The Good. The Bad.... and the Ugly.
So you're considering being a pilot?
"Come right in young aviator, we'll make your dreams come true." promises the over zealous sales agent.
Surely you've heard this statement before....
If you're like me, the current pilot shortage has opened up a lot of opportunity to enter a profitable and fun career with a lower barrier of entry.
You watched your grandfather fly his old rickety Piper Cub or Cessna.
You've felt the dignity that emanates off the Captain in full uniform as you walk through the airport.
You've marveled at the Boeing 777 fly gracefully through the air wondering how the miracle even happens.
And who doesn't have that cool pilot buddy that was a navy fighter pilot and is now flying commercial jets as a career. His stories are legendary!
My story is a bit different.
First off, at 50 yrs old (when I began my aviation journey), I'm the oldest student by at least 10 years, and often... 30 years.
Wow was I overwhelmed at just how beautiful that aircraft truly was.
The avionics view in the G500 - the G800 has double head up displays so both pilots are looking at the same information.
The industry right now is filled with young, mostly men, eager to earn their wings and will work hard to gain their hours to get hired on by the airlines with hopes of flying for the majors.
That was never my goal.
At my age, this is a second career for me and I wanted to do something serving people that took me to new places during the second half of life.
Funny thing I learned about aviation, it's a field where everyone is the same. it doesn't matter what age, shape, gender, race or background you have - the knowledge equalizes everyone into the same bucket.
So far in my journey, I've made friends with people from all walks of life, and many of them I'm old enough to be their father and yet consider them my peer.
I've learned quite a few things from the 19 - 20 something young men with sharp minds, quick whits and an eager disposition.
So here's my aviation story... top to bottom.
I'll share how I started out, the decisions I made and most importantly, the thinking behind each decision.
There are dozens of different ways to get your training and you'll be faced with having to make the best decision with the information you have available so ask a lot of questions, talk to people who have the career you want, but also ask the person who is only 3-6 months ahead of you.
I opted for the Bose A20 - mostly because it had amazing reviews and at $1,100 it was considered the best. You don't need to spend this much, but having a comfortable headset is a game changer.
Noise cancelling is a must!
Bluetooth connectivity is nice to have so you can hear the notifications from your inflight devices you're using to navigate, timers and digital flight bags like Foreflight.
The Discovery Flight
Probably the most important thing you'll ever do - first decide if you really want to be a pilot by taking a discovery flight.
I was hooked from the first time I experienced lift off.
This is a great way of testing out the school and seeing if they're a good fit for your style.
Discovery Flights usually cost about $150 - $200 and last 60 - 90 minutes.
Part 61 at the local flight club with an non-towered airport
Next up is the local flying club.
For me this was at Boulder Municipal Airport in Boulder Colorado flying at a field elevation 5,288'.
I flew with Michael, a young mid 20's guy that is full of life and has a ton of patience - which was crucial for me.
We flew a simple Cessna 152 with only 150 hp engine.
It was so underpowered for that elevation, we couldn't fill up the tanks completely and both fly in it together. Not a huge deal - it was only $115 an hour.
A bargain for plane rentals!
Flying when the field elevation is 1 mile in the air really requires a lot of planning. Weight and balance, fuel management - it all has to be perfect!
I started off buying my own plane, a 1972 Cessna 172. This is a great move if you can afford your own plane and the Cessna is a great option.
Sadly, I just bought the WRONG Cessna that needed too much work and didn't match my timelines. I sold it and move on with hopes of getting my training done quicker.
This is a photo of my good buddy, and pilot mentor, Mark who I owned the plane with.
He's a 30+ year American Airlines Captain and has been an incredible resource in navigating a beginner pilot career.
Mentors are everything! Find one and be grateful for their experience.
The 141 Academy
There's a lot of reasons to look at an aviation academy. They make big promises and tout reputations of being able to "get you to the airlines the fastest".
That can be exciting when you read articles that the airlines are paying up to $590,000 for Captains.
This is true in part, but like many big organizations, schools and academies also have their problems.
My Experience at Skyborne Aviation Academy in Vero Beach Florida, Part 141.
I admit, I too got excited by the glamorized websites and social media of the big academies. I convinced myself that's what I needed to really get through this and learn with style.
I spoke with Taylor, a lovely young woman with a vivacious personality and the best part, she gave accurate information. She was a great resource for navigating all the questions I had.
I was moved by the promotional video below.
I think it was the thrill of being part of something bigger than myself.
I never went to college so this was my chance to experience a campus lifestyle and an immersion experience.
Just learning how to fly!
What aspiring aviator wouldn't love that?
Time Away from Home, Friends and Family.
Remember that you're moving to a different city and state, maybe even country. There will be challenges!
Knowing where things are in the city, not having a support system and getting use to new experiences, maybe even cultures is all part of the adventure, but it can take a toll.
You'll have birthdays and events that you need to find creative ways to celebrate and acknowledge yourself to remain in healthy self care.
I celebrated my 51st birthday by taking myself to a sushi dinner and a local men's group I joined bought me a cheesecake.
And a great memory I had to intentionally create by setting up life in a new town, even if only for a year.
One of the cool parts about Vero Beach, Florida is that it's very much a Snowbird town!
Just after Thanksgiving (maybe Christmas) and Easter, the town doubles in size, bringing a lot of community entertainment with a heavy art scene. (shows, plays, and comedy)
The Riverside Theater is a mecca of networking and entertainment.
Details attending Skyborne Academy
You won't see a plane for 30 days when you begin.
Your training will begin with 3.5 weeks of private pilot ground school. This is in a classroom in the main building with 10 - 20 other students.
It's drinking from a firehose!
Learn how to memorize information and you'll be fine. Ron White Memory Expert is excellent!
This stage is all about getting you to pass the FAA written exam - which you'll do at the end of ground school right there on campus in their test-taking room.
From there... it's introduction to the flight line.
I began my flying experience with CFI and Program Manager, Nathan.
I really lucked out with him as my Instructor because he was in his mid 30's, patient and had a likable style that I trusted.
Everyone knew he has solid character and was in this game for the long run.
Occasionally, there's outings planned among the students.
There's a passenger van that takes students to the grocery store two times per week for shopping - great for foreign students that may not have vehicles.
This is a field trip to The Kennedy Space Center January 2023
The maintenance and housekeeping crew are delightful people, very hard working and diligent with making certain everything is working properly.
I don't have any photos of that crew or specifics but the property is very old, so their constantly uprgrading and tinkering on things. Drop them a line at email@example.com if you ever need anything.
I never really understood the excitement for these programs for guys in my situation so it wasn't something I ever went after.
Skyborne lost the United Aviate Contract and brought in the Delta Propel program that began June of 2023 so I was on my way out when 50+ new students were arriving making for an already over-crowded and under-staffed flight line.
Location: The Tower, Airport, Housing and Flight Line at Skyborne Academy
Having everything all in one spot was super attractive for me.
Students walk one block from housing area, past the FAA tower and to the flight line.
Scheduling at Skyborne Academy
Scheduling was a nightmare. The expectation is for students to check the online scheduler called Flightlogger at 6pm every day for their schedule the next day.
Who can live with that kind of erratic and mismanaged schedule never knowing what their day is going to be like?
I get there's a lot of moving pieces and change is part of the equation, but this is impossible!
To make it worse, we get emails constantly claiming and reminding students that Skyborne is a "full emersion school" and we need to be available full time.
Skyborne is only full emersion if sitting around is on the curriculum! Students go days, even a week or more without flying.
This was said because Skyborne wants full access to our schedule with not accountability or conversation.
Flight Logger - The Online Scheduler at Skyborne Academy
I find it really odd that I as a student pay for this subscription and yet it does so little for me.
I can’t interact with it, and have nearly zero privileges.
It’s more of an online message board, and not that great of one.
I was charged $217 for the Flight Logger subscription.
Flight Line at Skyborne Academy
It would be great if the instructors were interchangeable with the ability to brief and debrief any student. There is little evidence of any standardization at the Skyborne line.
Speaking from my student point of view...The flight line is siloed into personalities versus processes, with little interaction between them.
But I purchased the "Skyborne Performance Promise", not any one Instructor personality.
I’m often told to “go talk to your Instructor” when I have questions.
Again… it’s just an attitude towards students.
Ask what the "Skyborne Performance Promise" really is - I inquired and was never answered.
Maybe that costs more money.
Internet at Skyborne Academy
In April, Skyborne threatened to limit our internet usage to only Skyborne and aviation related content and cutting off all streaming services and removing VPNs. This caused a massive outrage among the student body with many threatening to quit.
I can get streaming internet at Starbucks... why can't Skyborne figure this out?
The network there is extremely unstable and non-secure.
And using an VPN is a very smart thing for any user to do, so be careful what you do on the public internet there that you have to log into every 24 hours.
BBQ Grills at Skyborne Academy
This was the latest drama outrage right before I left.
Without warming or notice, all the grills just disappeared.
As student inquires were launched, we were told they were confiscated because the students "failed to maintain them".
Since when is it a student's (a customer and tenant) job to maintain Skyborne property?
We use the grill, we walk away... there's no "abuse" happening.
When questioned, there was ZERO apology, solutions or accountability offered. We were told that a dozen or more electric non-stick grills are being installed with electric lines.
This will cost thousands of dollars and takes MONTHS in installation running wires and obtaining permits.
The barbecue grills removed were apartment grade, residential use grills placed in a highly commercial area. I warned management these were going to be a problem with these due to the amount of usage the grills got.
I was dismissed.
But even still…The answer was simple: Maintenance handles Skyborne property by emptying the grease traps (which were never done) and heating them up to 500+ degrees daily to burn off any excess oils.
Worst case scenario: Recruit a few campus "Grill Ambassadors" to look out after them and help teach newer/younger students on their proper usage.
But nope, just presto. GONE!
Many students rely on those as their main source of cooking and we’re scrambling to make other arrangements amongst ourself.
I specifically asked if there were grill(s) on premises before I signed on because this is one main way I maintain my health.
Yet another Skyborne broken promise.
I think at latest... charcoal grills were installed. Who knows.
Housing at Skyborne Academy
Housing is in two main categories:
Dorm rooms which are double occupancy with a divider wall between them up to the height of a ceiling fan that is right the middle. (So visual separation, but not auditory)
Those dorm rooms have 3 different buildings: American, UK, and for now, India.
The dorm rooms are single story, in two rows, top and bottom.
All have patios with a sliding door. All dorm rooms have an app driven (paid) laundry room to them. The app is called Pay Range where you preload money onto your account and connects via bluetooth to washers and dryers. It's very convenient.
Then there’s the bungalows. About 300-400 sf, sort of like a studio.
They are also expected to be double occupancy but no way that is manageable with two people… you’d go bat crazy.
For now, the bungalows are all single occupancy and are typically used for older students who’ve been living by themselves and can’t do a dorm lifestyle.
Be aware that you ARE asked to leave once you become a CFI and can’t live on property.
This is a video of my bungalow and how I decorated it. I made this for a friend back home that was curious about where I was living and checking in on me.
Cost is $200 a week, $21.36 per day to be exact.
This is your Dorm Agreement you'll be asked to sign along with instructions on how to pick up your dorm keys.
Accounting at Skyborne Academy
Accounting is in short... a challenge.
It took me 3-4 emails to even get a reply, and that’s only after I involve a couple of other people (such as the Customer Service Rep, Monica Tierson) to get involved.
The disregard I’ve experienced by the head of accounting, Cynthia Norteman is truly inexcusable.
The Managing Director, Ed Davidson told me on 5/31/23 that Finance contacted me several times about my next payment that was due on 5/29/23 (Memorial Day) and I had not replied.
This is an outright lie so he can make the claim “I’ve failed to make my payments per my contract.”
First, the due date was only 2 days ago and second, I was waiting until 6/5/23 to pay the bill along with my PPL overage of $6,675.60 all in one bank wire.
More on those two below.
Brief / Debrief Time at Skyborne Academy
This is a huge hidden cost, with pressure being applied if we don’t “approve the lesson” via Flight Logger on the same day.
It wasn't until I was in commercial stage one that I finally understood how brief and debrief is charged in 12 minute blocks at the $62/hr rate. (5 blocks in a 60 minute hour)
Worse yet, I’m told instructors aren’t paid for brief / de-brief time and several Instructors were complaining about it.
How can an Instructor remain engaged if he/she is working for “free”?
During all my Solo Cross Country flights, I was forced to pay at least 12 minutes before and after my flight for it to be considered "an actual flight" by FAA 141 guidelines.
I still can't find this in the FAR / AIM.
Shortcuts at Skyborne Academy
From flimsy furniture, to inoperable AOA devices in the planes and cheap BBQ grills, Skyborne continues to choose the fast and easy way of doing things.
You'll see this throughout the campus if you look closely.
Culture at Skyborne Academy
This is probably my biggest problem and encompasses all the others:
The students aren't treated like customers. $70,000 - $80,000 customers!
There is a passive aggressive attitude that permeates everything.
We regularly get condescending emails from managing director, Ed Davidson written and sent out by the Customer Service department.
Leadership here doesn't know us, they don't walk the grounds, or shake hands.
They peer down from their 2nd floor windows or make casual glances on the grounds as they drive by and make snap judgements of what happens here.
I've experienced this exact attitude from Ed Davidson in Operations and trickles down to other department heads such as Michael Marks on flight line and Cynthia Norteman of Finance.
In or around April or May, Skyborne through a "Two Year Anniversary Party" and upon attending, we really learned it was a going away celebration of the 23 year Chief Flight Instructor, Michael Marks with a video powerpoint honoring him.
23 years Michael as there - and now he resigns once Skyborne takes over, no doubt exhausted by the bureaucracy and lack of results.
All the students felt like it was framed as an Anniversary Party because if they told us it was a going away party for Michael Marks, nobody would have attended.
Michael is a good man, but he was hamstrung by upper management and buried in complaints from students wanting to fly and not having enough flight instructors onboarded. I went toe-to-toe with him at least twice demanding delivery of the experience I paid $83,649 for (contract attached below).
This general disregard for student care and appreciation begins at the top and magnifies at the bottom.
The ones caught in the cross fire just "doing what they're told" = Maintenance and Customer Service who constantly walk the fine line of listening to student complaints while also following directions from leadership.
As if learning how to fly isn’t difficult enough, students have to deal with management, facilities, flight line, accounting.. the entire campus to deliver on its contracted agreements, get answers and manage our training to make sure it goes well.
The best source of a NEW client... is an old/existing one. Referrals are by far the easiest income for any business and this is clearly a concept they don't understand.
I'm regularly reached out to on social media, LinkedIn and interviewed by potential students. The aviation community is small.
The Pool at Skyborne Academy
In my 7 months, the pool was a constant source of aggravation and closings. (3 times in 7 months)
The pool (and all common areas) is a place of camaraderie where people gather, especially for the foreign students that don't have transportation to get to the beach and the campus is their world.
Again, kind of just something you have to tolerate since the campus is old and extended maintenance is going to be part of the expectation.
Uniforms and Dress Code at Skyborne Academy
The pants specifically are not breathable or stretching, terrible for climbing in small Piper cockpits in the middle of summer.
I wore them once and to Goodwill they went! Many of us buy navy, stretchy golf pants that work excellent. I got these from Oakley and they're awesome.
The shirts are white collared button down with 2 front pockets and flaps for epaulettes.
Black shoes (no sneakers) and you can probably get away with some stylish socks to show your personality. (but probably not)
Water Dunking (Hazing) at Skyborne Academy
Strictly my personal opinion here, but how does humiliating good young pilots by dunking them in water help them?
It seems like showing them with cheers and honor would serve them better?
Skyborne places this experience all over their social media as good students laugh along with this humiliating ritual.
Some people like these kind of events - I find them degrading.
SIM Graphics at Skyborne Academy
Flying a SIM is going to be a regular part of any flight school and something you should expect. It's a great way to hit "PAUSE" on the flying experience and evaluate the next move without the overload of flying a plane.
It's also a great way to see how the plane works in what would be unsafe conditions.
Skyborne has the Redbird Flight Simulator AATD - I don't know what model.
It works fine with the exception the graphics are not realistic to the area of Vero Beach, Florida. I flew it once for an hour and couldn't get out fast enough.
I couldn't tell if I was 40, 400 or 4,000 feet off the ground.
I saw no difference in the landscape between Vero Beach and any other area near the ocean.
The Instructors also don't like doing them because they're not making $20/hr as CFI's to sit on the ground - they're doing it to get hours and move on with their careers.
So the instructors are checked out on the process.
After I did one hour, I asked to convert all my SIM time to actual flight hours and pay the up-charge.
The Financials at Skyborne Academy
This is the details on the contract - yes, the very one that I signed and paid for.
Please download it and look at it because you'll have a hard time getting this from Skyborne.
The second document is what's called a "Scholarship Addendum" which was a promotion they were running October 2022 that gave the student "free" CFI school once all the stages are complete through Multi Engine.
Read it carefully as there are clauses such as:
Must be completed in 12 months
Certain targets must be hit
CFII and MEI are provided ONLY if the student is hired on to Skyborne as a CFI once complete with training.
Total Contract value: $83,649.
Total Paid on Contract: $50,189.40
I exited the program around June 1st.
Final Bill: $37,556.69
This refund took me almost 2 months to get returned with dozens of emails to Customer Service, Accounting and finally emails to the CEO's asking them to intervene. (that email is below)
For this $37,556.69 amount, I ...
Passed my FAA written
Got my Private Pilot License
Flew 102.6 hours
Did all my Cross Country flights including the extended 6 hour one (did mine to Savannah, GA)
and there's about 7 months of housing in there at $600 month.
Some of the contract pitfalls summarized at Skyborne Academy
Mandatory brief and de-brief time at $62 hr charged in 12 min blocks
Massive fuel surcharge (notice mine is $4,828 / 200 contract hours = $24.14 extra per hour)
90 day cancellation / refund clause
In Summation of Skyborne Academy
It's solely up to you alone if Skyborne is the right solution for you and nobody can tell you your right path.
This is simply my experience and since I enjoy sharing through stories, this is my opinion.
Skyborne has a culture problem.
Culture comes from ONE strong leader that steps up, casts the vision, owns all problems, gives away all credit and leads fearlessly.
While I learned a lot through my chosen path, I’m truly sorry I’ve chosen Skyborne for my flight training. This was a needlessly frustrating, time consuming and expensive experience.
The PPL cost nearly $7,000 more than estimated (promised), took 6 months to complete and I had to fly over at neighboring Paris Air to remain proficient.
That's not anyone's fault and a variety of factors contribute to that, not all of them controllable. What does matter is when a company promises results without having adequate employees or infrastructure to deliver on said promise.
I was done trying to reason with management and get them to fulfill their contracted duties and “do their best” by students.
I intended to cut my training short and eliminate both MEI and CFI designations so I can finish Commercial and Instrument training and move on in maybe 4 months.
On 5/31/23, I attended a hostile meeting with managing Director, Ed Davidson where he terminated my contract stating he “doesn’t like my attitude” and made no efforts to settle my account reminding me he has 90 days to return my money.
I’m also given 4 days to vacate my housing and leave.
Ed Davidson said specifically, “I’m not a client, I’m a student!” further bullying his way into making us feel demeaned and disrespected.
You can find him all over social medial outright lying about the "Skyborne promise" and the "Skyborne Performance Protection Guarantee" and the kind of pilots they create there.
They don't create pilots.
They sell time in a fleet of 20 year old Piper Cherokees, about 50 of them.
This is a 15 second video taken on June 1, 2023 during a packed crowd visiting for an Open House.
This voice is former managing director, Ed Davidson. His answer to the visitor's question:
"What are your flight hours?"...
"0630 in the morning until Midnight, 6 days a week, we're moving to 7 probably in July. Thats because of the number of students we bring."
This is an outright lie.
Skyborne does NOT have night operations on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
And the only way students are flying five times a week is if they own their own plane or are supplementing their training at another flight school, like I was doing at Paris Air next door.
NOTE - as a new student, you may think flying as much as possible is good, but honestly, you'll need down time to absorb the data, let your mind rest and study. It's estimated that you'll need 2-3 of ground study for every flight hour. I'm about 180 hours at the time of this writing and I can attest to the accuracy of that. That being said, everyone learns at different paces, styles and retains information at different levels.
I was there as a student under the regime of Ed Davidson and it was nothing but failed leadership and missed promises.
For over 7 months!
NO leadership, a flight line that is understaffed with students waiting around for a week or more to fly and losing proficiency in the interim, lot of needless drama, threatening to take away wifi, removed all the BBQ grills, pool constantly closed, it goes on and on.
The claims of Skyborne social media are not accurate, especially with time lines. Most students get their PPL in 6 months (not 3) and overfly their designated hours generating a nice fat bill to be paid within 30 days of getting your wings. (Wings they charge you for)
This is my overage bill for my Private Pilot License - $6,675.
Notice the brief time at 63.8 hours billed at $62 an hour.
I did get a paper flight certificate, so there's that.
Scheduling in basically a mystery email, scheduling@Skyborne.com.
You (and now the instructors too) aren’t allowed to speak to them. You have to send an email with your request and maybe you get a reply, usually not.
This school is NOT full immersion - they say that because they want full access to your schedule.
Many students feel trapped in their contract due to a slyly placed a 90 day money back clause allowing them to keep your money for 90 days should you leave - this basically means you’d have to fund your own training somewhere else before you get your funds returned.
Most students are young and don't have disposable income or funding to move on to another school and wait for their money returned.
If you’re on a loan, good luck, because they manage how it’s dispersed and it’s heavily in their favor.
Many students on loans complain how their money is not managed correctly and have a difficult time getting an accurate accounting of the money spent and many stories circulating about not being able to get money distributed properly for outside housing and living expenses.
My Advice about Skyborne Academy
Find students on social media and ask to interview us - we are all over Instagram and LinkedIn.
If you choose Skyborne, ask the hard questions. Aviation is hot right now and (some) schools can be a big "money grab" trying to get students through their programs.
Just be wise - follow your gut.
My Email to CEO's Lee Woodard and Ian Cooper to get my money returned.
Drop them an email, I'm sure they would love to hear from you.
Lee Woodard - LinkedIN
Ian Cooper - LinkedIN
Photos of the fleet
Photos of the Dorms
Photos of the Grounds
I'll continue to update this blog post as time goes on the best I can.
My contract was terminated May 31, 2023 and given 4 days to vacate, I was gone in only 2.
I'm now Part 61, pay as I go and managing my own training.
I moved into a studio in downtown Vero Beach and started next door at Paris Air to finish my Instrument Training and hope to have that complete in or around September.
In all, this was part of my experience and we all have them.
I'm not sorry for my path and embrace everything as a learning experience, one that will make me a better man and pilot.
Message me anytime if I can ever help you or find me on social media so I can follow your journey.
Good luck, Aviator! Don't let anyone steal your dream, not ever.