Would-be pilots pace themselves with this one-on-one flight training curriculum writes Rona Gindin.
Like all flight trainers, Cirrus Aircraft has a system – a protocol for teaching aviation newcomers how to fly aircraft. At Cirrus, though, the system plays out differently every single time.
Cirrus flight-trains about 30 PPL customers and employees a year, and over 1,300 more in other programs. The curriculum is customized. Would-be pilots can complete the program with a PPL license in 30 half days – ideally within three months or six. Few take longer, as trainers intervene when students lag.
In the end, all new pilots will learn the same information, be tested thoroughly, and complete at least 40 flight hours plus 10 hours of simulator training before receiving a PPL license. More advanced IR and CPL are also available. The road forward takes the path each wannabe flyer dictates.
Then again, the Cirrus package does a whole lot differently than other flight training operations. That’s in large part because the company’s educational arm is tied into a multi-pronged range of products and services that company insiders refer to as an ecosystem: “Our perfect customer is somebody who’s new to aviation, learns to fly in the airplane and buys that airplane from us,” says Jonah Santom, Managing Director of the Kissimmee/Orlando Service Center, Florida. “And now we say, ‘Hey, by the way, we can help you manage this airplane. You store it with us. We maintain it, and you can continue to utilize pilot services.”
A new 12-acre Orlando-area campus is in the works, and in the meantime new facilities at Orlando Executive Airport and the nearby Kissimmee Gateway Airport team up to offer these services along with others under the management program Cirrus One: ensuring that an owner’s logbooks and databases are kept up properly; scheduling, including changes due to bad weather; cleaning the interior and exterior; and updating routine avionics such as the FAA-required monthly NAB update of maps, charts, new airport towers and more.
The goal is to be a one-stop shop. “How do we get more people into aviation?” Santom poses. “How do we break down the barriers?”
The Cirrus Flight Training program, he says, is designed to ease newcomers into owning the exact plane they’ll be flying, often the four-passenger single-engine piston SR22 with its iconic CAPS built-in parachute system. “We’re educating you on so much more than just flying a plane,” Santom says. “We’re educating you on what it means to be an owner. Plane owners often don’t realize how much work is involved with owning an airplane,” Santom adds. “We will actually do the work for them so they can enjoy the asset without the headaches that come along with it. This is a lifestyle brand. From a training standpoint, we show you how to enable that lifestyle.”
How Cirrus Training Evolved
The Cirrus in-house flight-training program is “stringent but flexible,” says Earnest “Nigel” Beaulieu, Director of Flight Operations in Florida.
It has evolved into its current state since its debut in 2013. “We wanted to control the customer experience,” says Beaulieu. Online learning was surging at that time, so Cirrus placed its learning materials on a website, where students could review the coursework before showing up in person. Videos are still a key part of the Learning Management System, or LMS: Cirrus Approach.
Cirrus had a whole lot of people to practice on since, in 2010, the company invited all employees – any job, any level, from assembly line workers to VPs – to take flight-training classes to get their pilot license and ratings. Then and now, the fee is subsidized and therefore far less than they’d pay outside the Cirrus confines – generally under $5,000, and participants can use Cirrus aircraft to train. Cirrus calls this program for employees with no piloting experience the Cirrus Flying Club.
Participants can also take a Cirrus aircraft for personal trips for one to two days. From Day 1, the Flying Club has had three benefits: It attracts staffers who want to learn to fly; it provides a willing pool of people for testing new training elements; and it builds a team loaded with licensed flyers, which is good for customer relations. Staffers who fly can talk shop, so to speak, with customers. “We’re in a relationship business,” Santom says. “Now many employees have experienced what the customers are talking about.”
The Cirrus Program Today
By 2018, the company’s flight training segment grew into Cirrus Flight Training, which is now done in Scottsdale, Arizona; McKinney, Texas; and the Orlando Executive Airport. (The other new Orlando-area facility handles maintenance and management for SR Series and the Vision Jet.)
At its core, Cirrus Flight Training is built around 20 four-hour blocks of training. That involves a mix of textbook components, interactive online instruction, 10 hours of simulator practice, and 40 to 50 hours in the airplane.
The Cirrus program is a blend of coddling and serious education. Before students even show up at a Cirrus campus, they receive a phone call. They’re asked to share their aspirations about why they want to become a pilot. They’re invited to visit and take a discovery flight – before paying. On that flight, they’re taken somewhere appropriate – maybe to the beach, if they like that, or to a city where they run a business. During that visit, they’re shown what the aircraft is capable of, given a tour of the facility, and introduced to instructors.
And because they’re going to ask, the Cirrus team addresses the big questions. “You're going to ask us, ‘How much does it cost?’” Beaulieu says. “’How long does it take? What does the syllabus look like? What is my effort?’” Cirrus has answers. “Through the Flying Club, we were able to test our assumptions and revise the information,” Beaulieu says. “So now, when we work with customers, we have a very straightforward, hand-holding, worry-free system that can make you a PPL pilot.”
Once they’re enrolled, students are embraced as part of a family. “We try to build a community around them,” Beaulieu says. “Do they feel welcome? We genuinely care about their success.”
To start, newbies are shown how to download and log into Cirrus Approach so they can see what the educational materials look like. “It shows you how to fly our airplanes. It shows you how all our systems operate. It talks about emergency procedures and how the CAP system works, because that can be a little intimidating,” says Beaulieu. The faster a student completes the course, the less money it will cost, so trainers urge students to show up often and study at home as much as possible.
From there on, each student works one-on-one with an instructor through the structured curriculum, which has a clear way to track progress. Only 20% of (non-Cirrus) PPL trainees nationally complete their training, Beaulieu says, in large part because they “can’t see the finish line.” He explains, “They're spending all this money, but they don't know where they are in the program.” Other issues are lack of both feedback and positive reinforcement. The Cirrus plan informs trainees regularly about what they’re doing well and what they need to improve, and gives them clear guidance on how to keep on track.
Some start early by logging into learning.cirrusapproach.com and learning before they arrive for on-site training. The material is broken up. “Aviation can be intimidating because there’s so much you need to learn,” Beaulieu recognizes. “We’re not going to dump a whole bunch on you on Day 1. One of our first goals is to get students comfortable with us as teachers and get them comfortable in the airplane and find easy wins and have some fun.”
On Day 1 of in-person training, students talk with their instructors, fill out administrative paperwork, and immediately go into the airplane to taxi and fly. Upon returning, they debrief with their instructor and discuss what went well and what didn’t.
The learning materials are a mix of strategically selected hardware and software. “We’ve got tools that make learning easier and more comfortable,” Jonah says. Much of that involves the AATD flight simulator by Nobel, running X-plane; it’s a three-screen virtual replica of the cockpit and flight environment. It’s quick and simple to try a task repeatedly on the simulator, especially something like handling an emergency. “We can train you on how to read the instruments and how to make a flight plan, how to switch on your radio, how to use autopilot, and what the ergonomics of the cockpit are like,” Beaulieu says.
“While nothing replaces an actual aircraft for hands-on experience,” Beaulieu continues, “the simulator’s auxiliary training is crucial. We can simulate in-flight emergencies and you can practice them.” In the end, he says, “You’re a really competent pilot because you understand how to troubleshoot. You understand the procedures on how to identify a sticky situation and get yourself out of it.”
The simulator offers fear-free practice, Santom emphasizes. “You’re learning to understand the system while you’re not in the air,” he says. “You’re not worried about getting into dangerous situations. You can work through all the features.” Students can sit at the simulator as long as they’d like, for no extra cost, practicing until they master all the tasks necessary.
As for flying the plane, students are urged to take at least two flight lessons a week. “If you don’t do that at a minimum, you’ll probably never get it done,” Beaulieu says, noting that it’s easiest to learn and remember information when exposed repeatedly.
“If you're flying once every couple of weeks, you're almost having to relearn every time you get in the airplane,” Santom adds. “Consistency is really going to be the catalyst for your success in getting it done quickly. On top of that, it's the commitment outside of your time with us, what you do at home, that's going to speed up that process.”
So how long does it take to go from zero to certified? Ideally 30 lessons, sometimes up to 40. The team insists on two lessons a week and strongly urges local customers into a thrice-a-week schedule or more. Out-of-towners often train daily since they’re likely paying for lodging.
Three Training Stages
The first stage, pre-solo, is an even split between educational resources, the simulator and flight time. “We’re trying to get you to be proficient in the plane, just to go around a couple loops three times and land,” Beaulieu says. That involves studying, and practicing on the simulator, as well as flying with an instructor and a written test. “We're just focusing on what it takes to get you to fly solo and be safe.”
The second phase, pre-solo cross-country, is geared toward flying to another airport, so it involves more ground instruction, simulation and flight time. “Now we're just focused on more technical stuff,” Beaulieu says. “You do your first flight to another airport and back, where you’re assessed. The instructor will see if you’re strong or weak in ergonomics, book knowledge, and specific flight skills.”
In the third phase, “We start tailoring so you know what you need for a successful checkride.” Using ground, flight and/or simulator training, instructors tailor their teaching to the student’s strengths and weaknesses until the newcomer is a well-rounded pilot in all areas (knowledge, airmanship, and Aeronautical Decision Making). At the end, students take a written test. Once that’s complete, all efforts are aimed at the “checkride” that allows you to fly alone per the FAA’s minimum requirements: learning all it takes to pass oral and flight tests. The carrot? The Private Pilot License.
Who Is Teaching?
Cirrus looks at soft skills as well as advanced experience when selecting flight instructors. “Technical aptitude is important, but we’re looking for more than that – somebody who has the soft skills to work well with various personalities,” Santom says. “I can teach you a system, but I can’t teach you customer service.”
Cirrus also requires more from instructors than the FAA does. Each must have at least 1,000 hours of dual instruction given and 250 hours in type (in the actual airplane) so they have a strong foundation of knowledge, Santom says. With all that experience, they are likely to have handled high-pressure situations, and be accustomed to working with different learning styles, personalities and approaches. All instructors hold at least the two main instructor rating sets – certified flight instructor and certified flight instructor instrument. Each goes through an in-depth Indoc so they’re “personally comfortable in the product to handle a customer in an emergency situation,” says Beaulieu.
Cirrus instructors also enroll in recurrent training that is more stringent than the FAA requirements in Part 91, and geared more toward the airlines’ way of doing recurrent training. These instructors re-train every six months and are re-introduced to how to handle emergencies.