Finally, CD-ROM-based avionics training for PCs

 - May 8, 2008, 5:41 AM

The parallels that Howard Reisman sees between himself and John F. Kennedy Jr. continue to haunt the 57-year-old software designer more than three years after Kennedy’s Piper Saratoga II piston single crashed on a dark and hazy summer night off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

As Reisman explains, his and Kennedy’s paths in aviation are closely, perhaps even eerily, tied. For instance, both men routinely flew from Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis, Mass., Kennedy’s scheduled destination the night of the July 1999 accident, in which Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, died. Both men were also low-time private pilots who had received instruction in Cessna 182s on the same flight line at Barnstable, and for a time Kennedy and Reisman even shared the same flight instructor at FlightSafety in Vero Beach, Fla. The two had met in passing at Barnstable on several occasions, Reisman said, and were actually scheduled to be classmates in the same instrument course in Vero Beach, until Kennedy at the last minute withdrew from the class.

In its final report on the JFK Jr. crash, the NTSB determined Kennedy had become disoriented in the hazy night sky and, with no discernible horizon, lost control of his airplane. Contributing factors in the accident, the NTSB said, included the fact that Kennedy did not hold an instrument rating and lacked the proficiency and experience to fly at night in limited visibility in an unfamiliar airplane.

After the Safety Board had pieced together the clues of what went wrong on Kennedy’s final flight, Reisman became convinced, as many other pilots and a few book authors have, that the accident could have been avoided had Kennedy possessed a clearer understanding of his aircraft’s systems, in particular the Saratoga’s autopilot.

“If he had just known how to use his autopilot that accident probably never would have happened,” said Reisman. “He could have pushed two buttons and at least gotten the wings level. But there is no mandate for that sort of training, and he apparently lacked the insight to operate the autopilot” proficiently.

A year after the highly publicized crash, Reisman himself bought a new Saratoga and outfitted it with a host of advanced avionics, including Garmin GNS 530 and 430 GPS/ navcoms, Goodrich Skywatch and Stormscope, Honeywell Bendix/King KGP 560 terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), IHAS KMD 550 multifunction display and S-Tec 55 autopilot. “I had a complex cockpit,” he said, “but when I looked around and asked the avionics manufacturers where I could get specific training I was told there was nothing available. I decided then I had to do something about that.”

When he began to delve more deeply into the Kennedy accident report, Reisman said it struck him as peculiar that the FAA would require civil aircraft to be equipped with an array of avionics and yet develop few specific training requirements. He points to the mandate for TAWS as a prime example of this disparity. Despite the fact that TAWS is required in some 18,000 turbine-powered aircraft by March 2005, the FAA has not ordered any specific training to make sure the pilot knows precisely how to use the complex safety system in the airplane.

Computer-based Learning

After the Kennedy accident, Reisman said he made the decision to come out of retirement (he had recently sold a successful software company employing 250 people in Massachusetts) and found an aviation training company that would leverage the power of personal computers to provide pilots with necessary lessons on how to use specific avionics systems.

The result of Reisman’s efforts over the past year-and-a-half is a new company called ElectronicFlight Solutions, for which he serves as president and CEO, and an evolving lineup of computer software that is gaining the attention of flight schools, corporate flight departments and even some of business aviation’s heaviest hitters. That list includes FlightSafety, Raytheon and NetJets, which Reisman said have seen the software and either have already purchased it or are contemplating buying it.

The software Reisman and his small team of engineers have created, under the title CompleteLearning, currently includes training “modules” for the Bendix/King KGP 560 TAWS, Goodrich Stormscope and Insight Strikefinder, and the Bendix/King KTA 870/ 970 and Goodrich Skywatch traffic advisory systems. Priced at $295 each, the modules offer training that goes far beyond anything offered by the avionics manufacturers and, said Reisman, bridges the gap between what pilots are taught during recurrent training and what they actually retain after leaving the classroom.

The software can be loaded onto almost any desktop PC, or pilots can use it on laptop computers for quick training sessions anywhere. Once the CD-ROM has been installed and the software is registered, the pilot can immediately begin his or her training session, review a vast selection of information (including the full equipment manual in PDF format) in the software’s library and take interactive quizzes. The training is highly intuitive, with professional instructors taking students through each step or procedure, from the process for loading data cards to the full use of the avionics in flight.

The CD-ROM for the KGP 560 TAWS, for example, starts out by reviewing the accidents that led to the TAWS mandate and then teaching the TAWS rules for Part 91, 135 and 121. After this, the software recounts the KGP 560’s various audio alerts and priority levels, explains the types of terrain symbology and explains exactly how the system should be used in all phases of flight, with interactive exercises that put a simulated airplane in a number of situations.

Finally, the student is taught how to use the KGP 560 with the Bendix/King IHAS and Avidyne FlightMax multifunction displays. At the end of each section there is a mini quiz, and a final exam at the conclusion of the course. Each module takes two to three hours to complete.

ElectronicFlight Solutions is now working toward completion of several new modules that will provide pilot training for the Garmin GNS 430/530 (including a complete course on GPS theory), Honeywell’s Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) and several different models of TCAS II, radar, autopilot and even FMS. Price for the Garmin training module, due out next month, is $295, while the EGPWS, TCAS II and radar modules will sell for $495 each. Pricing for FMS training has not been set.

Large corporate flight departments and regional airlines, said Reisman, can negotiate per-pilot prices that are discounted by 20 to 40 percent from regular pricing.

Targeting the Flight Department

Interest among those who have seen the software, Reisman continued, has been high. He admitted, however, that the company’s salespeople have to do a better job getting the word out to corporate flight departments. The problem so far has been that Reisman and the company’s small staff have had their hands full showing the software to flight-training organizations, OEMs and fractional-provider NetJets, and so haven’t had the time to target chief pilots and flight department managers. That is expected to change soon, he said.

ElectronicFlight Solutions recently announced agreements with Daniel Webster College in Nashua, N.H., and Embry-Riddle’s Aviation and Space Training Academy in Daytona Beach, Fla., for the CompleteLearning software for students who have finished initial instruction and are preparing to transition from VORs and NDBs to GPS-based avionics. Reisman said his company is also negotiating with FlightSafety and NetJets to provide avionics-specific training both in a classroom environment and for pilots to learn on their own. And, said Reisman, the company is close to striking a deal with Raytheon, where the aircraft maker would provide the software to buyers of new Beechcraft Bonanzas, Barons and King Air C90s.

ElectronicFlight Solutions has also formed close ties with the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) and is marketing the software to avionics maintenance providers to give maintenance personnel the chance to gain a better understanding of how the avionics they install actually work in the aircraft.

When designing training software, explained Reisman, ElectronicFlight Solutions works closely with the avionics manufacturers. For example, when he was contemplating one of the company’s first modules, for the KGP 560, Reisman traveled to Redmond, Wash., to meet with Honeywell chief engineer Don Bateman, the man who is credited with inventing the original GPWS back in the 1970s and shepherding EGPWS through myriad iterations since its introduction six years ago.

“I told Don that I would not go ahead and create this software unless he gave his blessing,” said Reisman. Not only did Bateman approve, he chose to lend his voice to the product in the form of a public endorsement. In a statement issued over the summer when the KGP 560 module made its debut, Bateman said: “To achieve the most from a cockpit flight-safety system such as EGPWS, the pilot needs to be trained on its operational use, its capability and limitations. Both EGPWS and pilot training will help reduce the risk of a controlled flight into terrain accident. I am very impressed by the ElectronicFlight Solutions interactive training CompleteLearning CD-ROM for the Bendix/King Class B KGP 560/KMH 880. This professional training tool should greatly help achieve a basic understanding for the pilot of what EGPWS can display and how it operates.”