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Skyborne has big plans in taking over FlightSafety Academy

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of March 25, 2021)

Skyborne Aviation will focus on attracting American students who want to work as commercial pilots for U.S.-based airlines when it takes over Vero’s largest flight training school, Skyborne chief executive officer Lee Woodward told Vero Beach 32963.

Skyborne is purchasing the faltering FlightSafety Academy, where in recent years most students came from outside the United States with many of them sponsored by airlines in their home countries.

“We’re a British company, but our plan is to make a massive effort in the U.S. market to develop U.S. pilots, especially for U.S. airlines,” Woodward said.

“We have a very airline-centric philosophy,” he added, “and we already enjoy successful working relationships with several U.S. carriers, including at least four that have expressed interest in creating pathway programs.

“With that philosophy and those relationships – along with our team of talented instructors – we want to really energize the U.S. market.”

The enthusiasm in Woodward’s voice was unmistakable throughout a 30-minute trans-Atlantic phone call on which he discussed his company’s plans to restore Vero Beach’s diminished stature in the pilot-training industry.

Skyborne, which was founded in the United Kingdom in 2018, has quickly earned an international reputation as one of the most respected commercial pilot training schools in the industry, and Woodward wants to expand that reputation and success to the U.S.

“This year is about getting the word out, promoting our brand, educating people about our track record and building confidence in our company,” Woodward said. “Then next year, when we hope to have COVID behind us, we expect to be back to normal operations.”

Besides rebranding the school as “Skyborne Aviation Academy Vero Beach,” Woodward said his company will introduce new technology and implement new training methods.

The new technology will include the use of some electric-powered airplanes. Skyborne already has purchased 10 of the trainer aircraft from Denver-based Bye Aerospace, Woodward said.

Skyborne also will install “FlightLogger,” considered to be the industry’s most innovative flight-school management software.

As for the new training methods, Woodward said they will be standardized, so that Skyborne cadets in the U.K. and U.S. will all be taught by top-shelf instructors using the same curriculum and practices.

“We are radically redefining every aspect of airline pilot training,” Woodward said, “and we’re going to rebuild pride in the academy.”

Part of that effort will be reducing the size of the student body from 500, pre-COVID, at FlightSafety to 300 or 350 to raise the quality of training.

“Our priority is getting it right, not getting it big,” Woodward said.

Woodward said he wasn’t dissing FlightSafety, which was founded in Vero Beach by Albert L. Ueltschi in 1966 and filled the cockpits of commercial airlines and corporate carriers for five decades, receiving global recognition and industry accolades before struggling in recent years.

In fact, Woodward compared FlightSafety Academy during its heyday to the flight training version of an “Ivy League school,” and he believes the facility will soar to even greater heights under Skyborne’s leadership.

“Our intention from the day we started the Skyborne Aviation Academy in the U.K. was to add a facility in the U.S., and we’ve been looking for about 2 ½ years,” Woodward said, adding that he and the company’s co-founders, Chief Operating Officer Ian Cooper and Chairman Tom Misner, considered sites in Arizona, Texas and Florida.

“While we were exploring different sites, the FlightSafety option presented itself to us last year, and we started moving in this direction,” he continued. “Ian actually trained in Vero Beach in the late 1990s as part of the British Airways program, so we are familiar with the community.

“The more we looked at the possibilities in Vero Beach, the more it made sense.”

On Feb. 16, Woodward signed a definitive agreement to purchase the Vero Beach academy. He said a confidentiality clause prevents him from revealing the exact terms of the transaction but did note the deal should be complete in May or June.

Skyborne is still acquiring “all the necessary government approvals,” he said, and working with city officials to transfer FlightSafety’s lease at the Vero Beach Regional Airport.

Once the deal is done, Skyborne will have full use of the academy’s 10-acre campus, which, along with classrooms and other training facilities, includes more than 200 recently renovated bedrooms, a swimming pool, soccer field, volleyball court, cafes and book shops.

Skyborne also will take possession of FlightSafety’s fleet of 64 aircraft, but Woodward said the company plans to incrementally replace older airplanes with new ones, including the electric-powered trainers and, possibly, some purchased from its airport neighbor, Piper Aircraft.

FlightSafety officials have declined comment on the sale, but the price likely was discounted due to recent problems at the school.

Two years ago, FlightSafety Academy surrendered its accreditation, ending a three-year struggle to comply with standards set by an organization that evaluates post-secondary vocational and technical schools.

Among the more-alarming deficiencies cited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, which placed the academy on “warning” in 2017 and then “probation” in 2018, was a failure to maintain a graduation rate of at least 50 percent for its professional pilot program.

The academy’s reported graduation rates for that program plummeted from 38 percent in July 2016 to 14 percent in July 2017 to a dismal 3 percent in February 2018.

FlightSafety Academy’s performance appeared to be improving last year – until the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, crippling the airline industry and sending many of the school’s foreign students back to their home countries.

Vero Beach Regional Airport Director Todd Scher said FlightSafety’s takeoffs and landings dropped to about one-third of their usual numbers.

Before teaming to create Skyborne, both Woodward and Cooper held executive, management and instructor positions at other successful flight schools. Combined, they have more than 50 years of experience, and Woodward said they have trained more than 7,000 pilots.

“I think what people in Vero Beach will quickly notice is that we’re a very engaging company,” Woodward said. “We enjoy a great relationship with our students, as well as with airport authorities, communities, airlines or others in the flight-training industry.

“In Vero Beach, for example, I’ve already met with the Chamber of Commerce once, and I’ll be meeting with them again in April,” he added. “We’re going to be good neighbors, using local services and businesses, and we hope to have open days when the public, especially children, can come over and see what we do.

“They can get a feel for what it’s like to be a pilot.”