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Taking Flight: How a Dislike for Reality TV Led to an Aviation Training Business

As far as online and in-person aviation training goes, WINGSsReality EDU is world-renowned for being one of the best. An Orono-based technology company and academic institution that offers innovation programs focused on aviation training, WINGs Reality services clients all across the world: from individual students to large aviation associations. But as Michael Lessard, the co-founder and Chief Academic Officer, told me, his company was first inspired by reality television.

“One night I was at the University [of Maine] delivering a wing seminar to a group of people,” Michael said. “One half [of my brain] was delivering the wing seminar, and the other was thinking about how much I hate reality shows.”

But Michael’s distaste for the reality shows that were airing in 2009 inspired him to consider what kind of show would interest him.

“I got thinking, what if there were a reality show that took pilots and made a reality show out of the complexity of flying? [For example] pilots being scored on how well they responded to the difficulties of flying and piloting and aviation?”

Later that same week, after calling his now-partner Robert Clements, a web developer, and running the idea of an aviation-styled, web-based reality show by him, Michael knew this idea could have some traction.

“Robert said it was one of the coolest ideas he had ever heard,” Michael told me. “A week later he [Robert] had created a mock-up website, and we ran the web-based show for the next two years.”

For Michael, having the opportunity to spread his passion for aviation was something he had always been interested in. As far back as Michael could remember, growing up in Waterville, Maine, he’d always wanted to fly airplanes.

“Our house was at the end of the runway in Waterville, and there were airplanes constantly flying by,” Michael told me.

After obtaining his pilot’s license - which, as Michael told me, is professionally called your airman’s certificate - Michael flew as a private pilot before taking more trainings and earning his commercial pilot’s license. Now, twenty-nine years after he first started flying, Michael is a registered commercial pilot, an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) certified flight instructor, an instrument instructor, and a multi-engine instructor, among other certifications and ratings.

“Pilots are always training,” Michael said. “You always have to be on top of your game - constantly training and learning.”

That’s why, now, Michael has almost every kind of certification and rate a pilot can earn, in addition to being an FAA Safety Team Lead Representative - a position that has had him travel around the country offering pilots remedial trainings and wing seminars, and helping the University of Maine recruit members to their flying club.

That was actually how Michael ended up at the University of Maine the night when he came up with the idea for his business, he told me. For 11 years, Michael had provided ground training (as opposed to flight training) for UMaine’s flying club before starting the web-based reality show in 2009.

When their show started to gain a following, Michael and his partner Robert began hearing how their fans wanted a more formal kind of aviation training. Now, eight years later, WingsReality Edu is one of the premier aviation trainers, providing professional ground and classroom training for their students in-person, or online.

The room that WingsReality Edu is based out of in the Upstart Center for Entrepreneurship is basically a web-tv studio, Michael told me, with tables and chairs for the students who arrive in person, and a livestream occurring during class time for the remote students.

“We have some students who we’ve never seen,” Michael said. “Even though we never see these students, they can participate in real-time during class, and post-time [after class].”

When asked about the future of his company, Michael explained his and his team’s devotion to the variety of classes they offer.

“We’re always working on building our catalog [of classes]”, Michael said. “There are already dozens of classes students can take. Some classes are completely self-paced. We’re always building.”

Another aspect of the business and class experience Michael is dedicated to is always offering the most up-to-date technological devices for his students. He hopes to continue upgrading the camera system they use for recording class time so that his company is always offering the best educational experience for the aviation associations and students from around the world they work with.

When asked for any advice he would have for other entrepreneurs, Michael was quick to answer.

“When you have an idea, talk to other people,” Michael said. “It’s easy to believe in your own ideas, and it’s easy to think you have the greatest idea in the world. [But] talk to other people who are experienced business leaders. If these people think it’s something that can be done successfully, you have to believe in yourself wholeheartedly. Trust yourself.”

“You have to be ready to commit to it 100%, give it everything you have, and never stop learning,” Michael told me. “Above all, never stop learning.”

If you're interested in the Private Pilot Ground School, classes start tonight (Sept. 7th), so click here for more info!

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