Posted 7 years 67 days ago ago by Admin
It’s 0900 on a cool Tuesday morning in Shreveport, Louisiana. I have been invited to the Metro Aviation facility to learn more about the Helicopter Flight Training Center (HFTC), a fairly new addition to the Metro Aviation family. My first contact is Terry Palmer, the training center’s director. After a short period of intro’s and hand-grabbing, I can tell that she is chomping at the bit to show us around the place. Within five minutes of the grand tour, I realize two things: (1) Palmer is uber-passionate about this training business, and (2) The business model is nothing I expected.
At every single turn of our facility tour, Palmer’s like a kid on Christmas morning bursting to open her presents. Her command of the subject matter is impressive, and her enthusiasm for building this business is contagious.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
For those not familiar with Metro Aviation, HFTC’s parent company, it has two main facets to its business. First and foremost, it is an EMS helicopter operator with over 130 aircraft in operation. Second, it’s also a Part 145 maintenance, repair, and overhaul facility, as well as a helicopter completion center.
According to Palmer and Mike Stanberry, Metro’s CEO, the impetus for creating HFTC was two-fold. Twelve years ago, Metro Aviation saw value in using simulation when it began using FlightSafety simulators for certain aspects of its Part 135 training programs. Not only is simulation training less expensive, but it also reduces the risk of damaging aircraft in training. However, as Metro Aviation’s teams grew, the cost of paying retail prices for training from a variety of third-party vendors began to grow as well. So the initial idea for creating HFTC was born out of necessity. It was a way to bring both pilot training and mechanic training back in-house, allowing for cost effective improvements in quality and standardization.
In addition to having an in-house business need for training, Stanberry said that Metro was getting feedback from many of its customers. “Our customers kept telling us that we were doing a great job on the completion side of the business, and that they were sending their pilots and mechanics to the facility during the various stages of completion,” he said. “The customers asked us, ‘Why can’t you guys provide training as well?’”
A few years ago, the internal need for training its own staff crossed paths with what its customers were saying, and the lightbulb went off—HFTC was put in motion. The idea for building a training center for only Metro Aviation’s personnel was easy to understand; there was a real need for it. The alternative idea was one that I am sure made people scratch their heads. The big idea:
How can we create an extremely cost-effective training center that focuses on pilot training, mechanic training, and dispatcher training, and how can we offer it to other helicopter operators—including our competitors?
Collaboration is Key
As a successful 34-year-old business, Metro Aviation is not risk averse. The company has learned to invest wisely in things that add value to its business lines, increase customer satisfaction, and continue Metro Aviation’s role as an industry leader in safety innovation. HFTC met these criteria, and Stanberry understood that in order to get it off the ground, it would require considerable investment on its part from the standpoint of personnel, facilities, and equipment.
As an organization, the team had to decide on which types of training it should direct its focus. It decided that not only at Metro Aviation, but throughout the industry there was a real need for pilot training, mechanic training, and dispatcher (or communications) training. The next phase of the plan was much more complicated and required a high degree of creativity. Metro wanted to reduce investment risk by finding business partners for the project. The partners they had in mind were not the traditional ones of deep pockets and capital calls. Rather, they were partnerships of collaboration and unconventional vested interests.
When 2 + 2 = 5
We have all heard that synergy is 2 + 2 = 5, or the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what happened here. HFTC’s team looked out across the landscape of OEMs and service providers with a vested interest in pilot, mechanic, and dispatcher training. Some of the companies interested in participating were FlightSafety International, Flight Vector, Frasca, Golden Hour, HSI, Pratt & Whitney, Turbomeca, Xybix, and Zoll.
The idea was to have companies like these make investments in HFTC in the form of equipment, expertise, leadership, software, and services. Depending on the type of investment, in exchange as HFTC’s business grew, there would be revenue sharing and/or branding opportunities for all involved. This collaborative approach brought together dozens of bright and innovative teams with the goal of building high-quality comprehensive training programs that could be offered at extremely affordable rates.
FlightSafety International was one of the companies that participated, but it was not their first time to partner with Metro Aviation. The two companies made a collaborative effort on the first reverse engineering of an EC135 for the EC135 Level D full-motion simulator, and they are currently doing the same for the first H145 Level D simulator.
Is it working?
Currently HFTC is providing flight training in three models of aircraft, with a fourth coming online in the spring of 2016. They are also providing maintenance training on three different types of engines. Additionally, they offer a variety of aviation dispatcher training. The primary target markets for their training services are aimed at EMS, ENG, law enforcement, and corporate operations.
In addition to providing training for its company pilots and mechanics, HFTC contracts services to operators in Latin America, China, and the U.S., such as the Massachusetts State Police, Texas DPS, REACH Air Medical, and Med-Trans just to name a few. According to Palmer, HFTC’s EC135 simulator is booked 16 hours per day, seven days per week. So yes, it’s working.
I ask Palmer why HFTC is so different from other training providers? What are the benefits for operators wanting to use HFTC? Her answer: Cost and flexibility.
She explains that most simulation training providers specialize in wet lease (Part 142). They will offer you a training course with X hours of ground training and X hours of simulation time that tends to be more expensive because of FAA requirements. There is virtually no flexibility in designing a training course that meets your exact needs or budget. You can either afford it, or you cannot.
What if the client/operator wants to dry lease a helicopter simulator and provide its own company instructor to teach from its own curriculum to its own company pilots? Not only can a client do that, but HFTC can provide a short train-the-trainer program to bring the company instructor up to speed on the simulator. This business model gives HFTC clients tremendous flexibility in building the training programs they need with an opportunity to make their training dollars go much further. Stanberry says that HFTC “is the Wal-Mart of training, delivering quality products at an affordable price.” Palmer echoes that statement, saying “The Helicopter Flight Training Center’s dry-lease business model complements FlightSafety International’s full-service operation.”
Benefits for Competitors
Don’t forget that HFTC’s parent company is Metro Aviation. Their MRO and completion center finishes aircraft for LE, corporate, and EMS operators all over the country, including many of their competitors in the EMS market. Because of the connection between Metro and HFTC, completion center clients can enter into long training agreements and roll the cost of training into the initial purchase of the aircraft. This is especially beneficial to government operators who have to fight for training budgets every year. Now there’s no more fighting.
Still, one may well wonder why Metro Aviation’s competitors use their training service? One reason is that HFTC is a stand-alone company with a separate entrance from Metro Aviation, and not marketed as a Metro Aviation service. In addition, many of the training center’s customers are also Metro Aviation completion customers and are already sending pilots and mechanics to Shreveport during the aircraft completion process. Most importantly, all operators in the industry want to provide safer operations, and thereby embrace the use of simulators.
Metro Aviation’s vision for getting HFTC off the ground was creative and collaborative. It is a testament to its deep connections in the industry and a reputation for delivering on its business promises. One such connection is FRASCA International. The latest HFTC acquisition is a FRASCA Bell 407, NVG-compatible, Level 7 flight training device.
A CLOSER LOOK - THE FRASCA Bell 407 FTD
The most recent addition to HFTC’s simulator lineup is the FRASCA Level 7 Bell 407 flight training devices (FTD). There are preliminary plans to upgrade the simulator so that it can be quickly reconfigured to a Bell 407 GX. This will allow HFTC to quickly convert the aircraft from a round-gauge Bell 407 to the glass panel GX, which features the Garmin G1000 system. SimAssist™, NVG compatibility, and HeliSAS are the top three new technologies incorporated into the Bell 407 FTD.
SimAssist™ is an adaptive stability system for the pilot. It adapts to a pilot’s tendency to over-control helicopter sims in the beginning phases of training. In much the same way an instructor overrides the controls with a student learning to hover, SimAssist™ does much the same thing—without the need for an instructor. The technology helps teach proper muscle memory for hovering (since pilots usually can't tell how much instructor assistance is being provided) and tends to reduce time to proficiency or reduce iterations for certain training tasks.
NVG compatibility was a critical reason for putting the FRASCA FTD into service. There are many operators in both the EMS and LE sectors operating the Bell 407 with NVGs as part of their operational profile, including large operators like Med-Trans and REACH Air Medical. “Being able to use NVGs in the FTD was a must-have feature for this FTD to achieve maximum utilization, and FRASCA made it happen,” said HFTC Director Terry Palmer.
Looking to the future, since Level 7 is specific for helicopters, FRASCA believes that FTDs of this type will become even more valuable when/if the FAA recognizes such training with additional training credits for operators and pilots. Level 7 FTDs seem to be one of the most realistic ways to bring affordable, quality sim training to single-engine turbine ops.
Having said that, Palmer indicates that HFTC’s partnership with FRASCA thus far has been outstanding in that the Bell 407 FTD has added incredible value to the center’s training program. Furthermore, the FRASCA teams provided to the HFTC for installation and integration made the whole process one of the most seamless she has had in her career. Another example of 2 + 2 = 5!