Interview with Greg Whitaker from Low Cost and Regional Airline Business.
Lee Woodward started Skyborne, one of the most modern and best equipped flight schools in the UK. But he dreams of the day when he can extend pilot training to even more people.
Lee Woodard is in a good mood. This is hardly surprising as Skyborne, the pilot training academy that he co-founded and is CEO of, has just received the news that it has been selected by BA to be its partner for the airline’s ‘Speedbird’ training programme, where talented candidates are given the opportunity to begin a rewarding career in the cockpit with the airline, regardless of their background.
Following a joint selection process, students lucky enough to get on the training school’s UK CAA Integrated ATPL programme have the £99,500 of tuition costs covered in full. The sponsored programme is the first that BA has run since the mid-1990s and it is hoped that under-represented groups in aviation, including people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and women will take part.
Finding a way to train promising candidates has been a lifelong passion for Woodward. Originally a pilot, he later set up a training academy. This was later sold in the 2000s, but Woodward banked the knowledge gleaned from the experience and considered how he might do better in the future.
There’s no question that the industry needs to attract new talent. Following the pandemic, demand has outstripped the supply of suitably qualified flight crew around the world. The demand for travel from the public took the aviation industry by surprise. “I think it’s fair to say the United States is recovering at a faster rate than probably any other region on the planet right now, and I think the UK and Europe is somewhere in the region of 9-12 months behind what we’re seeing in the US,” says Woodward, adding that other regions, notably the Middle East and India, were also experiencing strong growth.
Despite the shortage of commercial pilots globally, there is one sticking point for would-be highflyers.
“The single biggest barrier in the UK is finance,” clarifies Woodward. “The market in this country is just so far behind. In the US there are six or seven lenders that will loan the money, no problems. In Europe, there’s ABN Amro and in France you can borrow from Credit Agricole.” It wasn’t always this way. “In the early days [of his previous business] we had HSBC extending what was known as their professional studies loan, and it worked well, with 93 per cent of entrants taking that loan, but then the global financial crisis hit, and HSBC got out of that entire market. That loan covered doctors, dentists, vets, lawyers, you name it – and pilots!”
“THE SINGLE BIGGEST BARRIER IN THE UK IS FINANCE… THE MARKET IN THIS COUNTRY IS JUST SO FAR BEHIND”
Following the withdrawal of this product, for a time it was possible to get a loan secured on a valuable asset, usually property. This, of course, seriously narrowed the pool of applicants. However, at the time of writing, even this loan isn’t available. “Now, it is principally the Bank of Mum and Dad,” says Woodward, mournfully. It is a real problem. Woodward estimates that the number of serious, eligible candidates is slashed by up to 95 per cent when there is no obvious way to fund the training, and those that can still train will naturally come from the wealthiest backgrounds. Projects like the Speedbird programme are welcomed with open arms, but there is only a set number of places available, so the number of people able to train is still somewhat limited. The lack of funding for training isn’t for want of Skyborne trying to get a package made available. Woodward says, “I’ve championed it and worked so hard to get a package over the past four of five years. We took it all the way to the CEOs of NatWest and RBS. We’ve shown and demonstrated what the risk looks like and how low it is.” Woodward explains that the organisation has established dialogues with secondary and tertiary lending platforms to provide a funding package for trainees. While no definitive agreement on a financial product has yet been reached, “some headway” has been made, although he is clear that getting even to this stage has been “labour intensive” and a “slow burner”. “What we’re looking at now is an organisation that has the FCO (UK financial regulator) approvals and has the banking platform, but does not have capital. We can then put a prospectus out to investor groups to provide the funding to power the loans. That’s where we’re at right now,” he says.
Another financial pressure comes as at Skyborne (as with other training academies), working during the course duration is discouraged. “Frankly, if you’ve made that kind of investment, you want to have the odds in your favour of passing the training as much as possible,” says Woodward. Effort has been made to reduce as many distractions as possible. The course is residential and things like uniform and equipment are provided. There’s a money-back guarantee should would-be pilots turn out to not have a head for heights after all, though Woodward says that this is very rarely claimed, as anyone who has managed to raise funds and start the course knows what the job will entail. “The guarantee does go quite a long way to remove some of the anxiety associated with the consequences of failure,” Woodward explains.
Training itself takes part in the classroom, on a variety of small aircraft and on flight simulators. Interestingly, the pilots will fly on the light planes before they are let loose on the simulators. “We use light aircraft simulators as the pilots are beginning to learn their instrument flying and that’s really where the simulator comes into its own, says Woodward, “because at that stage, the pilot doesn’t really require visual reference, as they’re very much learning instrument procedures and instrument procedures.” Simulators also mean that a variety of flight scenarios and weather conditions can be tried (where being able to fly by instruments alone is particularly important). Trainees will also be able to use a sim that replicates the Boeing 737Max, as flying a 50 tonne passenger aircraft is somewhat different to training in a two-seater Diamond DA42.
“First and foremost, you know, they’re really honing their skills on how to apply an accurate instrument departure. But equally we can explore, particularly on the more complex multi-engine aircraft that we operate, using various scenarios,” says Woodward. “Then when we get to the jet simulators, you’re obviously teaching the pilot to operate in the multi-crew environment on an aircraft that weighs circa 50 tonnes and a swept wing jet with all the characteristics that are radically different from light piston engine aircraft. We also begin to introduce more complex failures where the non-technical skills are really developed, like teamwork and all of the crew resource management aspects.”
“SIMULATORS MEAN A VARIETY OF FLIGHT SCENARIOS AND WEATHER CONDITIONS CAN BE TRIED”
No time like the present
For all the barriers to overcome in acquiring the funding in the UK, Woodward still recommends it as an excellent career. “You know, it’s a really exciting world going to fly with an airline,” he says. “For the first three to five years, you’re just getting to grips with it, but after that there’s a whole plethora of options that most airlines will offer. “I’m biased, but I still think it’s the best job in the world. I mean, I’m 57 years old, and I’ve been in this now for 30 years. I still get excited. I love it. I love being around the whole environment. It’s partly why I started Skyborne because I really am passionate about it. “Personally I find it extremely rewarding to see a young man or woman about to embark on their career when I know what’s ahead of them. It sounds a bit poetic, I know!” Poetic or not, while there is commercial demand for pilots, a way will surely be found to get more of them from dreaming to being on the flight deck soon.
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