trainer on a Budget
The combination of an Aspen EFD1000 Pro PFD (primary flight display) and a Garmin GNS 430W or GTN 650 GPS/nav/comm system will provide a whole lot of capability and reliability at a very reasonable cost. The EFD1000 has a list price of $9,995 US, the GTN 650 is $11,495 and the GNS 430W is $11,295. The street prices for this equipment are somewhat less (especially the GNS 430W), but the installation costs are additional. There should be few certification hassles, as these systems are pre-approved for installation into hundreds of light aircraft under approved model-list supplemental type certificates.
Deluxe Glass Panel Upgrade
The combination of a Garmin G500 and two GNS 430Ws will make a very capable and modern IFR package for almost any piston single or twin. A similar package utilizing one or possibly two Garmin G600s can be used to convert an older Beechcraft C90 King Air into a modern-twin turboprop trainer.
A large portion of the flight training industry is at somewhat of a crossroads. Their aircraft are in many cases tired and old, and those schools are having a tough time deciding what to do. They recognize the need to renew their fleets, but canâ€™t decide whether to upgrade or replace their aircraft.
In a sector where profit margins are always thin, most schools donâ€™t have a lot of ready capital and are naturally being very cautious with their business case analysis and decision-making. Those that choose to do nothing, though, will likely be left behind, because there is a genuine demand for flight training in clean, modern and well-equipped aircraft.
Daryl MacIntosh is founder and president of Maxcraft Avionics. Located at the Pitt Meadows Airport, about 35 kilometres east of Vancouver, Maxcraft is one of the largest full-service avionics shops in Canada, and provides professional avionics services to operators of all types of private and commercial aircraft, including piston, turboprops, jets and helicopters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.