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Are composite or metal aircraft better for flight school operations?

Which are better for flight schools, composite or metal aircraft?

I have now owned and operated a flight school for over 10 years and in that time I have used both metal and composite training aircraft. I have had experience in maintaining and using both types for ab-initio and navigation training. 

Before I go into more detail on what I personally prefer, let’s firstly look at the benefits and disadvantages of composite and metal aircraft.

Metal airframes 

Metal airframes are generally constructed out of aluminium and consist of an internal metal frame covered in a metal skin that is usually riveted to the frame.

Benefits of aircraft constructed from metal 

  • Low cost and easily available materials
  • Proven durability 
  • Can be stored outside for long periods of time
  • Fairly simple manufacturing and repairs
  • Easy to inspect 

Some of the disadvantages are:

  • Once the skin is damaged it is hard to bend back into place and often needs to be repaired.
  • Corrosion can affect aluminium materials over time
  • Prone to fatigue and cracking over long periods of time
  • Metal airframes can also interfere with compasses and radio communications

Composite airframes 

Many modern aircraft are now designed and manufactured with composites. A composite is any material made from numerous materials. For aviation, this normally means fibreglass, carbon and/or kevlar. These materials are normally mixed with a plastic resin and bonded together in layers to create a strong structure. Composite factory-built aircraft are built with a mould. The composite material is layered with resin into the mould then cured (hardened) to create the shape of the aircraft piece.

Composite airframes generally have high tensile strength and are usually lighter than a metal aircraft. Composite construction allows more freedom compared to aluminium, when it comes to designing exotic modern shapes. Composite aircraft don’t often require any internal frame as the shell of the aircraft is composed of the load bearing structure.

Advantages of composite aircraft 

  • High tensile strength
  • Resistance to fatigue and corrosion 
  • No frame and less weight than metal aircraft (up to a 50% saving in weight)
  • Easy to mass produce and assemble

Disadvantages of composite aircraft

  • Expensive to manufacture compared to metal
  • Material can be hard to inspect for damage
  • Can have UV damage if left outdoors for prolonged periods of time
  • Not as easy to repair minor damage compared to metal and requires specialised knowledge of composites
  • Delamination can occur over time or with contact with certain chemicals

It all comes down to personal preference

As you can see, there are benefits and disadvantages to both types. When it comes to flying, I enjoy flying in both types. I love the look and feel of composite aircraft, however I appreciate the basic construction and ease of repair of metal aircraft.

My personal preference is to have metal aircraft in a flight school environment. I currently have an all-metal fleet. While we love being able to fly over the spectacular Caloundra coastline, the downside of being located near the ocean is having corrosion issues. We spend a lot of money on corrosion prevention.

The biggest benefit of metal aircraft is that unlike with composite, small repairs are easily fixed by most licensed aircraft maintenance engineers. One morning recently, we had a private hirer do a hard landing, snap the nosewheel and damage the propeller. By that afternoon, we had organised a replacement prop, nosewheel and engine mount, and with the help of AMS next door to us, the plane was back in the air within just five working days. If this was a composite aircraft, it would have taken weeks to repair.

At another time when I was using a carbon fibre training aircraft, during one of the regular maintenance inspections a small crack was discovered on the tail. It had to have a special work order and plans created by the factory on how to repair the crack. I then had to find a specialist carbon fibre repairs who could do the work. The aircraft was offline for three months while this was being repaired, which is not great if you’re relying on that aircraft for your business income. If this was a metal aircraft it could have been repaired within 3 days, as most maintenance engineering companies are set up for metal repairs and have the experience and know-how to repair most metal damage.

Hangar space, UV exposure and hail damage 

Hangar space is very hard to find and expensive to rent at major airports on the east coast of Australia. I have two aircraft currently hangared inside and another two outside which get covered in a weather-proof cover when not in use.

Composites do not fare as well outside as metal aircraft, as UV light can degrade the composite material over a long period of time. Most individuals and flight schools I know who own composite aircraft have them hangared inside for this reason. In fairness, corrosion can also be an issue. 

If hangar space is not an option and the aircraft has to be parked outside then I would suggest metal aircraft may be a better choice. Also, a hail-damaged metal aircraft can generally keep flying after a proper inspection, whereas a composite aircraft with hail damage normally needs expensive and extensive repairs to get it airworthy again. After receiving hail damage to two planes during a fierce storm in late 2019, we erected large hail-proof agricultural nets to prevent further damage to the two planes parked outside.

I also understand that some composite airframes have better factory support for their owners than what I experienced, and some maintenance facilities have specialist composite repairers on hand, so once again it comes to both a personal and business decision based on your location and aircraft type. If I had ample hangar space, good factory support from the aircraft manufacturer and a licenced aircraft composite repair workshop close by, then I would definitely consider a composite aircraft for my flight school again. Until this happens I will be sticking with metal.

Happy and safe flying!

Damien Wills, The GoFly Team

 Please feel free to read more posts or watch the free videos on our flight training platform

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Short-term memory limitations and how pilots can overcome these

Short-term memory limitations and how pilots can overcome these

It is important that pilots are aware of the limitations of short term memory in relation to reducing risk and communication errors when flying. A good example is when a pilot receives instructions from an air traffic controller. An air traffic control instruction can be detailed and be spoken very quickly.

If the pilot does not focus on the instructions or write the information down, there is a very good chance that the instructions will be forgotten.

What is short term memory 

Short-term memory is responsible for temporarily holding and processing new information. When you are first told a new phone number for example  it is stored in your short term memory.

Limitations of short term memory 

The duration for which information is stored in short-term memory can vary, but it is generally thought to last between 15 to 30 seconds. The other major limitation is we can only store between 7 to 10 separate items in our short term memory at a time.

The relationship between short term and long term memory

Our long term memory is responsible for storing information for an extended period of time, ranging from days to years. It involves transferring information from our short-term memory to long-term storage, through what is known as encoding.

Encoding requires certain techniques such as visualization, repetition and attention, to transfer information from our short term memory to our long term memory.

How to minimise short term memory errors

There are many ways to minimise these memory errors. Below are some simple and effective methods to help boost your short-term memory. Many of these techniques involve actually transferring information from our short term to long term memory.

1. Focused attention

Give your full focus to the information you want to remember. Conducting a pre-flight with no distraction or telling a passenger to remain quiet when you are about to talk over the radio would be an example of preparing yourself to have focused attention.

2. Repetition

Repetition helps move information from short-term memory to long-term memory. An example of this is when new flight students are learning radio calls they verbalise  radio calls over and over again (from a cheat sheet) until it becomes transferred to their long term memory.

3. Visualisation

Create mental images or associations to help remember abstract information. A good example may be teaching students when they first see a windsock that it is like a pointy finger that always points to where the wind is going. This visualisation helps them remember orientation and how to read a windsock.

4. Write it down

If you are receiving a lot of information, the best way to minimise memory loss is to write it down. For instance, most pilots will write down an initial airways clearance as it can be quite complex and involved. This can be done on paper or on an electronic device.

5. Focus on Key Details

Identify the most crucial information and focus on remembering those key details instead of trying to memorise every single detail. For instance when receiving a new airways clearance, only write down critical information such as transponder codes, assigned altitude and headings.

Being aware of the limitations of the human brain, and in particular memory, is  important in aviation, for mitigating risk and communication errors.

We hope you enjoyed this article. For more blogs, keep exploring this site. For free videos, books and pilot practice exams please visit the GoFly Online flight training website.

Happy and safe flying,

The GoFly Team

August 2023

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Will electric VTOL aircraft replace personal fixed wing flying?

Will electric VTOL aircraft replace personal fixed wing flying?

I have owned a Flight School for over 10 years now. The majority of our students are learning to fly for fun. The majority of recreational flight students have no ambition to turn their passion for flying into a career; they just want to learn for the sheer joy of flying.

The next aviation revolution 

Currently there is a ‘quiet’ revolution going on with electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) technology. There are roughly 80 new start-up companies world-wide, designing, flight testing and trying to certify passenger carrying electric VTOL aircraft.

Some of these companies have had close to a billion dollars of private equity investment. Some of the most promising electric VTOL start-ups include Joby Aviation, Lilium, Kittyhawk, Archer and Beta, and then there are the big aerospace companies such as Airbus, Boeing and Embraer, all working on their own designs.

These companies are focusing on urban transport and are designing and certifying these new types of aircraft for affordable mass passenger travel. These aircraft only have a limited range (usually around 200km), however this satisfies densely urban transport such as city to airport transfers. Compared to current helicopters, the cost is projected to be up to five to ten times more affordable than current helicopter technology with less than half of the noise. This future VTOL market is estimated to be worth around a trillion dollars globally by mid-2035.

The effects on learning to fly

What has not really been discussed, is how this new technology will impact personal flying and in particular, personal fixed-wing flying. While most new startups are focused on the mass transport of passengers, some companies such as Jetson One and Air One are focused on the recreational pilot market. 

Startup company, Air, an Israeli-based start-up, is solely focusing on the personal recreational market with their Air One electric VTOL aircraft. While the full-scale prototype is set to fly later this year, the initial performance projections are impressive, with a one-hour range at around 90 knots with 30 minutes reserve, and it can carry two people. The aircraft has eight electric motors and a ballistic recovery system (BRS chute) for additional safety. The Air One also will have AI (artificial intelligence) self-diagnostic software that will complete the majority of the pre-flight inspections on most of the systems on behalf of the pilot. Projected sale costs are similar to an upper-end of the market Light Sport Aircraft (LSA).

Will students still want to fly fixed wing, VTOL or both?

Will future recreational pilots wish to continue flying fixed-wing aircraft or will they see electric VTOL as a better alternative? There are a few things to consider when trying to guess the answer.

Most recreational pilots fly locally

While most of our students continue on to complete their navigation and passenger endorsements, the majority of pilots who fly for fun are content to fly locally (within 50 nautical miles of the departing aerodrome). Most recreational pilots just want to get up in their local airspace and enjoy the freedom of flying and maybe share it with a friend or family member.

Those students who want to fly longer distances, have usually learned for business-related reasons and end up purchasing their own aircraft to save regularly having to drive long distances.

Learning to land is the hardest part of flying

Most people can be taught the basics of flying a plane, in a small amount of time. Landing however, is what separates the serious students from those who just think it will be cool to have a pilot’s licence.

It appears that piloting these new VTOL aircraft will be substantially easier than flying a fixed-wing aircraft. For instance, the take-off and landing in most of these VTOL aircraft will be computer-assisted. The pilot will not be responsible for basic stability in the hover, as is a helicopter pilot.

While mastering landings in a fixed-wing aircraft is rewarding, and some students love the challenge, I’m sure there are plenty of would-be students who would prefer this was a lot easier.

Runways optional 

The other huge benefit for VTOL is that no runway is required. Theoretically they can take off and land almost anywhere. 

While there are start-up companies working on this issue such as Skyportz, it will be a while before there are mass urban take-off and landing sites available for all VTOL types of flying, not to mention charging stations. The other factor is whether these sites will be available for personal use or only for commercial applications.


Initially, range will be the biggest issue for early VTOL aircraft, the same as for early electric fixed-wing aircraft. I believe that within 10 years there will be hybrid VTOL (vertical take-off with a fixed-wing component, such as the start-up Beta, that can actually take off and land as a fixed-wing aircraft and have a range close to 400km. 

Battery technology is also improving at a rate of about 5 to 7% per year. This means that within 10 years, energy density should double. This is not taking into account any major breakthroughs in battery technology (such as solid-state batteries). 

Picture courtesy of Beta Technologies

VTOL cockpitThe future is exciting 

While it is hard to predict the future, I think the personal VTOL aircraft revolution is still four to eight years away and when it arrives it is going to radically change urban transport and bring helicopter-like charter operations to the masses (rather than just the rich!).

There will still be plenty of individuals who will want to learn to fly in a fixed-wing aircraft. There is something magical about mastering a landing in a fixed-wing aircraft and as all pilots know, you never stop perfecting your landings. However, I think flying a recreational VTOL will also be rewarding in new ways. It is possible that this new technology will open up new opportunities and entice more tech-savvy pilots into the recreational flying space.

I can envision a future where a flight school has both electric fixed-wing aircraft and electric VTOL aircraft. Some pilots will be attracted to one type and some pilots will want to do both. The issue over the next five to eight years will be deciding who will manage the training and regulatory/safety aspect of these recreational VTOL type aircraft. 

While Commercial VTOL will be governed by CASA in Australia, who will take the regulatory lead with recreational VTOL aircraft? For instance in Australia, will it be governed directly by CASA, or by Recreational Aviation Australia, or some new self-administering organisation?

I don’t have the answers, but I think we need to start having the conversation now so we can all have a part in creating our flying (for fun) future. While it’s impossible to predict exactly what the future will hold, there is no doubt that the future of personal flying will be very exciting.

Damien Wills, CEO GoFly Group

[Feature photo courtesy of Air One]

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Mutual support or competitive hostility

Mutual support or competitive hostility?

grid pic

I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book called ‘Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber’ by Mike Isaac.  The book gives a very accurate account of the early startup years of Uber through to its massive growth and then finally having the CEO and founder, Travis Kalanick, fired as CEO and thrown off the board. The book is a riveting read and an incredible look behind the curtain of a huge-growth company. In particular it looks at what constitutes a ‘toxic culture’ and the dark side of a business that is completely driven by a ‘kill or be killed’ business mindset.

One of the main themes of the book, which struck a chord with me, is how many businesses, whether big or small, have the mindset of ‘we must kill or be killed’. Uber was incredibly aggressive with its growth targets and did not care which other companies they put out of business and what they had to do to achieve world domination. The book is a fantastic warning for any leader or business owner on how NOT to operate and grow a business.

Competitive Hostility 

‘Competitive hostility’ is the opposite of ‘mutual support’. In this mindset we believe that the world is a hostile place and that the business environment can be likened to a battle field. We believe that every competitor is a threat to our business, so to be successful we need to dominate and destroy the competitor; kill or be killed.

In this mindset we believe in scarcity; that there is not enough for everyone and we must fight to work hard to get ahead of the competitor; that no one can be trusted and we must protect everything that we own, at all costs, to secure our future success.

Uber initially operated with a competitive hostility mindset but fortunately the shareholders and some key private investors and board members painstakingly tried to turn the company around by adopting a more gentle ‘mutual support’ mindset. 

What the former CEO of Uber, and many large multinational companies fail to grasp, is that there is more than enough business for multiple companies in that particular industry. Uber could still have been worth billions, even if their competitor, Lyft, owned half the global market share. 

Mutual support

Mutual support is not built on a feeling of scarcity but a belief in abundance, a feeling that there is more than enough for everyone. It is a positive framework that is built on passion and inspiration and not fear. I have read a lot of books about the two different mindsets. One of my personal heroes is the late Buckminster Fuller (inventor, futurist and author). He strongly believed that to build a better world we must all start thinking in terms of ‘mutual support’. Mutual support is the idea that there is more than enough pie for everyone. It proposes that the best way to succeed is to help others succeed. 

By helping each other – even our competitors – we can ALL succeed. I believe that you and your competitor can both succeed. 

Strategic alliances and mutual support

I started a flight school ten years ago, grew a little too fast and ended up having three schools, then closed the Armidale and Caboolture schools to concentrate on the school at Caloundra airport. I have always operated on the assumption that there is enough business for everyone and that if you just concentrate on making your product or service better – through continuous improvement –  and you have a meaningful reason for ‘why’ you are in business, the money will follow.

To make my weather-dependent flight school business more resilient, I started the GoFly Online video platform. The Caloundra school is now at a point where I can afford to employ a CFI, and more recently, an Operations Manager, so that I can focus more on the online content. I have since formed strategic partnerships with two aircraft owners and three other flight school owners with similar values, to share resources, have cost efficiencies with maintenance and marketing, provide career pathways for staff and to share in even more slices of the never-ending pie. When we work together, we can achieve far more as a team than trying to compete and protect ourselves on our own. 

Declining industries are generally hostile 

Many of us have heard the story of how the CEO of the Blockbuster video chain declined an invitation to partner with a little known startup company called Netflix. Blockbuster had a hostile competitive mindset. Now they don’t have anything. 

If companies in declining industries could move to a mutual support mindset, they would be better placed to work with other businesses and innovate their way to new high-growth industries instead of protecting what they have always done. In a similar vein, I recently discovered that the R&D team at Kodak invented digital photography back in the 70s but management thought it would cannibalise their existing business, so hid the technology. Kodak’s rivals seized the opportunity and embraced the innovation. Now there’s not many Kodak moments. 

Survival mode does not have to be hostile mode!

I have noticed a trend over the last 10 years when the economy softens, or we have an unexpected disruption – such as COVID 19 – and revenue decreases, that many of my competitors get even more aggressive. I understand that many businesses in this present environment are in survival mode and doing it very tough, however that is not an excuse for looking at ways of putting your competitor out of business so you can get a bigger slice of the pie.  A better way would be to look at how you can pivot and cut costs in your own business or even look at supporting and helping your entire industry, not just your own business.

Competitive hostility is rampant in the aviation industry

I have competitors who refuse to speak to me and who have tried to damage GoFly’s reputation. One of our competitors used to copy our website and special offers almost word for word. Another wrote a bad Google review in an attempt to tarnish our brand. Yet another tried to poach an aircraft that we leased and yet another wrote a letter in support of a former student’s ill-fated attempt to sue me.  

What these hostile businesses don’t understand is that I actually want them to succeed. It is not a zero-sum game: I don’t have to fail for them to win and they don’t have to fail for me to win. We can all win in the long term.

I am so grateful that we have formed alliances now with businesses and individuals who have a ‘mutual support’ mindset and this helps drive and create a better company and culture, and creates businesses that are less fragile over the long term.

I also have noticed that businesses who are not driven by continuous improvement and innovation are hostile to companies who are. It is classic protectionism based on fear that the competition might come up with a better service or product than their business currently offers.

If companies spend a large proportion of their time and revenue on their own business innovation and improvement, there will be less time to worry about what a competitor is doing, and less time to try to destroy the competition. At times it is hard to operate with a ‘mutual support’ mindset in business when a large majority of your competitors believe in competitive hostility and are trying to destroy your business or aggressively poach your customers. 

The ‘mutual support’ mindset is like the kind guy in the room, while the ‘competitive hostility’ mindset is like the bully waiting to hit you and steal all that you have. There are many proven ways to deal with bullies in real life. A hostile competitor should be dealt with the same way. Here are three easy ways you can deal with a hostile business bully.

  1. Ignore them (if they’re not doing any real harm, other than to your pride)
  2. Report them (if they are doing anything illegal or unethical which impacts on your business)
  3. Keep making YOUR business the best business it can be, and go back to point number 1 and ignore them

It’s hard to not to want revenge

I am a bit addicted to the TV series ‘Billions’, in which the main protagonist, a billionaire called Bobby Axelrod, believes that in the business world you have to kill, or be killed. He goes to great lengths to plan strategies to cripple his perceived enemies. At times when someone has tried to hurt me personally or professionally, I am aware of my inner Axelrod rising up, and for a moment I want revenge on the person or business that has tried to do me harm. It’s just a natural human reaction. When I feel this way, I remind myself that this will not only distract me from making my own business better but also distract from my own inner peace. Anyone who acts from a ‘competitive hostility’ mindset is living a life of fear.

Einstein’s famous question

Einstein famously stated that the most important question any individual can ask themselves is, ‘Is the Universe a friendly place?’ The CEO of Uber did not believe the universe was friendly – and the consequences for him were dire.

I believe in a friendly universe and that mutual support is a much healthier mindset to have both as individuals, businesses and the planet as a whole. The irony of the Uber story is that most people that I know, love the quick, efficient and cashless Uber experience. Uber could still have built a great company by charging customers a little bit more, treating their staff and drivers a lot better, and accepting that more than one Uber-type business can exist in the world. Hopefully Uber is now travelling in the right direction.

Competitive hostility is hard work

With a competitive hostility mindset you’re always looking over your shoulder and living in a state of paranoia and fear. You’re obsessed with what the other business is doing, more than being obsessed with making your own business better. You make yourself work harder because you believe that if you don’t work harder, your competitor will put you out of business. Having this mindset is just plain exhausting and bad for your health.

Your competitor may still go out of business

You can have a mutual support mindset with your business and your competitor might still go out of business. If you focus on making your business the best it can be for your staff and your customers, and your competitor goes out of business, this doesn’t mean that you were being competitive or hostile. It just means they either didn’t create an environment of continuous improvement or their product or service did not find a market. 

Mutual support is easy

You have all heard the phrase ‘go with the flow’. This statement sums up why living with a ‘mutual support’ mindset works. You still create and work, but you’re NOT DRIVEN BY FEAR. Fear is replaced by inspiration. The work itself is what drives you, not just the end result, and you couldn’t care less about what your competitor is doing because you’re having too much fun playing in your own business. 

When we heard that a local simulator operator was struggling to pay high rent in a central location, we invited him to move into our building, as I knew that our own students would love to use the sim and it was a value add-on to our own school. When we heard that a local aerobatics flying school was struggling to find a hangar to rent, we approached them to use our briefing rooms and share our hangar space – as I knew that aerobatics was an obvious next step in our own students’ training. 

We were approached by two other fledgling flight schools at Redcliffe and Heck Field, to form a strategic alliance to provide our excellent instructors and our online video training. We made sure that the partners shared our desire to give awesome customer service, and both partnerships and schools are now doing well. Likewise, we invited two of our pilots who happened to be video producers and web designers, to form a partnership to share in the creation of, and the income from, our GoFly Online video platform.

Only you can decide whether to believe in hostility or support. I choose to believe that mutual support is the better option, and to surround myself with others who also believe it. I might still get bullied occasionally but life is so much more fun and peaceful with this mindset! 

Damien Wills

September 2020

To read more of Damien’s blogs, click here.

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Why I feel guilty for owning a growing business during COVID

Gofly team and partners july 2020

Why I feel guilty for owning
a growing business during COVID-19

Gofly team and partners july 2020

Having owned and operated a flight school now for almost 10 years, and an online business for about four, naturally I have experienced some extreme highs and lows during this time.

To build any successful business I feel it is best to have a positive or optimistic outlook on how you view the world. Owning a flight school (or any business for that matter) is both extremely rewarding and can also be really challenging. I have almost come close to the abyss a few times. Some of the reasons for this include, but are not limited to:

  • Trying to trade through a ‘once in 100 years’ weather event (the wettest 7 weeks of prolonged rain during the last 100 years) very soon after buying the business
  • Expanding too quickly without sufficient cash reserves and having to replace a key staff member very quickly
  • Going through a divorce and property settlement
  • Being sued by a student for failing him on his Instructor Rating flight test (it was eventually thrown out of court but it still cost me around $30,000 and months of anxiety to defend this ridiculous claim).

The good news is that for the last four years we have finally got our systems, people and culture to a point where we have started to become quite profitable. I’ve been able to set up a Company rather than being a Sole Trader, renovate the premises, buy more aircraft and finally, for me as the business owner, I have experienced some breathing room. 

In fact, we were in a position to say yes, when the Gold Coast Sport Flying School approached us in February to provide instructors for their Heck Field school. We had also just employed a Head of Operations who could take the staff and asset management workload from me so I could concentrate on the online business. In addition, we had recently employed my 19 year old daughter to cover the reception desk a couple of days each week to allow my wife more time to concentrate on the marketing.

Then COVID hit us….

No one was prepared for COVID. A little while ago I read Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb, which explained that ‘Black Swan’ events are those unpredictable or unforeseen events which have adverse consequences. Only afterwards do we realise that while unforeseen, there are still early warning signs that we should have been better prepared for.

Some people did see this pandemic coming, including Bill Gates back in his famous 2015 TED X talk when he  predicted a pandemic and warned all nations to get prepared. Unfortunately the majority did not take him or others seriously. GoFly had a risk analysis chart; we had some reserves to get us through the wet season; we could prepare for aircraft incidents – and even being sued again – but never in my wildest dreams could I have anticipated the effect that a virus could have on the business and the economy.

Two months of stress

When COVID-19 first hit Australia, our flight school was adversely affected. Our first challenge in late March was determining whether we could keep operating or not under the lockdown rules. And, even if we were allowed to remain open, was it the ethical thing to do when so many other businesses were being forced to close?

To make matters even worse, those in authority were unclear whether we could remain open. A flight school in NSW was ordered to close by the local police on one occasion even though there was no legislation stating they could not operate. As no one knew what was legal and safe, many of our customers just decided to self isolate and stop flying. Eventually we ascertained that we were considered essential and were allowed to keep training. Despite the virus infection rate being low, the public fear was high, and even though the supermarkets were doing a roaring trade, our bookings and business revenue dropped by around 50 percent. 

We did everything we could to mitigate the risk of our customers and staff catching or transmitting this strange new virus. When we couldn’t readily buy surgical masks because the hospitals had bought up all supplies, we purchased all sorts of tradies’ breathing apparatus, much to the bemusement of our instructors who could hardly breath in them let alone make radio calls. We purchased disinfectants, hand sanitiser, disposable wipes for the planes and mic covers for the headsets. (We never hoarded toilet paper.) We even made two short videos to explain what procedures we had implemented in the office and in the planes. We were ahead of the pack and helped other flight schools to implement their own COVID response plans.

From thriving to surviving

We went from thriving mode to survival mode overnight, and our discussions changed from ‘how much of a deposit should we put on the new  aircraft?’, to ‘how we will survive the next six months if our cash flow dries up?’ 

The business we had spent 10 years building up looked like it was going to fail due to a Black Swan event. Fortunately we were considered an essential service and were allowed to keep operating. However revenue was still affected. 

All bad news

During this time the news was predicting an Armageddon-style economic collapse. Airlines were failing or trying to raise equity to survive. My nearest competitor closed the doors of its Caloundra school as it was reliant on overseas students for 90% of its revenue, and could not pivot quickly enough to keep operating. Many flight instructors lost jobs.

I was preparing for the worst, including letting go of some and possibly looking at reducing the size of our fleet and locations when something happened that had another huge impact on our business, but not how I imagined.

Visitors to QLD were stopped and JobKeeper was started

When the state government decided to close the QLD border in late March, it was (and still is) devastating for QLD tourism operators relying on NSW and Victorian tourists. However, it had a positive effect on the mindset of most Queenslanders and hence the local economy. My business revenue started to increase almost immediately once the border was shut and customers felt safe to return again. 

Added to this was the introduction of the JobKeeper program and the ability of many struggling businesses and families to freeze their home and other loans, and this had the effect of changing the QLD state’s mood to a more positive outlook.

Our online business started growing 

It was also an opportunity to grow our online flight training business, GoFly Online, as people in other states were stuck at home with only the TV and internet to occupy them and we could help them keep their dream of learning to fly, alive. At this time we were approached by our governing body, to see what we could offer their members during a time when many were unable to fly and wouldn’t see the benefits of renewing their membership. Within a week we had signed an agreement and created a designated RAA AUS landing page with some free lessons on it and RAA promoted this to their members and 10-20 began to sign up each day, which we knew would eventually lead to paid subscriptions. 

Our revenue finally started to increase again

By the end of May our revenue started to slowly increase again. At this time we were also approached by a colleague who had helped us film some training videos for GoFly Online. He was a very qualified, and well connected airline pilot who now found himself out of work, and he asked whether we wanted to partner with him to start another flight school. He already had a classroom space in mind at Redcliffe airport where his wife worked and she could also assist with reception. My initial thoughts were ‘Can we really start another flying school during an economic downturn?’ My own wife and my new Head of Operations thought it was viable and knew that over 50% of our existing students already came from Brisbane, so a school there would be a good move. I said yes because I wanted to help this friend and believed his passion would see it eventually succeed.

Once we made the commitment, the school was almost profitable within three weeks, an amazing result during what should be tough trading conditions for everyone. I have a lot of admirational for this particular individual who used what resources he had, to take control of what seemed like a hopeless situation. He is now busy running a new flight school and doing work he loves.

The flight school on the Gold Coast has also grown rapidly over the last two months, requiring a 2nd full time Instructor.

Why is our business growing?

I have been trying to work out why our business is growing, while other businesses – including flight schools – are suffering.

I have outlined a list of why I think this is occurring. Most of this is intuition and not from hard data as there is no historical data to help me understand how viruses affect businesses. Below I have listed some of the possible reasons for our growth.

  1. QLD is now effectively an island nation so most Queenslanders have confidence that they can move about freely, trade and be positive about the future. 
  2. As some flight schools close down, there is less competition for the ones that are left.
  3. We continued to spend on advertising even while we were losing money
  4. We relied on overseas students for only about 10 percent of our revenue.
  5. We did everything we could to communicate to our customers how we were mitigating the risk of catching COVID.
  6. During the downturn we communicated daily to our team and customers on changes to our business, policies, and our challenges and successes.This kept everyone engaged.
  7. Our customers have been fantastic and continued to support us during the pandemic
  8. We have invested heavily in our team and systems.
  9. Our Team has done whatever it takes to keep our business going and growing with a can-do attitude rather than an attitude of fear.
  10. We like to partner with other like-minded business to become stronger as a group 
  11. While there are currently no jobs for commercial pilots and a lack of domestic flights to parts of Australia, this has meant there is demand for people to learn to fly (and people with lapsed licences to renew them) so they can get themselves to where they need or want to go.
  12.  Having access to 6 months of the JobKeeper payments and the ability to freeze loans has had the added benefit of allowing some individuals and business to have more discretionary income than they otherwise would have
  13. Now that individuals cannot travel they are looking at other experiences to try with their discretionary income such as taking a scenic flight, a sim ride or learning to fly
  14. During times of stress and uncertainty, individuals sometimes feel the need to escape reality or need some mental release, and  learning to fly and recreational flying provides this.

Why I feel guilty

I feel guilty because I have friends who have lost their jobs. We have two to three enquiries per week from out of work airline pilots looking for instructing jobs. These are pilots who were at the top of their game six months ago (and being paid over $200,000 per year) who are now willing to take a $50,000/year instructor job.

I have friends who are close to losing their businesses; businesses that were highly profitable six months ago, but due to the type of industry they are in, have been decimated by COVID.  For so many individuals and businesses they worked hard and did everything they could to mitigate risk however due to the industry they are in COVID has destroyed there dreams of succeeding and thriving (for the short term anyway.)

I have other friends whose businesses (such as medical suppliers) are thriving due to COVID and I have to keep reminding myself that life is not always fair. I feel guilty because so many are doing it tough, not knowing how they are going to pay their mortgage or rent, or the next bill that arrives. In QLD we have so far escaped the worst of it. So many have died in Victoria and in NSW, and many have lost loved ones well before their time.

If our business was situated in Melbourne, this blog would be vastly different.

Personal responsibility and opportunity

I have to remind myself that having my business fail will not help anyone. Currently the business supports over 12 staff, my large family, an ex-wife, plus the income flows on to our six other business partners. I just managed to pay a very large Company tax bill that was due this week and also paid another amount to my accountant (which will go some way to cheering him up while in lock-down in Victoria). 

I guess this all helps my guilt about having a growing business during a health pandemic and economic downturn. While teaching people to fly might not be changing the world, as a flight school, we are having a positive impact on our partners, our staff and their families, even if it’s on a small scale, and we pay taxes which will assist other individuals in need.

We are taught that hard work, the right team and making the right choices can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful business, however, I cannot help thinking that luck has played such a huge part in the lives of individuals and businesses this time around. It would be nice and comforting to think that I was in control and that all my previous choices have led to this point but that would be narcissistic and even delusional. While we do have some control over our lives, there is no doubt that fate, chance or whatever you like to call it, does play a role in our day-to-day reality. 

What now?

I am still concerned and cautious about what November will bring, when JobKeeper is halved and most frozen loans come off the ice. This will be the real test for the economy and for small to medium businesses. 

I really do not know if our business growth is sustainable or if revenue is going to fall off a cliff. While I cannot control what will happen at this time I can start preparing for it so it does not become another Black Swan event. I am hopeful that eventually a vaccine or treatment will be found and the world and the economy can return to whatever type of normal the weary citizens would like. I want to believe that when a vaccine is found there will be a time of catch up growth and prosperity for the entire globe and the months of feeling of being oppressed by the virus will be replaced with a feeling of hope, certainty and opportunity. 

Sometimes struggles help us define what really matters, and help bring meaning to our life. Time will tell whether this COVID event will change our collective mindset and create a better future for everyone. I  choose to believe it will.

Feel free to contact me if you are struggling 

If you own a struggling business due to COVID – particularly an aviation business – please feel free to contact me for a chat. I may not be able to offer much advice but sometimes speaking to someone who is in a similar industry, and who has survived tough times, can help improve your mindset. Feel free to  email at and I will arrange to have a private chat with you when I can.

Published August 2020.

To read more of Damien’s blogs, click here.

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The twin issues of the pilot shortage 

Cirrus plane

The twin issues of the pilot shortage

Cirrus plane

This article was originally written in February 2020 for the May edition of  ‘Australian Flying’ magazine – well before the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, and its effects on the airline industry.


This article is for all Flight School operators, CASA and government policymakers, airline board members and anyone else who has an interest in innovation and the future of the aviation sector.


I’m going to suggest a change. The main problem with change is that most of us see change as a threat, plus there is a natural bias towards maintaining the status quo when something is already working. Changing is even harder when many individuals and businesses are still making a profit by doing things how they have always been done. 


Presently Australia’s major airlines are experiencing a temporary lull in the hiring of pilots, but it is evident that there will soon be a serious global pilot shortage caused by the increase in low cost travel, the growth of the Asian middle-class and and the retirement of senior airline staff. Boeing for instance has projected that airlines and business aviation will require another 790,000 pilots worldwide by 2037. Added to this is the fact that not so many students are learning to fly as the cost of flight training has been steadily increasing. Also some segments of  the flight training industry have been declining for some time due to increased costs, regulation and, to put it politely, a lack of imagination and innovation.


When  business owners try to improve things for customers and staff, they try to reduce ‘friction points (or ‘pain points’). Flight training presently has many friction points, and I am going to focus on one of the main friction points which, I believe, if eliminated could create a positive trifecta for the airlines, General Aviation flight schools and student pilots. 


Eliminate the need for a twin-engine instrument rating 

For the direct entry route, most airlines currently equire the candidate to have at least 500 hours of multi-engine command instrument time before they can apply. Some airlines have reduced this requirement and only require a multi-engine instrument rating with no multi-engine command hours, however this is more of an exception rather than a rule.


The issue with this scenario is that twin-engine piston charter is in decline. The industry is replacing the ageing twins (such as Piper Chieftains and Barons) with single-engine turbine aircraft or twin-engine turbines and many of these charter routes are being replaced with small turbine RPT airlines. It is becoming harder and harder for self-funded future airline pilots to get a twin-engine charter job to build the twin command hours required for the airlines.


Most of the entry-level hour building jobs for the airlines are now coming from flight schools. Also airlines now prefer direct entry pilots to have an instructor rating as they can be utilised for check and training roles at a later stage. 



The major issue with building twin command time with a flight school is that twin-engine flying only accounts for about 15% (or less) of the overall flying conducted at a typical non-integrated CPL flight school. 


This  means that for a typical flight school doing 100 hours of flying a week, it would take the average instructor three years to get to the point where they could conduct twin engine training and another three to four years to build up the required 500 hours of command that airlines want. 




Contrary to popular belief, twin-engine piston aircraft are no safer than single-engine aircraft. In fact, your chance of a fatality is higher if you suffer an engine failure in a piston twin. Let’s not forget that on takeoff with a twin, you are twice as likely to suffer an engine failure, and in most light twins if you are at max take off weight on takeoff on a less than ideal day, then there is a very real chance you are not going to climb. This is just an additional training risk that flight schools have to carry for their business, instructors and students.



A twin-engine aircraft generally can only be used for twin-engine endorsements and instrument ratings. Due to the high operating cost it is usually not used for any other type of training such as building command hours. This means that at many flight schools twin-engine aircraft are sitting dormant for the majority of the time. There is a cost to the flight school to train and make sure all their flight instructors are current on these twin-engine aircraft. 



It doesn’t matter whether you are buying a second-hand twin or new aircraft, they are all expensive to purchase and maintain. A second-hand Baron can cost $150,000 to $500,000 while a new aircraft can cost upwards of a million dollars. The basic operating costs of a Baron (fuel, maintenance and engine replacement and insurance) is around $450 an hour. This is the minimum cost before the flight school can even think about making a profit. The current cost for a twin-engine endorsement and multi-engine instrument rating is between $20,000 to $30,000 for an Australian student pilot. 



My suggestion is that the direct entry level requirement for airlines should be a CPL with a single-engine instrument rating and ATPL subjects passed. This would then allow schools to have only one or two aircraft types online for flight training. This would have the benefit of reducing costs for the flight school and the student and make available more potential pilots for the future airline pilot shortage.


If the airlines were not hiring at the time the student graduated, they could use the funds that would have been used for a twin-engine rating towards an Instructor rating to make them more employable.


You could hypothetically have a flight school doing ab initio training with a Cessna 172 which could also double as an IFR trainer and then the school only requires one Cessna 182 for CPL training and IFR training. (Personally I believe CPL training should be able to be conducted in a Cessna 172 providing it has a glass cockpit and autopilot. The Federal Aviation Administration in the US has now gone down this path.)


Alternatively, a flight school could potentially operate only a fleet of Cirrus SR 20s for use as both basic training and advanced IFR CPL training (one aircraft type; you don’t get much simpler than that). The benefit is that once you have obtained your single-engine rating, keeping it current would be a lot less expensive than keeping a multi-engine rating current. Currently the cost of a standard CPL with multi-engine instrument rating is around $85,000. With a single-engine IFR integrated into a CPL course, this could be reduced to around $60,000.


For those of you who worry about flying in heavy IMC in a single-engine aircraft, remember that IFR training can be conducted in VFR conditions with the student wearing a hood. You do not have to train in heavy IMC.



The flight school that I own operates a Cirrus SR20 for PPL and CPL training and the avionics are on par with any modern airliner. I believe that learning to conduct instrument training on this platform is going to be as good – or more beneficial – than in a 30 year old analogue piston twin for any future airline pilot. Also any Cessna 172 can be converted to have a modern Glass cockpit with autopilot for IFR training for a lot less cost than purchasing a new or secondhand twin-engine aircraft.



Operating a multi-engine piston aircraft is dramatically different from operating a multi-engine turbine or pure jet; performance and complexity being the big difference. The airline will type certify a newly employed pilot anyway on that particular aircraft. What airlines really want is a direct entry pilot who can fly an accurate instrument approach and who works well within a team and who is obsessed with flying. I would suggest that General Aviation twin piston charter companies follow the airline path and that CASA creates a type rating for every different type of twin-engine piston. So if you want a charter job flying Barons after your CPL, then you get a type rating on a Baron and this upgrades your single engine IFR to multi for that aircraft type.



The argument I hear from many airline and multi-engine pilots is that flying single pilot command twin engine IFR gives the pilot ‘real world’ experience before joining an airline. I don’t doubt that this does increase a pilot’s abilities however I would also suggest that flying single pilot IFR in a piston twin is a lot different than flying multi crew jets for an airline.  Also, a new First Officer in an airline will spend on average two to seven years as a First Officer before gaining a command position. Isn’t the First Officer learning real world experience during this time?




For those of you who don’t like change or think that what I am proposing is ridiculous, then I would point out that this idea is nothing new and is already working. The current MPL or Multi Crew Pilots Licence is used by many airlines in Europe and the Middle East and has been very successful since 2006. 


The MPL course usually involves a student completing around 75 hours of basic and instrument training on a single-engine aircraft such as a Garmin Cessna 172. They complete their CPL and ATPL theory subjects and then progress directly to a type rating on a simulator for that particular jet.


No multi-engine time is required; just a focus on multi crew and advanced systems. If this licensing has been successful for many airlines then does it not stand to reason that the twin-engine rule is possibly redundant for direct entry airline pilots?




I find it slightly amusing that CASA is about to grant approval for electric VTOL passenger carrying aircraft in Melbourne for Uber Elevate and yet many students still have to learn in 30 year old gas-guzzling twin-engine aircraft before they can apply for an airline. There is a huge disconnect between new forms of transport and existing transport and training (having rules that were created around WWII). The reason for this is quite simple: a new industry such as electric on demand VTOL does not have entrenched rules and regulations and an existing bias towards maintaining the status quo. 


Some flying schools who now operate twin trainers and who are making a profit may be angered by this article, however before they judge or make up their minds about whether my suggestions make sense, may I suggest they all ask themselves these important questions:


  • Do you think schools will still be training on old piston twins in 20 years’ time?
  • Will flight schools be able to afford new million dollar twin-engine training aircraft to replace their ageing twins?
  • What is the best solution for the Aviation industry and students in relation to training the next generation of airline pilots? 

Damien Wills

CEO GoFly Group


To read more of Damien’s blogs, click here.


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How to avoid feeling sick when learning to fly

Sickness bag

How to avoid feeling sick while learning to fly

Sickness bag

Some students and even some veteran pilots experience air sickness from time to time. In fact for my first 10 hours of flight training (about 20 years ago now) I was sick during every lesson.

Eventually the sickness disappeared but I learnt a few things along the way. Below I have outlined a few of my tips:

Eat something before you fly

I am still amazed at how many new students have heard that it’s best not to eat anything before you fly or you might get sick.  Nothing could be further from the truth. You need something in your stomach otherwise you are guaranteed to get sick. However that doesn’t mean you should go and fill up with a stack of pancakes and a chocolate milkshake.  If you suffer air sickness keep your diet simple when flying. 

Food to Avoid

  • Anything with lots of sugar and anything with milk (so rule number one = avoid milk)
  • If you are dieting, skip the protein shake and have some real food that day
  • Avoid anything too greasy or oily
  • Avoid soups – I have learnt this the hard way)
  • Avoid salads with lots of lettuce or cabbage, this will give you gas and will not help matters.

Food you can eat

Here are some foods I have found work well for me: 

  • Bananas work very well.  They fill you up with no yucky feeling
  • Rye Bread (toasted is OK) with vegemite or something else light on the bread  
  • Ginger tablets – these work well for stopping nausea

Wear loose cotton clothing

Make sure your clothing is light and can breathe. If you get hot you are more likely to feel sick.

Have plenty of ventilation

Choose an aircraft that has plenty of air vents and plenty of ventilation. If idling for a long period at the holding point or while sitting and chatting to the instructor before the flight, have the canopy wide open

Drink plenty of water

This one is a important: you will get air sick if you’re dehydrated.  So sip on pure water before you fly and take a bottle of water in the air to sip on.

Tell the instructor if you feel sick

It amuses me how some students would prefer to vomit all over the cockpit than to suffer the embarrassment of having to let the instructor know that feeling sick. I know know the tell-tale signs all too well:  students become quieter, they start sweating, their face becomes pale and they don’t react very quickly.

 It’s important to tell the instructor as soon as you feel a bit queasy.  The instructor can then make things more comfortable for you, to try to avoid any impending projection.

Damien Wills, May 2015

To read more blogs by Damien, click here.

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Can I keep learning to fly during the Coronavirus outbreak?

corona virus and flight schools

Can I keep learning to fly
during the Coronavirus outbreak?

corona virus and flight schools

Australia has recently introduced the same virus containment measures as other countries. Large festivals, events and meetings are being  cancelled; more people are being asked to work from home; even the way we greet each other is changing. 

How will this affect your flight training? It won’t – unless your flight instructors all get sick at the same time. But your flight school will be taking measures to ensure all staff remain well. Flight training is an activity which is done in close proximity to another person. The chances of catching the Coronavirus will be reduced, or even eliminated, if you and your flight school follow these suggestions.

Measures which you can take when flying:

  1. clean your hands regularly with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitiser*
  2. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing
  3. Avoid touching your face, nose and mouth (do so with the back of your hand or with a tissue)
  4. Stay home if you are unwell, have a cough, sore throat, temperature or runny nose
  5. Avoid contact with anyone who is unwell – try to stay 1.5m away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing

As flight training students already know, looking after yourself by eating a healthy, balanced diet, getting regular physical activity, sleeping well and reducing stress is important all the time. For anyone who does not have symptoms, wearing a face-mask is not necessary. On the upside, if other students panic and cancel lessons and stay home, you might finally be able to get all the training slots you want without competing with other trainee pilots! Don’t forget that at many flight schools, instructors are contractors and only get paid when they fly, so if students start cancelling their one-on-one training sessions out of fear, those instructors will find it hard to pay their bills. 

Measures which can be taken at your flight school:

  • Place a sign on the door alerting people who have developed a cough, sore throat, fever or shortness of breath, within 14 days of overseas travel, to go home and call 13 HEALTH (13432584).
  • When possible, leave all doors open so that people don’t need to touch the handles
  • Wipe down all desks, flat surfaces (and even ERSA covers and maps!), EFTPOS terminals, aircraft folders and keys, door handles and light switches at the beginning or end of each day
  • Provide boxes of tissues in the common areas
  • Provide hand sanitiser in public areas and soap in bathrooms
  • Keep a box of sanitising wipes in each aircraft for wiping down the controls and screens after each flight
  • Encourage all students to purchase their own cheap headsets, such as the PNR 2000
  • When students cannot afford their own headsets, issue them with a $3 mic muff each to put onto the school’s existing headset mic, and wipe down the headsets between use.
  • When students cannot afford their own headsets, order cheap ones and provide them to full-time students for the duration of their training (after the payment of a refundable bond)
  • Consider providing a thermometer at reception for measuring temperatures of staff members

If you do end up in quarantine or your flight school closes for a few days, you might like to take the opportunity to:  

  • Refresh your memory about procedures or get ready for an upcoming lesson, by watching the www.GoFly.Online videos which cover all the RPC ab initio pre-flight and in-flight lessons, cross country lessons, Instructor Training and much more. There are interviews with pilots, videos about how to cope in emergency situations plus a reality TV show about learning to fly. There are also over 25 blog articles.
  • Check out aviation videos on YouTube
  • Check out sim videos on Youtube such as those created by Aus Flight Simmer 
  • Use a flight simulator such as Infinite Flight, a game for your iPhone, or if you are using a computer, try  X-Plane 
  • Practice procedures in a real simulator if there is one open in your area
  • Catch up on some reading/listening/viewing. You can read blogs online such as those found at Bold Method or aviation mags available online and at newsagents. You can listen to some podcasts or watch some movies such as those listed at the bottom of this page. You can read some aviation-themed books such as this new release: So you want to become a pilot

*If you cannot find hand sanitiser on the shelf at your local supermarket, chemist or Officeworks stores, think outside the square. Order a bulk supply from a cleaning products website such as Tensens and then put it into smaller containers.

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Why the VET Student Loan program needs to change

Why the VET Study Loan program for flight schools needs to change

Commercial pilot

Recently in the Australian newspapers there was a story about 15 students who were taking a very large flight school to court for not meeting the students’ expectations for their Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) flight training. It was no surprise that 99 percent of this school’s training was conducted under the Vocational Education and Training (VET) Student Loan program.   

I have been in the industry for over 30 years and owned a busy flight school for almost 10 years. While the majority of my flight school’s training is recreational and we do not qualify for VET loans, I know a lot of instructors who have worked in a VET Loan funded school and some of the feedback is not good.

The news about the 15 students who are taking this large flying school to court is, I believe, just the tip of the iceberg in relation to the current problems with the VET fee program. The reality is, most CPL students are afraid to complain because they are so desperate to obtain their first job in aviation. In Australia, the aviation industry is still a fairly small community and no one likes to be branded a complainer, plus, most employers will ring the training organisation or expect a reference from them, so most students realise that it’s easier to just shut up and hope for the best.

How does the VET Student Loan program work?

The program is a loan scheme which assists eligible full fee paying students studying an approved VET course, to pay their tuition fees. The loan for flight training is up to a current limit of around $104,440, and up to $150,000 from January 2020.  To be eligible for inclusion in the program, flight schools need to have their own Part 141 and 142 and be a registered training organisation (RTO) with the government plus follow some other strict rules.

Currently students only have to start to repay the amount after their wage or salary is above $51,957 (or for 2019/20, above $45,881). The government also charges around $17,000 in administration fees AND the loan increases each year with the consumer price index! Here’s an extract from the Government’s VET Student Loan Information booklet: 

A 20 per cent loan fee applies to VET Student Loans for full fee paying/fee for service students. The loan fee does not count towards your FEE-HELP limit. You do not have to pay the loan fee upfront – it is added to your HELP debt at the ATO. For example, if you are undertaking a course that costs $1,000, the loan fee is $200 (i.e. 20% of $1,000). So your VET Student Loan debt for that course will be the cost of the course ($1,000) + the loan fee ($200) = $1,200. 

VET Study Loan is too easy to get for both the flight school and the students

Currently, with most schools eligible for VET study loans, the entry requirements are fairly basic as far as minimum education or aptitude tests. There are some schools that do run test screening and interviews for potential flight students (similar to airline-type interviews and testing) but this is quite rare. The reality is that learning to fly to PPL level is hard, but achievable, for most students. Completing your flight training to CPL level is a whole  different story – and honestly not everyone has what it takes to be a commercial pilot. That’s why airlines and the Air Force don’t just hire anyone who wants to be a pilot. Every specialised career requires certain personal, mental and emotional traits for that specific career. For instance, I would make a terrible pro tennis player no matter how much I wanted it.

I support some type of VET Study Loan or similar program but I believe the current system is broken and is permitting some CPL students who shouldn’t be allowed, or encouraged to continue, when the school knows those students will struggle to meet CPL standards. 

Money grab

It is frightening to think that many of the flight schools which utilise VET fee are using it for more than 90 percent of their students. This goes against basic business fundamentals: you should never rely on a single revenue funnel or have a single point of failure for your business. If the government of the day decides to make changes or stop VET loan funding (which they can at any time) flight schools which are dependent on it could collapse overnight, and this has happened already in Qld.

Many of the VET loan schools see VET Study Loans as a fairly easy and constant source of cash flow. The issue with this is that over time, this easy cash erodes basic common sense and can lead to dishonest dealings with flight students about their ability to become a commercial pilot. 

Imagine if you ran an acting school and you were desperate for students. A student walks in and says ‘Here’s $100,000. Please teach me to become an A list actor’. Then, after a week of training them, you realised that this student would never be a great actor. Would you give them the $99,000 back and tell them, ‘Sorry, but we can’t help you. You will never be good enough.’ Probably not. The temptation for many flight schools is to accept the money and just hope the student finally improves. Money has a tendency to dilute common sense. 

An Instructor who was teaching at a large school told me that less than half of the students passed their CPL flight test at the first attempt. Also, many of the students were not CPL material but the school just kept training them anyway because they were VET loan funded. Getting a student to PPL level is possible for most instructors but getting them to CPL level is a lot harder. 

I have also had a few students who quit their VET loan funded school (before their debt was too great) and then completed their training at my school using their own money, as they deemed the training and cost at the first school to be unreasonable. One of the students had racked up a debt of $20,000 and had not yet gone solo or been advised about any potential issues as to why they hadn’t achieved solo. Once again, the student did not wish to complain because they eventually wanted a job in the industry.

Students do not understand the price of each lesson

It would be unfair if I blamed all the current problems facing VET loan on government policy and some greedy flight schools. Part of the current issue is that students who receive VET loans don’t really understand the actual costs because they have not had to work for each flying lesson. Most of my students pay for their own flight training. They can see the connection between how many hours they have worked, and how many hours of flying they can afford. They will correct us very quickly if we accidentally enter the wrong hobbs and overcharge them by .1 of an hour!  Paying for one’s own flight training tends to weed out those who really want to fly and those who just like the idea of being a pilot. If a student paying with their own money is not happy with the level of service or training, they will simply take their business to another school. 

I believe there needs to be a public conversation and that both the General Aviation and Recreational Aviation flying schools should be involved in the debate on the future of VET loans so we can create a funding scheme that’s fair for all flight schools and students.

To start the conversation, I have outlined below a few suggestions:

Suggestion 1: New entry requirements for VET study loans

To prove that the applicant is both keen on becoming a pilot and can meet the educational requirements, I propose that there are some entry requirements for VET loans for pilot training. This would prove that the applicant has the motivation to at least save and pay for initial flight training themselves and can actually fly a plane to solo standard. 

  1. Basic pass grade for year 12 or equivalent 
  2. Pass an English proficiency test
  3. Pass the Class 01 Medical
  4. Have gone solo in a fixed wing aircraft (General Aviation, Recreational or Glider)

Suggestion 2: VET loan paid in stages and offered to all flight schools

The CPL theory course is complex and hard. The issue with the theory component is that a lot of students only start sitting their CPL theory exam towards the end of their physical flight training. If they don’t pass the theory, they cannot obtain their CPL. 

Stage 01: CPL theory VET loan

If the student has already gone solo then they could apply for the ‘Stage 01: CPL theory VET loan’ component. The first stage of the VET Loan would be a $6,000 amount to attend a CPL ground school with one of the approved CPL theory providers across Australia. Only if they have passed all the CPL subjects can they then apply for the second stage of the VET study loan. 

Stage 02: PPL VET loan

‘Stage 02: PPL VET loan’ funding would be up to $20,000 to achieve PPL level or 60 hours of dual lessons and solo flying .This can be conducted in both Recreational Aircraft and General Aviation aircraft or a mixture of both. Only when the student passes their PPL can they then apply for stage 03 funding.

Stage 03: Command building VET Loan 

‘Stage 03: Command building VET Loan’ would be for up to $30,000 to build 100 hours of command time in either a Recreational or General Aviation aircraft. Before being approved, the student must have an independent audit from a qualified Instructor to see if they have the potential flight standard to continue to CPL.

Stage 04: CPL training VET Loan

‘Stage 04: CPL training VET Loan’ would be for up to $20,000. The student can apply for this stage once they have their command time to complete the final CPL training.

Stage 05: Instrument and Instructor rating

‘Stage 05: Instrument and Instructor rating’ would be up to $50,000. This stage is for completing either their Twin Engine Instrument rating and/or Instructor Rating and can only be started once the student has passed their CPL flight test.

Under this arrangement, each new stage can only be started if they have passed the previous stage. And importantly, the student can change to another school at any time if they are not happy with the level of service/ training provided by that school.

Currently, only flight schools that can afford the expensive processing and approval process to become a registered RTO can get VET loan approval. This means VET study loans are only available to larger schools which leads to a winner-takes-all situation where only a few players have approval, and leading to limited choices for potential students. It also makes it unfair to the other flight schools that are not large enough to afford the overheads that are required to become a Registered Training Organisation.

Suggestion 3: Training standards and consistent auditing

A lot of the arguments I hear from other instructors and pilots sound like this: ‘If we open up VET loans to all flight schools then the training standards will reduce.’ The current reality is that we have students taking flight schools to court and the low number of students passing their CPL at many of the VET loan schools prove that being both part 141 and 142 and RTO approved is not always a prerequisite for customer service or quality flight training. 

My suggestion is that if a school wants to be a VET study loan school it has to pay a $5,000 per year processing management/auditing fee. This would give them access to an online student management system that can be audited by an approved government or independent auditor who would audit the school and the students’ flight training standards every 12 months.  The audit would include a qualified independent Instructor to fly with random VET loan funded students to ensure standards were being maintained. This fee would also pay for a complaint and resolution service for the students. If a school fails their audit three times in a row then they are de-registered for VET loans.

The government could save millions

I suspect the government would actually save millions by implementing this plan. If the entry requirements for students were tougher and the funding was available to all flight schools it would keep the entire industry honest and fair. Personally I always encourage students to pay for their own flight training if they have the ability to, because a debt is still a debt hanging over you regardless of how attractive it looks upfront.

There are still a lot of VET loan approved flight schools that are doing a great job and are completely honest and transparent with their students about their progress. However it only takes a few larger VET loan funded schools to be greedy and completely destroy a government program that was designed to assist the General Aviation businesses and to alleviate the impending pilot shortage.

It will be interesting to see how the court challenge by the 15 students progresses. Just this week the TAFE partner of the flight school has suspended flight training and demanded to see some documentation. Hopefully the Government will come to realise that just throwing large sums of cash at a limited number of approved schools isn’t the only way to overcome the impending pilot shortage.

As always, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

Damien Wills

CEO, GoFly Group

4 November 2019

To see what other blogs Damien has written, click here.