AviatorCast: Craig Fuller- Former AOPA President | Redbird Chairman | Pilot | Advocacy | Government 3 years ago


Craig Fuller

Today’s Flight Plan

Flying is one of the greatest freedoms known to man. Therefore, we need representatives in the Government that protect that freedom.

AOPA is one of the best advocacy groups not only for protecting pilots rights, but they also offer pilots a whole range of benefits of membership.

Craig Fuller, our guest on this episode, was President of AOPA for 5 years, and now recently working with Redbird as Chairman in addition to work with the FAA on the Management Advisory Council.

A top notch guy, an aviator himself, Craig shares his insight about flying, advocacy, AOPA, Redbird, the future of aviation and more.

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Craig Fuller


Craig Fuller

Big thanks to Craig Fuller for taking time out of his busy schedule to meet-up with us.


Major thanks to the amazing Angle of Attack Crew for all their hard work over the years. Our team works incredibly hard, and they’re very passionate about what they do.

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Welcome to another special edition episode of AviatorCast, an 8-poll roll episode celebrating National Aviation Day. On this episode, on this quick snippet episode, we have an interview with Craig Fuller who is the former president of the Airplane Owner and Pilot Association, better known as AOPA. Craig is a great guy. He’s very involved in aviation still but he’s enjoying maybe an easier lifestyle than that of the busy AOPA President. He is now the chairman of the board I believe for Redbird Flight Simulations which is another company that I admire quite a bit. But he is a still a very active guy. He is definitely an aviation at heart, and has always been such a proponent of aviation. So we were able to nab him for a quick interview. It’s just about 20 minutes long I believe, but it’s great to hear from Craig Fuller who has been so instrumental in helping push aviation forward here in the last decade. So, here is our quick 8-point roll interview with Craig Fuller.

Chris: Alright everybody, we are honored to have a very special guest with us today coming from Oshkosh. We have Craig Fuller, actually former AOPA President and current what, Craig?

Craig: I’m currently, as we stand here in the Redbird Tent, Chairman of Redbird Flight Simulations and on a couple other boards, there is a level of consulting, and living in McLean, Virginia outside of Washington, DC.

Chris: Great. So you stuck close to home after you’re done with all that work with AOPA.

Craig: I never, actually I moved to Washington, DC believe it or not with the Reagan administration in 1981. I thought I’d spend 3 or 4 years, then ended up spending 8 years, all 8 working in the White House, and never left. So yeah, I seem to have stuck there but I travel around a lot.

Chris: Good. By airplane I hope.

Craig: By airplane and now by something called the EarthRoamer which is a great, basically camper, so I’m parked over the group of people from Recreational Aviation Foundation and we’ve been camping out all week and enjoying it, got a nice little enclave in the mix thousands over here this year.

Chris: Now, those are the big trucks right with the all-terrain tires that can essentially go anywhere.

Craig: This was actually developed by someone who loves Alaska, goes to Alaska a lot as a photographer, and he wanted to be able to get into a vehicle and be remote for five, six days. So he designed it, one for himself and people liked it so much that he ended up creating a company called EarthRoamer, EarthRoamer.com, you can see them, but they’re built out a big Ford F-550 Diesel truck and no propane, no generator. There are solar panels on top and everything’s powered by the batteries or by diesel fuel.

Chris: Very cool. What type of airplanes are you flying these days?

Craig: Well I have a Beech Baron which has been very useful because Redbird Flight Simulations is based in Austin, Texas, so it’s a nice trip out from Virginia to Austin, Texas and I were in Florida fair amount, in and out of meetings and things. So that’s really the aircraft I’m flying. I had a Husky, I hold a Husky to somebody who was anxious to buy it. I missed that aircraft. That was a lot of fun flying really all over the country in that for a few years, but maybe there’s one in my future, we’ll see.

Chris: Gotcha. So, let’s rewind a little bit, just a little bit. How did you get started in aviation, how did that passion kick off for you?

Craig: You know, my father was in the army air corps, he was actually a flight instructor in Coffeyville, Kansas so maybe I inherited some of it, but I could actually remember that as a 14-year-old kid, camping was also involved and my parents at one of the few camping trips we took, pulled the trailer out of Southern California into Oregon, Washington. We were Bend, Oregon and there was a sign that said “Seaplane ride, 5 bucks” and I wanted to do it. My dad said “Sure, let’s both go,” and once I got airborne, I said “this is for me.” Well two years later, I turned 16 and started my flight lessons at Buchanan Field in Concord, California, ended up being able to fly at UCLA at a flying club there. So stayed active in flying.

And when I got out, I was able to do some flying and then eventually in consulting, using airplane as business. Purchased a Cessna-172 Catalyst when they first came out in 1979, and flew that all over the country including back to Washington DC after President Reagan was elected and I served in his administration just to kind of kept going. I had a Bonanza for a number of years, loved the Bonanza, and I was actually looking at a Baron when AOPA knocked on the door in 2007, I joined them in 2008 and of course that put me in the left seat of a Cessna CitationJet, CJ-3. We got a Caravan so I flew that. I had been very fortunate. I’ve been involved with aviation for a long time and able to use a lot of different kinds of airplanes.

Chris: So aviation, it seems, at least where you’re going with it, is part of who you were, you’re flying to and fro, but that wasn’t necessarily your focus as a career, right? So what was your training? What was your education?

Craig: Sure. Well very insightful. In fact, until AOPA, I never really had combined aviation and my job except to get me around. I always loved the perspective, I loved photography so I did a lot of things with aviation. But I was a political science major at UCLA, I got involved in public policy and some campaign work. I ended up working in a small firm that among our other clients was at the time former Governor Ronald Reagan. Then the firm managed the campaign in 1980 and so at the age of 30, I found myself in the West Wing of the White House, running an office called the Office of Cabinet Affairs which was liaison to all the cabinet departments and agencies, did that for four years and then Vice-President George Bush asked me to be his chief of staff.

So for four years including his 1980 presidential campaign, I was chief of staff to the Vice President. The Air Force did most of my flying. We went to over 60 countries in the 4 years and every state of the nation multiple times. So I did a lot of travelling, made possible only by aircraft but for the most part, it was the Air Force aircraft. I still did some flying on my own and I worked to stay current but it didn’t do nearly as much as what I do after I got out of government.

Chris: And tell us about your transition into AOPA.

Craig: When I left government, I joined a small firm, public affairs, public relations firm but we were able acquired in 1991 I think it was, and we’ve just finished doing this deal, I opened my AOPA pilot magazine to see that the then president John Baker whom I knew pretty well had decided to retire and a fellow named Phil Boyer was going to take his place and I thought “I should’ve been paying more attention. What a fantastic job that would’ve been.” I never met Phil. I’ve been an AOPA member since 1973 but literally 18 years later, searched for him, called and said “We’re doing the search. Would you be interested?” And I said “Well I was 18 years ago and I still am.” I was working at another firm at that time and they had a process, it took about a year I guess, and they kept saying “You’re not going to do anything else are you?” and I said “No. I’m happy doing what I’m doing but if this is a possibility, I’m definitely interested.”

You know, I had been involved in government and politics, I’ve been a pilot, I’ve been involved in with his communication’s consulting firm. I probably wouldn’t have been ready the first time around anyway but in the 18 years, I had done a lot of different things that prepared me. It’s a wonderful organization. It’s a wonderful team of people that make up the stuff. But with nearly 400,000 members and all the issues it faces, and then of course we went right into economic recession, there were a lot of challenges. It’s a big enterprise to run. In some ways, it’s a lot like politics. You can’t keep make everybody happy but you go in everyday and you do your best. And people were great to me. I travelled all over the country.

As president of AOPA, I was flying about close to 400 hours a year, in the combination of the Citation, the Caravan and my Husky, and so a lot of different kinds of flights, but I spent a lot of time getting out with the members and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m thrilled with Mark Baker’s selection and Mark and I had become good friends, saw him last night for a while. We get together often when he’s in Washington so it’s in good hands. I said I’d do it for five years. I was there just a little over the five but I had a great experience, and a wonderful, wonderful organization. And an important organization for all of us who want to make sure we protect this freedom we have to fly.

Chris: And tell us briefly about that. I don’t want to spend too much time on AOPA because you have other initiatives going on now like Redbird. But tell us why someone would want to be a part of AOPA?

Craig: You know, I’ll give you one story, but there are many stories, but one of the things we realized when I came in was that we had a new incoming president who had a huge user-free proposal that hadn’t really been framed but he said he was going to propose a 9-billion-dollar user-free. And one of the things, while we have a lot of clout because of the size of the membership, it was sort of untested. And when we put our minds to it, we created GA serves America to tell a story of what general aviation does, that got the attention of a few people in congress and they wanted to form a caucus. They wanted to form an organization of elected officials, house members and senate members who would come together as the general aviation caucus. Well I thought if we can get 30 or 40 members of congress that’d be great.

Well, we got 30, 40 then 70 then 80. The general aviation caucus and the house of representatives has about 252 members, over half of the house, and a clear majority of the house. And the senate about 40 members. And it’s only possible because AOPA members and the members of NBAA and GAMA and others all said to their congressman, “If you want our support, we really want you to be a part of our GA caucus.” It has been extremely helpful, and the proposal that we were initially concerned about actually never surfaced and we’ve been able to push things through like pilot bill of rights. You know that there is a lot of work being done in Congress now to drive the third-class medical action on that, but the congress has been, whether they pass legislation that’s helpful, or block legislation that’s harmful, they also are extremely good at talking to members of the administration and making clear their view that general aviation has an important place and it needs its funding and stiff charges shouldn’t be imposed on it.

And so I think that’s one of the things that I’m proudest of in the five years or so, is that the whole general aviation community pulled together but built a very strong support base in the house and the senate.

Chris: And I think the wonderful thing about that at least for me is flying is one of the best freedoms we have. It’s where, at least as pilots, we feel truly free out of all the things we do. So it’s great that there is advocacy for that.

Craig: You know, we have people that come here from abroad just to be able to go spend a holiday two to three weeks flying. AOPA to make sure we had representation in the international body, formed the International AOPA. 60 I think countries involved but when you go and talk to them, their problems are unbelievably bad compared to anything we have here, then it’s so much more restrictive. They have such limited use of airspace and aircraft, and usually the high costs, so it’s something you cannot take for granted and if I learned anything in over 34 years or so in Washington, it’s you can’t take for granted that the freedom you enjoy, the opportunity that you enjoy isn’t going to be regulated right out of existence so it’s very important whether you’re a member of EAA or AOPA or NBAA or a combination, it’s important to stay engaged and be involved.

Chris: Now, the transition from AOPA to where you are now at Redbird.

Craig: So in some ways, this relationship, actually this relationship started as I was coming into AOPA. Redbird was here for the first time in 2007, sold their first simulator in 2008, and that’s when I became president of AOPA. We were spending money at that time at AOPA, sending people to flight schools, encouraging them to go, but finding that a lot of people simply wash out of the program. In fact 75% of the people who became student pilots never became private pilots. And I just thought that was an outstanding failure of the training system.

So I looked around and the most innovative group I saw really try to address the issue was Redbird, and Jerry Gregoire and I teamed up and we worked closely together on what we were both trying to do individually. And so I was indicating I was leaving and would be sort of rejoining the private sector in some capacity, he said “Well, we would like to ask you to come on to board,” and he said “You don’t have to say yes before you leave” but he says “If you’re going to say no, let me know now.” I said “I won’t say no, how’s that?” And before I can get to my first board meeting, they then asked me to be chairman. And really, Jerry Gregoire was such a visionary and he has got such a fine team of people. It has been an absolute pleasure to be on the board and we got a great board. As you know, we’re always looking at new and innovative things.

We go to Sun ‘N Fun earlier this year with the bold idea that we could get three people to sell over the weekend and we did it, and we had a fabulous group with three people, very different, all of them whom had an interest in flying, none of them had done any flight instruction. And people thought it was kind of wild except that we knew from our own flight training experiences in San Marcos, Texas that if you really intensely train people with the simulator in and airplane, especially if they are matching, and great flight instructors, that you’d get people ready for that to fly their solo.

So it was exciting. The film clips are now coming out through AOPA. It’s really, I think, demonstrates better than most anything I’ve seen, the relationship between a student and an instructor using this technology and how this is very doable for people that are interested. We came here with the idea that we could threw the Redbird Psychic, provide a lot more information to instructions to students and flight schools with this device that just sits in airplane and monitors everything that’s going on. And the interest in it has been really very interesting guys. Flight schools are coming in everyday now and looking at it, they want to test it. But that’s what Redbird does. Redbird stays in the leading edge of technology. The idea that you could build simulators without buying all the avionics to hold the cost down is probably the first really breakthrough idea, and now of course because it’s a computer there that’s made to look like avionics, that computer, unlike an actual avionics package, that computer can watch what the student is doing so we really can use these devices and video screens with technology that also do the training. We’re excited about it. That’s we call this Redbird 20/20 so people can look at what we think the training in the future is going to be like.

Chris: And it’s leveraging technology to assist the little guy if you want to call them that. We’re taking, I mean really, this transitioned from where you were at AOPA to now, is just maturation of really the gaming industry and that’s come over to flight simulation. Obviously, it’s wise to use it. It’s helping flight schools to lower their costs and to do things more effectively through scenario-based training and all sorts of things.

Craig: You know, it’s wonderful for the student because there aren’t very many places in the country where if you got to do your training every Saturday or every Wednesday afternoon or whatever that you can guarantee a perfect weather for flight training. Well with the simulator, you can have, basically it will block your time so that you can go in same time every week or twice a week, and you’re going to get an instruction. If it’s down to zero-zero visibility, then you go spend the day and hours or two in a simulator. And you keep those skills, keep building those skills, you don’t let weather be an interruption, or an airplane is not operating properly. So it has a lot of advantages.

We are also really convinced that, you mentioned efficiency and it is, so if somebody has savvy problems caught with crosswind landings, you don’t have to try it, go around the pattern again, try it again, you can just sit there and keep putting yourself two miles out and fly that final and if there’s a problem, freeze it and the instructor and the student in a quiet setting can talk about the controls and how to utilize it, restart it, give it another try. And the instruction that led to the one-week ready to sol that we use and we readily uses, is intense simulator training then out to the airplane to do what you’re going to do in the airplane. And it really does speed the process, and it’s much less I think intimidating for a student, you tell him, “Now we’re going to go out and work on stalls” and they go “Oh my lord.” But if they’ve done it in the simulator and they know what to expect, recovery is not a problem.

Again, the motivation is to, Jerry’s motivation was to lower the cost, make this as you said more accessible, this technology that we use. I was a Bonanza pilot then became a Citation CJ-3 pilot in 18 days and I never in that training process never flew an airplane. It was all very sophisticated simulation. Now, I wasn’t set to fly by myself but that’s what the training was, it was made possible by a simulator. So the idea was to make it accessible, make it less costly and what I was so focused on was I didn’t know obviously the person who had gotten serious enough to become a student pilot fall out of the system because planes weren’t good, they couldn’t get their training in because of weather or whatever it may be. And we see 95% plus completion rates at San Marcos which means you sign up with the right kind of program and if you’re committed, you’re pretty sure you’re going to get that private pilot certificate. So it’s been a real pleasure to work with. And as you know, we’ve now gone from the single engine piston type of simulator out through Caravans, King Airs, the FAA actually uses our King Air simulators for their pilots in Oklahoma City who fly and test approaches. They train or do their proficiency work on a Redbird simulator. We’ve got Citation Jets. At this point, when somebody comes to the team with an idea or request, they’re pretty good in figuring how to make it work.

Chris: Right. And I was actually at Redbird Migration, that was very much the mantra, is everyone get together, share your ideas, just open forum sort of thing, and a lot of like-minded people too that are utilizing these simulators with the good curriculum to assist their flight schools.

Craig: You know, Migration was something that Redbird started to bring those people who are interested in flight training, using our product or just interested in what we’re doing together, and it’s turned in to a bigger and bigger activity, but you’re quiet right, this is not about trying to keep something quiet. We’re really trying to bring those people, and we learn from them. They share what their experiences have been, how they might be improved upon. That’s actually why we’ve had a flight training program going on at San Marcos. Then we actually have a flight school and they’re learning how to tweak the device and systems a little bit. But it’s a good sharing process.

Now we have ImagineFlight. ImagineFlight is an organization that we’re helping to stand up with Britney Miculka, I don’t know if Britney is around, but she’s a terrific person to talk to. Another AOPA alum, she was working there with us on flight training and flying clubs, and she wanted to go to Texas and so we were more than happy, in fact thrilled to get her to come here, and she’s leading the ImagineFlight program. Working with flight schools, again all of them committed to improving what they do and they learn from each other which is a terrific thing for the industry.

Chris: What are some of the challenges or some of the opposition to flight simulation right now? I know there are some new rule-making going through.

Craig: You know, this is a sad story about Washington. Literally, in the draft of regulations that were passed through, there was what you can only describe as unintended consequence of poor drafting that reduced the number of hours that you could credit for using a simulator. As a practical matter, we find that it doesn’t make a lot of difference because a person is going to get, whether they can log their sim time or not, they’re going to log enough time in an airplane even using a simulator, but psychologically for flight schools, it caused them to back away a little bit.

So we go to the FAA. First of all, a very good person inside the FAA did kind of a workaround, then the lawyer said “Wait a minute, that’s not what the regulation says, and even if we didn’t intend to say that, that’s what it says and we got to fix it.” So they put a time on and they said they could fix it and expedite it through. Well there’s one flight instructor who wrote in and didn’t believe in simulators, and with one letter of opposition by the thousands of letters of support, the FAA said “We can’t expedite it. We have to go to a full rule-making.” So it will get corrected. Like I said, I don’t think it’s a practical issue but it did for not just Redbird but for others cause flight schools to say “Well maybe we’ll see if they’re going to fix this.”

I think that without question, and not of it was aimed at Redbird, without question, the FAA has embraced this. The deputy administrator of the FAA Mike Whitaker actually has one of the Redbird Simulators. They’ve been very helpful to us. We don’t really have issues, any certifications we need. But again, it’s a rapidly moving technology and the FAA doesn’t move rapidly. They want to make sure that what people think they’re getting, they’re getting. And there’s a lot of different players in the marketplace so it’s not just about Redbird, their regulations have to be made to fit everybody.

But I think without question we’re just going to see more use of it. I also believe that you’re going to replace the good flight instructor but to the extent that this technology can provide really online type of training right there in the cockpit. We did a competition where people with no training learned to fly lazy 8s first with green boxes and then we take the green boxes away and now they’ve developed a skill that most pilots that actually struggle with for a long time. We were watching people learn to do it 15 or 20 minutes. So there is no doubt in my mind that we’re going to see the electronic learning extended even further into these devices when the device itself can watch what the students do.

Chris: And it’s such a great connection to this generation too because that’s what they’re used to and that’s kind of what they’re demanding now so it’s good timing.

Craig: You know, everybody’s doing their flight planning on the iPad or in the computer or in their iPhone and the technology in those devices for aviation is only getting better. So we will see and at some point probably accommodate carrying your own iPad right into the cockpit and utilizing that for a number of things. It is moving rapidly. And it’s one of the things that presents the regulatory challenges because it moves so fast now that it’s hard for the FAA to keep up with. But they’ve got some very good people and they’re working hard to try but I think they recognize that these are all tools that enhance safety really. If you can get somebody sitting in the air, they lost the control of an airplane, it’s one of the leading causing of accidents and even fatalities. If you can set people up for all kinds of circumstances that you would not them flying in even during instruction and experiences, see what it’s like, and even the basic decision of the go-around. I know so many pilots who are just psychologically, they don’t even think about going around when they should be thinking about it. But you show people that you can go shoot the approach and if you’re not happy with it, go around. That is, again when you’re flying a business jet, the flight safety program, they’d taxi airplanes onto your runway, they’d drive trucks on the runway in a simulator and demonstrate that you’d better be prepared to go around because this does happen.

My friend Stu Horn who owns Aviat makes these beautiful Husky airplanes so when I was really working on flying my Husky and actually it made me a better pilot, I just need to fly that airplane, then he approaches every runway assuming he’s going to go around and then if he gets there and everything is perfect, he’d lay out which is psychologically that is much better approach because you’re really ready for anything that might happen and then backcountry airports.

Chris: That’s the mantra anyway.

Craig: Exactly. You don’t know, the wind can be different than you thought. So it’s a good lesson.

Chris: What’s your advice to a student looking for a particular school? Obviously these days you and I both believe in simulation. What should they look for?

Craig: First of all, one of the things that we did at AOPA is create a little field guide for students. There is also one for instructors, but the field guide for students is still available through AOPA, also I think available off of Amazon, field guide for student pilot’s flight training. And that book actually walks you through what you should inspect. It talks about, it’s personalized so you can personalize it so depending on the kind of learning that you like to do, just kind of runs through a checklist. But it sets somebody up to know the questions to ask when they go in. I know some people feel that they want to be working with a seasoned pilot and they’d go through their whole training, initial training, maybe not use a simulator at all.

But the advantages to flight simulation are so strong that I would hope that people would at least try it to see what it’s like. So it’s a manner of checking with different schools, talking with different people. There is a Redbird on our website, you can locate where Redbird simulators are across the country and flight training organizations. But you know, call the airport, look around. It’s like everything else, shop around a little bit.

I think the other thing, I’ve always found that it doesn’t happen very often but if you really are not comfortable with your flight instructor, there are a lot of great flight instructors and the chemistry might be right. Don’t go spend a lot of money and 40 hours with somebody that you’re just not comfortable with.

Chris: No one does with relationships, so why deal with an instructor?

Craig: Right. And if the flight school is constantly giving you multiple instructors, that’s not good either. These are the sort of things that people can help you with. I think we’ve also, most of us who are pilots are only too happy to talk to somebody about their aspiration and help them find the right place. But the field guide to flight instruction that AOPA offers is one of the best things we produced and it was actually based off of a huge research project to understand what needs to go into flight training to make it a successful experience. We didn’t kind of make it up, we actually did a lot of research with people who were involved with flight training, with students that have been successful, students that have been unsuccessful, and the research really ended up with about 45 factors that need to be present and if most of those are present, the completion rates are very high. And if they’re not, unfortunately it’s more like 75% dropout rate that I was concerned about in 2008.

So with a pilot shortage, with this costing as much it does, we can’t afford not to take, everybody has got that little kernel of interest and help them complete their private pilot course.

Chris: Just a couple percentage points and we’d be doing better. So final words of advice and encouragement for pilots.

Craig: I was with somebody who was so excited because his son had passed his checkride and become a private but his son was kind of “Okay, well I did it,” and his father said “Don’t your realize this changes your life?” And I thought to myself you know, it’s not really an exaggeration. From the time I was 14, I knew I wanted the prospective of having the ability to fly. It’s taken me all over the world. You meet wonderful people, it’s a great community that should become part of, and its’ something I think that involves, it definitely involves continuous learning so it keeps you sharp, keeps you active. It’s just a great thing to experience so I hope more people try it.

Chris: Great. Me too. Thanks Craig. I appreciate it.

Alright, a huge thanks to Craig for joining us on this quick 8-poll roll special edition episode of AviatorCast. It was great to get some of his thoughts, learn more about his personal history in aviation and see where he thinks things are going to go now. We really appreciate all the work that he’s doing still with Redbird. They are doing a fantastic job with flight simulation which is definitely a big part of aviation these days and even becoming even more so. So again, we were excited to sit down with him. If you guys want to check out more about the episode, you can go to AviatorCast.com and there we will leave some more links about Craig and his work and also AOPA. So until next time, until the next 8-point roll episode, we only have a couple more left here, throttle on!


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