Courting the cross-over effect

While out and about recently I saw something that left an impression on me. It was a line of sports cars and a Formula racer parked right there on the ramp in Sebring, Florida. They were bright red and carried names like Porsche and Mazda. Their engines had the ability to put out significantly more horsepower than the light airplanes I typically fly.

Just a short distance away there was a steady parade of these very same cars screaming around the racetrack, sliding through the corners, accelerating hard in the straights, and making enough noise to attract the attention of anyone standing within a few hundred yards.

Even with the whine of a turbine engine spooling up to push a corporate jet down the taxiway, the sound of pistons pumping furiously away as the power they produced was transferred to rubber, which in turn transferred to asphalt, which in turn propelled another blazing streak of metal forward down the track.

I mention this because Skip Barber’s Racing School is based in Sebring, Florida. It’s located right next to the airport. Barber’s also got bases of operation at racetracks in Connecticut, California, Wisconsin, and Georgia. That should be good news for those of us in the aviation business. It should be, but are we making the most of the potential to be found there?

There aren’t really that many similarities between the cars zipping around the track and the airplanes most of us have access to at the local airport. But there is an important connection to be made between the two, if we choose to make it.

I was in Sebring for the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo, an annual event I truly enjoy. It’s been growing in recent years and that encourages me.

But this year more than any other I noticed something that really caught my eye. Each day when I wandered anywhere near the racetrack I saw a smattering of Expo attendees standing at the fence-line watching those cars whiz around the track.

It occurred to me that the aviation audience and the high performance car audience is potentially made up of the same pool of people. We like a challenge, we like the perception of speed. We enjoy machinery and get a charge out of understanding it and learning how to master it. We’re adventurous.

All this solidified in my brain as I looked over that line of bright red cars parked on the ramp at Sebring. That’s right. The organizers of the Expo and the management of Skip Barber’s had apparently come to the same conclusion I had. Of course they got to the idea first. But that’s beside the point. They saw a connection, they did something about it, and it’s at least possible that they’ve opened a door that was ready to be opened.

Driving racing cars isn’t cheap. But like flying, it’s not entirely inaccessible either. Programs at Skip Barber’s start as low as $800 for a one day safety and survival school. That price is perfectly understandable to pilots who have experienced the cost of flight training and practical tests. More importantly, it’s a price that identifies customers who are willing to pay a premium price in exchange for a premium experience. Is it at least possible that car fans might be as interested in aviation as aviation fans are in cars?

And does Skip Barber’s course selection give us additional guidance? The students that take one, two, and three-day courses with Barber’s are not professional race car drivers. They’re likely not race car drivers at all, or they’re hobbyists who have dreams of stepping up their game. Might that teach us something about how to revitalize aviation?

Perhaps we should take a page from their book and relax our efforts to turn everyone who walks through the FBO door into a new pilot. Perhaps it would be more advantageous if we focused on turning them into aviation enthusiasts.

It’s likely a wide selection of the population would be interested in taking a discovery flight if they didn’t feel pressured to part with thousands of dollars in flight lessons as a result.

What I’m suggesting is rebranding the discovery flight. Call it an aircraft survival course. Call it a primary piloting experience. Call it Phase I Training and welcome casual customers with welcome arms.

It doesn’t matter what name you hang on it. What matters is that it becomes a stand-alone product that does’t make the customer feel like completing the flight but not going any further is a failure of some sort.

Rather than making them feel regret for not becoming a pilot, why don’t we make them feel jubilant for having taken the controls of an airplane and run it around the sky for 15 minutes, or half an hour, or longer?

Let’s change their reaction to a celebratory, “I did it!” That’s a whole lot more appealing than the current method that has them leaving the airport to tell their friends, “Yeah, I did it, but I couldn’t afford to finish the whole course.”


  1. says

    I have personally completed the “crossover” After spending some 40 yrs as a race car driver I was looking for new adventures as my body cried enough of clambering in and out of race cars…and the younger drivers got faster and I got slower ! So I decided to pursue my life long passion of becoming a the age of 64 I achieved my goal of becoming a Private Pilot.

    • Leonard Nolden says

      WOW, thought I might be a little unique as the day I was signed off as a private pilot I was 60 years and 3 months old.

  2. says

    The Discovery Flight? – it’s ALWAYS been a “stand alone product”!
    Just ask ANY flight school just how many “Discovery Flights” have:
    1. Resulted in a student signing up for a LSA/Private License course?
    2. ” ” COMPLETING ” ” ”

    The so called Discovery Flight does NOT provide an ample experience (less than 1 hr?) for any potential student/customer to make the decision to COMMIT to 4-10 months (average?) of training and at a cost $3-11K to certification, be it LSA or Private.

    What might: How about this in the alternative – “Try Your Wings”!
    1. 4 hrs of flight instruction – PLUS 1/2 briefing/debriefing each lesson?
    2. Basic flight manual (not to over whelming) and pilot log book
    3. Cost will vary region to region – but generally in the $500-800 range
    This is presented to the SERIOUS prospect as a “qualifier”. They commit to this – THEIR very serious!

    PRESENTATION – (to prospect): “Since you seem to be quite serious and to help you determine IF flying is for you, we SUGGEST (soft sell) trying the TYW program. This will give you a broader idea of what you can expect in the course, but more over, if you enjoy this, and I know you will, AND feel confident, you’ll have no problem accomplishing the material ahead.
    And in about another 12-16 hrs, OUR average, you’ll be ready to solo and nearly 1/2 or 1/3 the way in getting your license”!

    RESULT: (end of 4th hr of instruction)
    1. The “student” has gained confidence they CAN do this, thus resulting in the MOTIVATION to continue; the more they get into (flight hours) the more confident and skilled they become; certificate completion – high probably!

    Discovery Flight VS “Try Your Wings”

    1. The Discovery Flight often becomes an ALERNATIVE to the beach, amusement park ride or “something else to do” this weekend. Lets say your flight school “sells” 10 Discovery Flights and 10 TYW programs; which one do you think will RESULT in a serious committed student who will complete the course?
    2. The person whose “invested” in $500-800 right “off the bat”, you can bet has every INTENTION of license completion
    3. Income to the flight school; $50-99 or $500-800 per prospect?

    This IS “$elling” – NOT just “spreading the gospel – unless your NOT interested in improving your bottom line!

    • says

      It seems that Rod is about 20 years + ahead of this discussion.

      The problem? Most in the flight training school staff thinks selling is below their status, so the presentation lacks, and so does getting the prospect to sign up for lessons. How to overcome this? A program that gets the student started, at a set price that makes the decision easy. By signing up someone for a specified “program”, it makes the commitment more real, and is a way to get people started without having to sell…a weakness in the industry.

      My take after flight instructing for 3 years and 1,500 + hours, is that the Discovery Flight is an alternative to the carnival. How many really make the decision based on a discovery flight? Not many. Either they want to learn how to fly, so lets get started, or they want a roller coaster ride (say thrill) for 25 minutes, and you have a loss leader that didn’t work!

  3. Ed Watson says

    Also, a sign on the chain link noting that the local EAA is a good place to get more info, see small planes up close and personal and even get a free ride. Include the local EAA chapters and directions thereto. Chapter 14 at Brown Field in San Diego is VERY active in the Young Eagles program and is anxious to meet and encourage youngsters into the aviation world.

  4. Mike says

    I agree, Jamie. There’s a definite crossover possibility. I myself am a former racer, first motorcycles then 4-wheels, before becoming a pilot. As you mention, much the same pool of people would/have an interest in each for the reasons you mention plus a few more reasons.

    But the ‘Discovery Flight’, at least as our local FBO does it, could be re-labeled a ‘Discourage Flight’. First off, they don’t really promote it to the general public, no advertising, etc. Second, they try to make it a money-maker instead of an interest-generator. It’s 30 minutes and the flight instructors are told to make sure it’s no more than 30 minutes — and that’s Hobbs time — and the price is higher on a per minute basis than a 1 hour lesson. What happens is after start-up time, taxi time, run-up time, etc. the actual flying time isn’t much and certainly tends to leave the prospective aviator with the impression of high cost — more than one has told me that. A few months ago I asked one after he was done how he liked it: he said it was great EXCEPT it was expensive for what seemed like a take-off followed by a landing.

    My opinion is a ‘Discovery Flight’ should be priced as low as reasonably possible, should be long enough to give them more than a few minutes on the controls, should be long enough to show them some sights from the perspective of above such as their house, a river, etc., long enough for them to really wet their appetites. It should not be treated as a ho-hum business transaction. It’s correct, most are wives buying it for their husbands, or parents buying it for their child — they are excited about it, it’s a big deal to them, the goal should be that when they leave even more excited about it than when they walked in.

    My 2 cents.

    • says

      Mike; Your “2 cents”- you got it! The “2 cent Discovery Flight” – sign up now before the flight school files for Chapter 7!

      (West/East/North/South Podunk)
      When it was announced the “Liberal Flying School” had filed
      for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 7, as a “gesture of
      good faith” to the community, nearly 1,000 residents, some as
      young as 3 months old, to take advantage of the “2 cent Discovery
      Flight” invaded the small municipal airport.
      Four local and county law enforcement agencies had to be called
      in to control the over whelming crowd. An unidentified man, about
      60, homeless and unemployed, said a kind women gave him a dime
      so he could partake in the event. “Boy, the nice pilot gave me 5 rides”!
      Many, fearing a rush to get in he air, camped out overnight at the airport.
      Betty Lou Watson 19, and her husband Earl, 77 (good for him!) and their
      son Clyde 6, didn’t want to chance missing out!
      Amazing when something is for FREE, or almost, who’ll show up!

  5. Ed Watson says

    You got me to thinkin’. I watched planes thru chain links as a preteen, then as a college student and would today in spite of my almost 5,000 hours in the air and having owned two planes, a C-140 and a BE-35. Our local airport, MYF, has a parking area with a chain link fence looking at the parked planes and beyond that the runway. Now “if there was audio (say the tower and/or ground freq) being broadcast like at a drive-in movie and seats for spectators……. and say a concession like A&W root beer. . . ” Hmmmm gotta get to thinkin’ outa the box. . .

  6. Max Lightsey says

    Having been an enthusiast of aviation and automobile racing most of my life, I agree with your observations about the overlapping demographics for sport aviation and motor sports. Fortunately, I’ve been able to directly participate in general aviation for over four decades but have never actually driven a car in competition. Nevertheless, my interest and involvement in all types of racing over the years (from dirt tracks to drag strips and Formula One) have paralleled my enthusiasm and support for general aviation. Perhaps its the challenge of getting maximum performance and precision handling of a high-performance vehicle and striving for maximum skill and safety.

  7. Keith says

    I agree with everything except the “rebranding” part.

    Calling it a “survival training” flight is probably the fastest way to give people the absolutely wrong impression of General Aviation that I can think of. You want people to feel like they’re going to have fun, not audition for the next reality TV show.

    “Discovery” is probably the best word for it. “Friendship Flight” also works.

  8. says

    Great points. We’ve experimented a little with ‘modular’ training packages (“Solo A Plane in 2 Months for $xxxx.oo”). Sort of a Bucket List thing. Had a couple of takers, but we didn’t market it very aggressively so the idea just faded away. As I recall, all of our ‘takers’ were wives buying the package for their husbands as gifts. One guy quit after he soloed, the other continued training. Probably worth pursuing.

  9. Greg W says

    Good points Jamie about making that intro flight a stand alone experience. I hope some one will have the finances and fortitude to affect the change. It will be a huge change to the culture of aviation. If you are not training you’re not safe, if your certificate rating is not as high as mine, you are not safe,if you don’t have a glass panel it’s not safe, and you are a danger and threat to every one. Until many more in aviation see things as only different rather than better or worse things will continue to decline in aviation, G.A. in particular. Come on people, most of us got into this because it was fun, not to stay in formal training for ever. One flight for an interested passenger should be okay with us, they may like it and try it again. Corporate turbines, light twins,complex singles, worn Cessna 150s, light sport, ultralights,even those unheralded gliders and balloons all fly. We are all just different not better or worse,we need to stop condemning each other for what each other flys and welcome the general public into any aspect of aviation,even if it is to jump out of a perfectly good airplane once!

  10. steve says

    This all makes sense, Jamie … But, I’m wondering — Why is it the technofreaks would have us into “self-driving” cars; and likewise isn’t this what’s happening in general aviation? Yes, the rush of driving a fast car is much the same as taking the controls of an aircraft on takeoff. However, what individualistic excitement giveth, technology taketh away …

  11. Roland Desjardins says

    This a brilliant concept Jamie. My son and daughter are not pilots, but they are enthusiastic supporters of it. They grew up with me taking them flying and they always enjoyed the experience. Their spouses and children have been flying with me and very much enjoyed it. If my grandchildren never become pilots, they will always understand the enjoyment of it and support it to others.

    All of aviation must begin promoting it to the general public in a new light. Bravo, Jamie!

  12. Kent misegades says

    I recall from attending the EXPO a few years ago that Skip Barber had a booth among the aircraft on display. When my older son got his A&P license a few years back, my graduation present to him was a weekend course with Skip Barber at the historic VIR road course on the NC/VA border. He loved it – got his first job in the motorsports industry and never again looked at the ancient airplanes he was trained to work on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *