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.”