An interview with Charlie Gregoire, President and COO of Redbird Flight Simulations
With a line of innovative, affordable and portable simulation devices, Redbird Flight Simulations has revolutionized training for general aviation pilots and flight schools around the world. We recently sat down with Charlie Gregoire, President and COO of Redbird, to talk about the history of the company, the importance of pilot proficiency, and what the future holds for simulation training.
HARTZELL: Can you tell us about the history of Redbird? How did you get started?
CHARLIE GREGOIRE: Redbird started as a conversation among pilots. In 2005, my father, Jerry Gregoire, bought a KingAir and went to train on a Full Flight Simulator for the first time. He came back and told us how disappointed he was in some of the visual aspects, especially considering the simulator’s $10+ million price tag. I had the same opinion of simulator training; the school where I did my private pilot’s license didn’t use a simulator at all, and the sim at the school where I did my instrument training didn’t have any visuals. Everyone we talked to had similarly disappointing experiences with simulators. We thought that with today’s technology, there’s got to be a way to make a full-motion flight simulator that could offer both IFR and VFR training with better visuals at a value that every flight school could afford.
We started by laying out criteria that would be necessary to get our devices implemented at local flight schools offering VFR training. We recognized two big roadblocks flight schools faced: cost and space. The average flight school is a small business operating in rented space. They didn’t have a building big enough to house a motion-enabled sim. Our device needed to be simple to operate and simple to maintain so that the flight schools didn’t need to hire a maintenance staff. So, we set out to design something that would meet those needs. What we designed was an all-electric motion platform that plugs into a standard outlet and can be carried through a standard 36-inch doorway to fit in a normal classroom or the corner of a hangar.
We built our first prototype in 2007 and brought it to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. We didn’t know what to expect. We thought that if anybody wants it, we’ll build some other ones. If not, we’ll just build it for ourselves. We came back with enough orders that we were able to fully form the company, hire our first employees, and start building. We delivered the first FMX in December 2008, and we’ve just been rolling ever since.
HARTZELL: Speaking of Oshkosh, a lot of pilots are probably familiar with Redbird through the EAA Pilot Proficiency Center (PPC) at AirVenture. How was the PPC formed?
GREGOIRE: AirVenture holds a special place in our hearts – it’s where we first unveiled our sim. The Pilot Proficiency Center really grew out of a couple of different individual programs that were going on simultaneously. The Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) approached us about a new initiative they called the Pilot Proficiency Program (PPP) which essentially made simulators and custom built scenarios available to pilots attending airshows. At the same time, Radek Wyrzykowski of IMC Clubs approached us about doing something similar for IFR proficiency training. Hartzell Propeller’s Joe Brown, who is on the safety committee of the EAA, was really instrumental in getting the partner companies together and making the PPC happen. Every year the PPC gets better. The center is free for AirVenture attendees and features 14 Redbird LD and the Redbird Xwind (crosswind) trainer. Each sim is staffed by a volunteer professional flight instructor who guides pilots of all skill levels through a pre-flight, two or three scenarios, and a debriefing. The center also features forums addressing key safety of flight issues. Pilots can earn FAA Wings credit for their simulator time and for attending the safety forums. Of course, it’s a lot of fun and the training the pilots receive in the center is valuable, but our hope is that this is not the only training pilots do throughout the year.
We really had two goals in forming the PPC. First, we wanted to offer real training. But we also wanted to highlight what is possible. After visiting the PPC, we hope that general aviation pilots see how powerful proficiency training can be and seek out ongoing training at home year-round.
HARTZELL: In your opinion, why is pilot proficiency so important?
GREGOIRE: It’s my belief that the primary reason the GA safety record is so much worse than the Part 135 and Part 121 safety records is because of the level of ongoing training. It’s also about the culture that is built around training, mostly from a regulatory standpoint. If we can take a GA pilot and make them think and train like a professional pilot and evaluate their flying skills on a regular basis, then we can make a real difference in GA safety.
Over the last five years, GA safety has been getting better and better. I certainly wouldn’t claim that it’s all due to the work we’re doing and the technology that we are bringing to market, but they are contributing factors. As an industry, we’ve gotten a lot more conscious about the importance of proficiency over the past decade or so. Technology has made training more accessible, but it’s our culture that has made it less and less acceptable to just pay lip service to the idea of training. Pilots are definitely training more, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
At the end of the day, we say that your pilot’s license is not a license to fly; it’s a license to continue to learn. We can’t confuse recency with proficiency, or currency with proficiency. Following FAA regulations for currency does not alone make you a safe pilot. It takes ongoing training to be the best pilot you can be, and it’s our goal at Redbird to make that training more accessible. Every pilot starts out as a student…great pilots never stop being one.
HARTZELL: One great benefit of simulation is the opportunity to practice maneuvers in a low-risk environment. How has Redbird made scenario-based type training available to general aviation pilots?
GREGOIRE: I think there are several sources of friction that prevent pilots from practicing specific maneuvers that they need to work on. One is that pilots typically have a “type A” personality. We don’t like to be proven wrong or look like a fool – no one really does. Unfortunately, in many cases, a pilot who doesn’t have a regulatory need to practice a specific maneuver will probably not practice it because they would have to actually go to an instructor and admit that they’re having trouble. We thought that if we can build devices and develop training scenarios that can allow a pilot to hop in a sim and train by themselves in a very low-judgment environment, they’ll be more willing to practice and improve in the areas where they’re struggling.
Another source of friction is time. As a pilot, it’s hard for me to find the time to get out to the airplane and fly as much as I should be. If you don’t fly professionally, there’s a lot that can get in the way and before you know it, you can fall behind. But, if you have a simulator in the corner of your house or home office, you can train for a few minutes a day and continue to keep your skills sharp
HARTZELL: Along with products made for flight schools and individuals, Redbird has also partnered with industry leaders to create new devices based on specific types of aircraft. Can you tell us about a few of these custom projects?
GREGOIRE: We have a lot of fun doing smaller custom projects. Recently, we partnered with Wipaire and Tropic Ocean Airways in an effort to modernize floatplane training. We customized our full-motion CRV training device to include an amphibious float kit designed and manufactured by Wipaire. We also built one of the only trainers for agricultural flying in conjunction with Thrush Aircraft. They saw the need to train pilots accurately in all aspects of agricultural aviation, including precise, safe application. We have also designed and built custom simulators modeled after classic warbirds for the Warbirds Youth Education Center at AirVenture. We’ve built custom sims modeled after a Vought F4U Corsair, a P-40 Warhawk, and a P-51 Mustang .
HARTZELL: There’s been a lot of discussion about the pilot shortage and what the aviation industry can do to get the next generation of pilots interested and inspired in aviation. What is Redbird doing to combat this issue and spark an interest in STEM and aviation among today’s youth?
GREGOIRE: There’s truly no better framework that encompasses so much of the STEM field than aviation. There’s so much you can cover in an interesting, applied way. When we considered the pilot shortage and looked at what we could do to help this industry grow and add more pilots, we saw flight simulation as a perfect avenue to teach STEM topics.
A few years ago, we started seeing some of our larger devices adopted by museums and schools. One school purchased our desktop devices but didn’t know how to use them, because there was no curriculum and no aviation professionals on their staff. We quickly realized that if we wanted to make a difference in the K-12 education sector, it was no longer enough to just be a hardware vendor. We needed to also provide them with the tools they need so the teachers can be successful in the classroom. Now, we’re actually building curriculum and lesson plans for schools that pair with our simulators.
As an industry, we all need to support STEM education efforts in schools. These efforts are going to pay off whether it’s to grow participation in our industry, or just raising these young people up to be productive members of society with a really good grounding in the ideas of STEM for whatever field they go into. If they end up moving into the aviation sector as a pilot or aeronautical engineer, they will have a grounding in what flight is all about. We’re helping to plant a seed, not only for the excitement and joy that they can get out of aviation but also about the power of technology and the need for discipline and ongoing training. It’s about more than teaching aviation, it’s about building character as well.
HARTZELL: Much like Hartzell Propeller, Redbird is a company with deep roots in aviation. Are many of your employees also pilots?
GREGOIRE: I am a pilot myself, and so are a few of Redbird’s co-founders, but all of our employees are passionate about aviation and passionate about what we do. One unique benefit we offer our employees is that the company will pay for them to earn their private pilot license or sport pilot license, whichever they prefer. After they become a licensed pilot, we offer a yearly flight stipend to all our employees. The way we look at it is that if you’re an actual pilot, you’re going to make a better simulator. It doesn’t matter what job you’re doing, whether you’re out on the factory floor assembling rudder pedals or writing software or designing PCB’s – if you’re invested in aviation you’re going to make a better product. It’s also part of our dedication to grow the pilot population. We’re a company of 60 people, but we’d like all of them to be pilots.
HARTZELL: Redbird has expanded its offerings quite a bit since the very beginning. What’s next?
GREGOIRE: In just over 10 years, we’ve built a company that employs over 60 people and serves customers in nearly 60 countries and every continent, except Antarctica. I’ve often joked that I’m going to airdrop one of our desktop simulators so that we can say we serve Antarctica too [laughs].
Looking to the future, one of the areas we’re focusing on most is building our STEM programs. The idea is to build a STEM curriculum that a middle school or high school can implement without having aviation professionals involved and without having aircraft. That’s what we’re investing heavily in right now because we believe that flight simulation is a valuable tool for igniting the passion for flight and inspiring our next generation of aerospace leaders.