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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

Training Program Lifts Off in Desert

In 2009, an Air France jet flying to Paris from Rio de Janeiro experienced malfunctioning sensors that led to a shutdown of the autopilot – and disaster. The plane lost lift and went into a stall, from which the pilots were unable to recover. The aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 passengers and crew. Bill Korner wants to prevent such accidents from happening again. So when students in the advanced training program at Flight Research Inc., where Korner is chief executive, take to air above the Mojave Desert, they are put through the same crash profile as the Air France jet – and not just in a simulator. The idea is to recognize a stall and learn recovery techniques. Welcome to Flight Research, an unusual pilot air flight training school based at the Mojave Air & Space Port, which offers pilots real-world training in an era when sophisticated commercial and business aircraft are mostly flown on autopilot. “You have to have a feel for the plane and the condition it is in to take control of it,” Korner continued. “That is what we try to augment civilian (flight) schools with.” Korner and two business partners took over ownership of Flight Research in early May, buying out founders Sean Roberts, 78, and his wife Nadia, 64. Flight Research started out in 1981 as the owner of the aircraft used by the National Test Pilot School, another non-profit Mojave institution that is an alternative to military test pilot training. Korner The business later branched out to include advanced flight training for commercial and business jet pilots, flight testing weapons systems for defense contractors, upgrading and certifying avionics, and Federal Aviation Administration certification of aircraft. The Mojave Air & Space Port is conducive to flight training for its year round clear weather and airspace that allows for supersonic jets. As home to cutting edge aerospace companies such as Virgin Galactic, which is building a sub-orbital space vehicle, Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary Scaled Composites, and Stratolaunch, building an aircraft for launching rockets, the spaceport promotes an environment of innovation. “We are encouraged by the new owners and business direction and look forward to a long term relationship with them,” said Stuart Witt, the general manager of the spaceport. Turbulent history Korner was hired for his business acumen but it was his background as a military pilot who has flown combat missions that made him appreciate how unique it was. Fight Research has 15 instructors split between full timers and part timers. These instructors have extensive backgrounds flying combat missions going back to Vietnam and two commanded Space Shuttle missions. And it owns more than 40 planes and helicopters, including Cessna, Cherokee, and Cirrus propeller craft, business jets like the Sabreliner 60, former military aircraft such as the Saab Draken, procured from the Royal Danish Air Force, and Bell Kiowa and Sikorsky Chickasaw helicopters. “I have never seen anything like it in the world,” said Korner, who served as president of Computerage USA and at book and map publisher Rand McNally. The combination of the instructors and fleet allows Flight Research to offer its advanced training on handling situations when an aircraft loses power – also known as upset training – at the controls of an aircraft. Many flight schools do not offer such training, or if they do, it is in simulators or using aerobatic planes, Korner said. The type of advanced training offered by Flight Research is a fairly small segment of the overall flight instruction industry, said Bob Rockmaker, president of the Flight School Association of North America, based in Allentown, Pa. “A lot of the upset training I think is being done by smaller standalone instructors,” Rockmaker said. “They may have a business but do not run a whole flight school.” The program of two-to-four days has both classroom and hands-on training of upset recovery, spin and stall procedures. A video recording of the flights is given to the students. In the training, which has class sizes of four to 12 students, instructors can reproduce what happens in microbursts (localized column of sinking air dangerous to low flying aircraft), wake turbulence (formed behind an aircraft as it passes through the air), and clear air turbulence (occurring without any visual clues such as clouds). “Sometime in their careers they will encounter these,” Korner said. Bob Agostino, an executive with an aviation firm in the South, sends his pilots to Flight Research for the training on an Aermacchi Impala, a single-engine plane that replicates the handling of a business jet. While simulators are productive up to a point, they cannot replicate what happens to a pilot’s body when an aircraft goes out of control, said Agostino, whose prior positions were with business jet manufacturer Bombardier Inc. and L.J. Aviation, of Latrobe, Pa. “You cannot simulate acceleration rates,” he added. “While you can roll a simulator upside down it does not have the physical cues.” If he had his way, the upset training provided by Flight Research would be mandatory for all pilots. “With the upset training provided at Flight Research, that crew (on the Air France jet) would have survived or never would have gotten into (problems) in the first place,” Agostino said. Business challenges While Korner said that the Robertses were ready to move on from Flight Research in 2011, there is more to the story than just a couple ready to retire. The two had pleaded guilty that year to filing a false tax return related to an undisclosed Swiss bank account. The couple had underreported their income by not disclosing they had interest in the Swiss account or several other foreign accounts and failed to report income earned on those foreign accounts, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The pair were sentenced last July to serve one year and a day in federal prison, pay restitution to the Internal Revenue Service of $709,675, and to pay more than $2.5 million to resolve their civil liability with the IRS. The couple is expected to be released from federal prison later this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. However, Korner said the tax problems did not spill over to the company that he joined as a consultant in late 2011. “It had nothing to do with the business; there were no indiscretions relative to business activities,” he said. With the couple’s approval, Korner formed a board of directors and set about acquiring the company. He is the majority owner and has two partners: Scott Evans, an independent accountant who is the chief financial officer, and Kirk Tracy, an attorney acting as in-house counsel and handling human resources duties. Despite Flight Research’s unique services, it is up against a general loss of business by flight schools, which started in 2001 following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and then continued with the recession. There were about 2,400 schools in 2001, a number down to less than 1,700, Rockmaker said. One growth avenue for the new owners is acquisitions. Korner said the company is willing to buy other businesses that can expand quickly the Flight Research core competencies in training, flight certification and the defense contractor work. An example would be in acquiring locations for flight training outside of California, perhaps in the South or in Nevada. “Someone on the East Coast may not want to come to California,” he said. “If you had a place in Florida that might be attractive to them.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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