New simulators, online courses change face of flight training

 - September 20, 2007, 10:50 AM

New technology and tactics are changing flight training against the backdrop of a declining pilot base, fewer student pilot starts and a shortage of flight instructors.

The biggest technological breakthrough of late has been the introduction of dynamic flight training devices (FTDs) that are now being incorporated into the curriculum for training on everything from Cessna 172s to the largest airliners. Several recent models, such as Frasca’s TruFlite models, are portable and can be easily transported to client locations for on-site learning. Online learning, although still in early development at several training companies and viewed skeptically by others, holds out the promise of affording continuous training and review through all stages of a pilot’s career, supplementing the gaps between formal visits to learning centers and simulators.

More schools are also focusing on scenario-based training, first pioneered by the military, that melds the teaching of systems knowledge and pilot-decision making into real-world situations. Refinements in graphics technology are also making simulator training more realistic-looking.

Overall, the decline in licensed pilots and new pilot student starts has not recovered much from its lowest point in 2005, when they plunged below 600,000 and 60,000, respectively. At the lower end of the flight-training food chain, this translates into career-track pilots spending less time as primary flight instructors before they are hired by regional or cargo airlines, air charter operators or private flight departments.
Part 141 flight schools have been particularly hard-hit by the current market. “We’re short instructors,” said Esa Harvela, the chief flight instructor for Embry-Riddle University’s Prescott, Ariz. campus. The school has 600 flight students and 30 aircraft. Most flight students are on a career track to fly for the airlines, but some are focusing on military or corporate flying.

Harvela said he would like to increase his current instructional staff by 15 to 20 percent and that the shortage is being felt throughout the Western states. “In the Phoenix area alone, schools are down about 150 instructors and throughout the West overall, probably by about 1,000 instructors,” he said. Harvela said the current market is almost as tight as it was during the airline hiring boom of 2000. He added that the university’s recent graduates are skipping the traditional journeyman period of flight instructing and going straight to regional airlines. “A lot of our graduates aren’t even getting their CFI [certified flight instructor rating],” he said.

Randy Field, the interim chairman of the university’s flight department, blames the development, in part, on regional airlines’ lowering their hiring standards in terms of the number of pilot hours required, and said the instructor shortage is driving up costs and forcing Embry-Riddle to offer “retention incentives” for instructors who agree to stay as little as 10 months.

Corporate, Airline Training Not Effected–Yet
So far, the instructor shortage does not seem to have matriculated to training companies serving the corporate and airline markets, but that could change. “We’ve been very fortunate to get all the qualified applicants we are looking for,” said Tracy Brannon, managing director of Simcom, a company founded in 1989 with major facilities in Orlando, Fla. Simcom primarily focuses on the owner-flown market and corporate flight departments for small to medium-sized companies and individuals. Simcom covers platforms including the Cessna CitationJet and CJs, Pilatus PC-12, Piper Meridian, Mirage, Seneca and Saratoga models, the Socata TBM 700 and 850 series and the Mitsubishi MU-2 models. Brannon credited Simcom’s ability to retain instructors on having “the right package of workplace environment and benefits,” but admitted that eventually the market could tighten.

The tightening may be not only in terms of personnel, but also in terms of increased customer demand for more value for the flight-training dollar. “The hat trick is to give people more for the same or less,” said Jeff Roberts, group president of innovation and civil training and services for CAE SimuFlite, a company that operates 25 training centers covering 50 different fixed- and rotary-wing platforms in 19 countries, trains 75,000 crewmembers annually and posted 2006 revenues of $313 million (C$330 million).

“You need to figure out where the value proposition is,” Roberts said. “The industry is going through big changes and historic models are under more pressure. Today, you have to help customers with their businesses, not only helping them to focus on and enhance safety but also in terms of helping them lower their cost of [aircraft] ownership.” He added that “leveraging technology” is a big part of that equation. To that end, CAE made two significant moves last month. It created Presagis, a commercial, off-the-shelf modeling and simulation software company, and acquired Flightscape, an Ottawa-based safety company that provides flight data analysis and flight sciences.

Simcom’s Brannon said that leveraging technology involves looking at incorporating “new hardware and software into the development of our simulators whenever possible,” but it also involves using more cost effective level-B and level-C electric motion simulators instead of the more expensive level-D hydraulic models. “Five years ago, we installed an electrically driven motion system on our level-B Cessna Citation simulator in Scottsdale,” Brannon said. “Now it is the industry standard.”

Better Graphics
Brannon also noted the advances in simulator “visual systems” for GA aircraft as a major technological breakthrough  within the industry. “They are becoming more powerful with a broader array of graphics and visual elements for operators of these types of aircraft. In the past, typically, they were available only for very high-end customers, such as airlines and the military, but now they are available for the business aviation pilot.” Brannon said improved visuals extend to the classroom,  where more colorful schematics help students to better and more quickly understand aircraft systems.

Online learning as a means of reinforcing remedial and aircraft systems knowledge, preparing students for classroom and simulator sessions and honing skills between recurrent training is also gaining in popularity, although there are differing opinions as to just how much.

According to SimuFlite’s Roberts, “The days of people coming to a training center and that being the entirety of their training is going away. With the greater sophistication of today’s airplanes you will see more continual, scenario-based training. Continuous training is where we should go. Frequency and repetitiveness are good things and the technology and control is already there to do that, but we have to progress our way there. The keys are E-learning and simulation.”

But Simcom’s Brannon, at least partially, disagreed. “We’re not doing anything now with online learning. We’re continuing to evaluate it, but we’re not getting a strong demand for that type of training at this point. Our typical customers are owner-operators. When they purchase a course, they schedule that time to come in and do that training in a specified period of time.” But Brannon is not ruling out online learning eventually. “We’re sensing a growing demand for online-based or home-study aids with newer pilots and we’re looking at how to meet those customer needs in the future.”

However, most VLJ makers and their training providers plan to, or already are, offering at least part of their pilot training on line. Even primary flight schools, such as Embry-Riddle, are moving in that direction, according to chief flight instructor Harvela. “We’ve just established a full-time position that will develop computer-based training. We plan to have it implemented by the fall of 2008,” he said.

Online learning is expected to accelerate the trend toward a greater emphasis
on scenario-based training as opposed to the traditional systems-based approach. “We’ve been implementing more scenario-based training continually over the last six to seven years,” said SimuFlite’s Roberts, who explained that it is particularly useful in teaching high-altitude and international operations as well as human factors and crew resource management. “We’ve been migrating away from the old days of overemphasizing the teaching of systems and theories,” he said. “After all, how many times can you learn the electrical system on a Gulfstream IV?”

New technology may assist in providing the right balance and integration between systems knowledge and scenario-based training. FlightSafety and Cessna developed a pilot training program for the Citation Mustang that uses a high-fidelity FTD and online training (see related story on page 105) to familiarize students with the operation of aircraft systems taught in the classroom. This increases student proficiency with these systems and better prepares them for scenarios they encounter while in the level-D Mustang simulator.

FTDs have shown their value in aircraft as uncomplicated as a Cessna 172, according to Harvela. When Embry-Riddle acquired all-new Garmin G1000-equipped 172s this summer, instructors did the majority of their transition training in
the school’s three 172 FTDs, he said. The FTD-based training worked so well, according to Harvela, that the only actual flying instructors did was their check rides. “FTDs are great place to bring in various scenario-based training and better decision making,” he said.