New airline rules for first officers instituted Aug. 1 will increase pressure on flight-training providers to devise more innovative and affordable solutions to building hours. At a minimum, freshman first officers will need 1,500 hr. flight time for an Air Transport Pilot rating, up from 250 hr. and a commercial rating, with fewer hours required for military pilots or those with an aviation degree.

Texas-based Redbird Flight Simulations, a provider of low-cost full-motion simulators, is betting that it has at least part of the solution. The company has launched an “experiment” to determine whether older Cessna 172 Skyhawks, refurbished with new interiors, glass panels and turbo-diesel engines—and combined with time in the company's flight simulators—will make professional flight training more affordable and more relevant.

The supply of aircraft candidates is immense: 33,000 Skyhawks are potentially available, though Redbird is ideally looking for “E” models among the 5,000 built that have “run-out” engines but good airframes. The flight schools that might be interested in equipping with the Redbirds, assuming the price is right, is significant as well: 2,700 in the U.S. alone.

Charlie Gregoire, vice president of sales, marketing and services for Redbird, says new four-seat aircraft are too expensive for training and two-seat light sport aircraft are too limited in capabilities.

The RedHawk program, which is getting underway at the company's Skyport flight school in San Marcos, Texas, starting early this month, includes training and operations experience with five refurbished 172s. Early results will be reported at the company's annual “Red Bird Migration,” a two-day simulation and training conference in October. Skyport itself was an experiment the company launched in 2011 to create “more proficient pilots for less money,” says Gregoire. After two years, the program has a throughput of 160 pilots per year with an average of 30 hr. in Redbird simulators and 35 hr. flight time. The company has delivered approximately 900 simulators, ranging from desktop versions to full-motion King Air and Citation jet advanced aviation training devices (AATD). Gregoire says the FMX full-motion AATD is the most popular for flight schools

Gregoire says some students will use the five RedHawks starting in August while some will use new-model $300,000 Cessna 172s equipped at the factory with Garmin G1000 avionics. RedHawk 1, on display here at the Experimental Aircraft Association's 2013 AirVenture, is a refurbished 2002 Cessna 172SP with 7,800 hr. on the airframe. He says the retrofit avionics for the RedHawks—Aspen Avionics displays and Bendix/King communications, navigation and surveillance equipment—will be much more affordable than the G1000, in part because Garmin does not have an supplemental type certificate for retrofit on the 172. Redbirds 2, 3 and 4 are now in production, he adds, and a fifth aircraft will be built, as well.

Greater savings could come from changing out the Cessna's avgas-powered 180-hp Lycoming engine with a 135-hp Continental Centurion 2.0 turbo-diesel.

The Jet-A engine burns 4.8 gal. per hour in cruise, down from 8-10 for the Lycoming. For flight training, that should correspond to more than $3,000 in savings in total for a private pilot-training program, given the cost of Jet-A fuel today. Skyport today charges $9,900 for a fixed-price, fixed-schedule private pilot's license.

Continental says more than 3,500 Centurion engines have been delivered, and the fleet has accumulated 3.5 million flight hours. The four-cylinder in-line engine is liquid-cooled and geared to allow the crankshaft to turn at 3,900 rpm while the variable speed, three-blade MT composite propeller spins at no higher than 2,300 rpm. The engine has a full-authority digital engine controller with single-lever control. With its low fuel-burn rate, the RedHawk will have an 8-hr. endurance with standard Skyhawk fuel tanks. However, since the engine is 70-80 lb. heavier than the engine it replaces, flight schools will likely fill the tanks only halfway to boost payload.

John Weber, Continental's technical support and training manager for the Centurion engine, says a turnkey installation is “in the low $70,000s” and the engine replacement cost at 1,500 hr. of operating time is $43,000. He points out that the operator will have saved $65,000 in fuel costs over the same 1,500 hr., though.

Gregoire does not yet have an idea how much the RedHawk will cost in steady state production, and he admits the program could be a failure if the prices are too high for flight schools. He says Skyport has conducted “about a dozen” projects since 2011, with a 75% success rate.

The RedHawk experiment is Skyport's most expensive to date. “We'd rather someone else did this, but nobody is doing anything like this,” says Gregoire. “We'll prove it works, or we'll fix it to make it right.”