The 71-year-old training company has a new leadership team and headquarters. Robert W. Moorman explores recent changes to the house that Ueltschi built and Buffett bought.
FlightSafety International (FSI) remains a leading training solutions provider, serving the civil and military aviation sectors. But there are a few changes afoot. Not least of which is a change of address. Since its founding in 1951, FSI had been headquartered in the Marine Air Terminal at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. In July 2021, the company announced it would relocate its headquarters to Columbus, Ohio, alongside aircraft fractional ownership company NetJets. Both are wholly owned subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway, led by investing legend Warren Buffett, which acquired FlightSafety in 1996 from founder A.L. Ueltschi for US $1.5 billion and Executive Aviation (NetJets) in 1998 for about half as much.
FlightSafety seems to have settled in to an almost wholly new management team after some uncertainty following the 2018 death at age 85 of Bruce Whitman, President from 2003.
After a short-term stint of Co-CEOs, David Davenport and Ray Johns, then Davenport as CEO/President-Commercial and Johns as President-Government and Manufacturing, the company in February 2020 brought in Brad Thress, a 27-year veteran of Textron Aviation.
FSI leadership now has a decidedly business aviation flavor with Thress, one-time Cessna SVP; Michael Vercio, SVP Simulation Systems, also Textron as GM of Able Aerospace and McCauley Propeller System; Kelly Reich, SVP Strategic Operations, from Honda Aircraft Company; plus Richard Meikle, EVP Safety and Regulatory Compliance, EVP Sales and Marketing Nathan Speiser, and Mindy Drummond, Chief Administrative Officer, all of whom moved over from NetJets.
Other new blood includes FSI Defense President Daniel Davis (Lockheed Martin, Cornerstone Consulting) and EVP General Counsel Marie Batz Martin (Dentons Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh).
Brian Moore, SVO Operations, and Rich High, President and CEO of FlightSafety Textron Aviation Training, are the only holdovers from the previous FSI leadership group.
John Frasca, President of Urbana, Illinois-based Frasca International, which FSI acquired at the end of 2021, rounds out top management. The Frasca acquisition formalized a partnership between the two companies that dated back six decades with the friendship between the founders of Frasca and FSI, Rudy Frasca and Ueltschi.
The Frasca acquisition made good business sense. FSI has years of experience in producing Level D full-flight simulators and training pilots for business aircraft and commercial airliners, while Frasca’s forte is building flight training devices for general aviation aircraft, ab initio flight training schools and airlines. Amalgamating both into one unit sets the stage for a larger full service, global provider of training products.
FSI today provides training for pilots, aircraft maintenance technicians and others from 167 countries and independent territories, with an enormous fleet of FFSs and FTDs at training centers worldwide. FSI has 30 active training centers plus satellite locations worldwide and is gearing up to produce new training solutions at its Broken Arrow, Oklahoma manufacturing center to fill the growing demand.
BizAv, Regionals, Defense
CAT magazine interviewed Thress and other senior team members recently on a range of subjects. While their responses were, shall we say, somewhat guarded, the principals indicated the company is evolving on various fronts.
“Our biggest source of business remains business aviation,” said Thress. “That is very strong for us now, driving double-digit growth across our civil training revenues.”
"We need to build significantly more regional airline simulators to fulfill demand."
He added: “The second biggest piece of our civil business is regional airlines, which has rebounded very nicely. We are growing at such a pace that we need to build significantly more regional airline simulators to fulfill demand.”
The defense training business is growing as well, Thress noted. The primary source of military business revolves around the US Air Force’s C-17 and KC-46 tanker aircraft.
The company is also making inroads with the helicopter sector. In September 2020, FSI won a contract to provide TH-73A Aircrew Training Services (ATS) in support of the Advanced Helicopter Training System. FSI is supporting efforts of the Naval Air Systems Command and Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division. FSI/Frasca is providing Contractor Instructional Services (CIS) on 18 Level 6 and 7 flight simulation training devices, image generators, visual databases, projectors and two central control stations. FSI manages and maintains the training devices.
Thress said FSI hopes to penetrate the “unmet, yet undefined” virtual reality business with the military, adding that the company is actively engaged with experimentation development in VR. On the civil side, FSI has for years developed virtual- and mixed-reality capabilities.
FSI’s chief put growth of FSI’s defense sector in perspective: “It is not like we’re going to acquire a defense business. Our growth in defense will be a series of baby steps as we slowly grow the aggregate of our business.”
An example of how FSI is expanding its military business through technology is the development of the Evolution 360 simulator display system. The system provides a 360-degree horizontal, 135-degree vertical field of view and is considered an effective training tool for specialized training in fighter aircraft, tactical rotorcraft and other aircraft types requiring a wraparound view.
The growth of FSI has been steady since its inception in the 1950s, but not without missteps. The company’s attempt to operate a shuttle in the 1990s between New York airports and Manhattan failed almost immediately (eVTOL aspirants, take note). So too, did its foray to move outside of aviation, in training nuclear power and maritime bridge officers. UPS contracted FSI to train pilots of UPS’ new aviation division, but that plan was cancelled.
FSI’s Vero Beach Flight Academy did well for a while, providing ab initio pilot training for international airlines mostly. But then the school’s graduation rates in 2016 and 2017 plummeted. The school lost its accreditation in August 2019 for two years, then regained it. But then the pandemic hit, leading to the sale in 2021 to Skyborne Aviation, a UK-based flight school.
Airline, Cadet & eVTOL Training?
Much has been written on major airlines forming or enhancing their own pilot training academies in light of the projected pilot shortage. Which begs the question: Will FSI tap into the airline pilot training business?
“That’s an interesting question for us,” said Thress. “The primary customers in that business (major airlines) do their own training and buy and own their own simulators. We’ve found this to be a crowded space. We’ve built a couple of 737 MAX and A320 neo simulators. But this will be a niche market for us.”
While not training major airline-bound pilots, FSI is selling training solutions for ab initio instruction. The United Aviate Academy, a unit of United Airlines, ordered seven Frasca flight simulators as part of its expanding training program. The devices include five Cirrus SR20 Advanced Aviation Training Devices (AATDs) and two Piper Seminole AATDs. Five of the AATDs will have 220-degree wraparound visual displays.
"We're investing in flight education as we train the next generation of United Airlines pilots, who are the future of our airline," said Bryan Quigley, Senior Vice President for Flight Operations for United Airlines.
While the majors are not part of its strategic growth plan, FSI is “capitalizing” on new Low-Cost Carriers coming into the market, such as Breeze Airways. Which Thress described as a “good fit for us.” In October 2021, FSI was selected by Breeze to provide Airbus A220 and Embraer E190 FFSs and FTDs. FSI will also maintain the devices for the LCC.
"eVTOL and eCTOL. It reminds me of the auto industry at the turn of the century with numerous automobile manufacturers."
Another area in which FSI sees growth potential is the eVTOL and eCTOL sectors. “It is an extraordinarily dynamic space now,” said Thress. “It reminds me of the auto industry at the turn of the century with numerous automobile manufacturers.”
In February, NetJets announced plans to add up to 150 Lilium eVTOL jets to its fleet; it will likely operate the aircraft in central and south Florida and elsewhere. FSI will provide pilot and maintainer training services for the Lilium Jet. The six-passenger, battery-powered Lilium Jet has 162 nm range and cruise speed of 151 kts. The aircraft is equipped with a wing-mounted, ducted-fan propulsion system.
FSI and Frasca continue to provide training aids for Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, Bombardier, Cessna, Eurocopter, Gulfstream, Piaggio Aero and other aircraft.
A New ‘Green’ Level D
FSI’s simulations systems expert Vercio said FlightSafety is beefing up its research and development unit, including a new Level D simulator in production that is slated for delivery in late 2022.
“Our next Level D simulator is a much more green machine,” said Vercio. “It takes far less power than previous full-motion simulators.”
The device will provide a 40%+ reduction in power requirements. The new sim increases the operating temperature of the simulator by more than 125%, yet reduces the amount of heat generated by more than 40%. The new sim also reduces the footprint of simulator attachments.
As part of its growth plan, FSI is considering a whole host of new technologies for training. “Our customers have asked for biometrics and various improvements in air traffic control capabilities.”
In October 2021, FSI and GE Digital, a software provider with safety analytics expertise, launched a partnership that uses flight data to reduce flight risks through training. GE Digital provides data-driven C-FOQA (Corporate Flight Operations Quality Assurance) analysis to FSI, which uses the information to enhance training and ensure pilots know of potential threats in advance. More than 300 operators and 1,000-plus aircraft are part of the GE Digital C-FOQA community.
In March 2020, GE Aviation announced the integration of C-FOQA with Polaris Aero’s safety management system – Vector SMS.
Frasca will have a larger role under the FSI banner. Frasca’s founder was a flight instructor for the US Navy, which built the company’s first flight simulator in his garage. Ueltschi was a pilot for Pan American World Airways and personal pilot for Pan Am Founder Juan Tripp.
Frasca will continue operating under the Frasca International name and will retain ownership of Frasca Field in Urbana.
John Frasca, was asked how the ab initio division would evolve under the FSI umbrella: “We want to change as little as possible, but we also want to take advantage of things not available to us in the past,” he said. “The product base and technologies today are much better. Some of these technologies can float down to us.”
Push for Diversity & STEAM
Diversity in pilot and AMT training has become increasingly important to major and regional airlines, business aviation and independent training schools. FSI is working closely with high schools, colleges and universities on opening up programs to women and minorities.
“This is an important, essential part of our business,” said Thress, adding that it is the right thing to do. And with the pilot and AMT shortage, these job slots are becoming available. “More needs to be done and diversity is part of it,” said Thress.
According to the US Department of Labor, 94% of commercial pilots and flight engineers are white, 3.4% are Black, 5% are Latinx and 2.2% are Asian. The total number of female pilots is 5.6%, with fewer than 1% being Black women.
In January 2022, FSI and NetJets jointly pledged $225,000 to the nonprofit Ohio Air & Space Hall of Fame and Learning Center (OAS). OAS is involved in a multi-million dollar fundraising campaign to renovate the original Port Columbus air terminal and tower into its home.
The joint gift unlocks a $550,000 state matching grant that allows OAS to begin construction of phase one of its plan, which includes the renovation of the 1920s-era 12,000-square-foot, three-story structure center at the southeast corner of John Glenn International Airport (CMH).
When completed, the OAS Center will feature two FSI flight simulator stations. One station will be open to the public. The second station will serve the aviation-themed Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (AvSTEAM) youth center on the second floor of the OAS. FSI will assist in the operation of the simulators.
In March, FSI pledged its financial support to the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) for naming rights to the SAFECON National Championship. NIFA is a forum where collegiate pilots can expand their studies beyond the college curriculum. More than 80 colleges and universities compete in NIFA’s regional and national competitions.
“We look forward to supporting students’ passion for aviation through this partnership and further promoting the many exciting career paths available,” said Nate Speiser.
FSI is also developing a partnership with the RedTail Flight Academy, based at the Stewart International Airport (SWF) in New Windsor, NY. Founded by a group of volunteer aviators, the Academy’s name was chosen to honor the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were part of the all-African American 332nd Fighter Group in World War 2.
FSI has committed to a “substantial donation” to RedTail, said USAF Lt. Col. (Ret.) Glendon Fraser, former Executive Director of the school and a 36-year pilot for United Airlines. Efforts by major airlines to enhance diversity in the cockpit are laudable, said Fraser. But more needs to be done.
The 332nd were known for protecting bombers during missions. Bomber crews would ask for the 332nd specifically because of their flying and air fighting skills. Famous Tuskegee aviators include Generals Benjamin O. Davis and Chappie James, Jr.; James, a USAF fighter pilot, was the first African American to reach the rank of four-star general.
Quality and Safety Mindset
In addition to seeking growth opportunities, FSI today embraces a new mindset in the delivery of training services that emphasizes quality over quantity and safety over speed and cost.
“We need to get away from this mindset that training is a regulatory event that may or may not include safety elements,” said Richard Meikle. “Training is a safety event that will meet the regulatory requirements in the process.”
“We don’t want to be the fastest. We want to be the best.”
Meikle said some trainer providers promise to deliver pilot training “faster and cheaper than anyone else,” he said. “We don’t want to be the fastest. We want to be the best.”
He reminded: “Safety is expensive until you need it. And then you will pay anything for it.”
As for Thress’ leadership style, he is likely to embrace a conservative, yet steady growth strategy, with new ideas and a more modern way of managing the company, according to those who know his history. Uelstchi, who died in 2012, and is considered by many to be the father of modern flight training, would likely be pleased that his house is in good hands.