Training provider CAE is much more than a manufacturer of full-flight simulators and training devices, although that is at the core of its business. The company was founded in 1947 as Canadian Aviation Electronics and in 1952 began manufacturing simulators. Since then, CAE has grown into a diversified training services company, servicing civil aviation, defense and security, and healthcare.
On the civil aviation side, CAE manufacturers more than 100 full-flight simulators per year, graduates 1,500 new pilots trained “ab initio” (from the beginning) to airlines all over the world, and trains 135,000 pilots in its own simulator training facilities at more than 50 locations.
“We always talk about our mission as being the partner of choice,” said Nick Leontidis, group president, Civil Aviation Training Solutions. “Historically, the company built a business for selling simulators and through that created a lot of relationships with customers. We leveraged the relationships that we had to launch the training business. And a lot of our subsequent growth in the training business has been by partnering with airlines and being flexible with their needs.”
With so much experience in pilot training, both in airplanes for ab initio and in simulators for new and experienced pilots, CAE was a pioneer in using data gathered from simulators to analyze and refine the training process, using a process called simulator operational quality assurance or SOQA. In 2011, CAE implemented SOQA, which compares simulator-derived data with flight operational quality assurance data gathered from recording devices on aircraft, to provide evidence-based training tools as a new product.
In early 2018, CAE carried this concept further into the formal launch of its new RISE offering (real-time insights and standardized evaluations), which uses data collected by “simulators and aircraft to perform objective data analysis to improve the overall training program,” according to CAE. The first customer to sign up in 2018 was airline AirAsia, and CAE is now offering RISE to military customers for pilot training programs.
RISE is one of the products resulting from CAE’s Project Digital Intelligence, which has deployed a team of 130 talented personnel in a digital accelerator at CAE’s Montreal headquarters to come up with ways to improve the company’s training products and services.
The Digital Intelligence team isn’t just refining existing products but is tasked with digging deeply into the entire training process to figure out how modern digital tools and analytics can improve flight crew training, as well as training for other CAE customers in the defense and healthcare markets, all part of the RISE effort.
“We looked at the entire journey that pilots go through,” said Erica Laurendeau-Walker, a journey owner on the team and also an experienced former regional airline pilot.
“We’re listening to pilots and learning what they need for better training and [throughout] their career,” added product manager and team member Mathieu Amyot.
One of the team’s projects was to help develop various tools that work with the RISE ecosystem. These include an iPad app consolidating all the course material and scheduling information needed during a training event and an E-grading app, which incorporates the pilot’s company standard operating practices to ensure that practice during the training event is to the standards that apply to that particular pilot. A Debrief app takes data gathered during training and helps create much more standardized debriefings based on objective data from the simulator and aircraft, not just the instructor’s limited ability to assess exactly what the student was doing moment to moment. “This is the bread and butter of RISE,” said Laurendeau-Walker. “It makes it easier to help them improve."
All of the student data is kept in a secure and encrypted Records Manager, and customers can view the data on their own dashboards. “Having data accessible is powerful,” she said. But CAE is also mindful of the various laws that govern its customers and makes sure the data is protected and only shared as allowed by the regulator and, if applicable, worker unions.
Historically, pilot skills were measured just by hours in their logbooks,” Leontidis explained. “Evidence has shown that that's not necessarily a good measure. It is one of the measures, but not necessarily the only measure of how good a pilot is against his competencies. So RISE is an attempt to measure objectively pilot performance, regardless of your hours of stick time. We have deployed these systems to measure the performance of the pilot in a specific set of competencies that are effectively the training objectives of the curriculum.”
The tools developed by the Digital Intelligence team are also helpful for instructors, he added, and RISE also benefits instructors “because everybody's using standardized assessment criteria. The basic premise is that we want to be able to measure the performance of the pilot. The value to the airline is that we can show data for them and for us to deal with weaknesses that we might see, or it gives them an assurance that they have good pilots.”
The way weaknesses are addressed is through adaptive training, which focuses on what the data show the pilot needs to be working on. “I can adapt your training to deal with those weaknesses,” Leontidis said. It’s helpful, for example, for an airline to know that one student barely passed an exam while another scored a nearly perfect score. The one who barely passed may just need some focused training on the weak areas to bring their performance to a higher level. “Ultimately it's not meant to fail you, it's meant to improve you,” he said.
Having begun training its pilots using RISE more than a year ago, AirAsia now has pilots in the program coming back for recurrent training. While CAE can’t discuss the outcomes of a specific customer, Leontidis said that training materials are being adapted to the RISE-based analysis of these pilots. “It's adapted to areas that we think they may need some extra training,” he said.
CAE’s Training Ecosystem
With strong demand for pilots all over the world, CAE is unique in its approach to helping customers with both ab initio training as well as initial and ongoing recurrent simulator training as pilots progress in their careers. Teaching cadets with zero experience or background not only to fly but to become useful crewmembers in a commercial operation is a challenging task and in many ways more complex than operating simulators.
“CAE got into the ab initio pilot training business because big companies were shying away from that,” Leontidis said. “It's not been one of the more attractive aspects of this business. It's logistically hard. It's challenging. It's very risky. Airplanes are expensive to operate and maintain. But it seems to be working for CAE, and CAE is expanding that training.”
There is no other choice, he explained, but to start with new cadets and teach them to fly in airplanes; and also in a way that matches the needs of the airline customers that are paying for the training. The once-traditional method of a pilot learning to fly then trying to gain experience by logging thousands of hours of flight time over a long period just isn’t sustainable if airlines want to continue operating and grow.
Airlines around the world (not in the U.S. because regulations don’t allow airline pilots to fly as first officers with fewer than 1,500 hours or less with an acceptable college degree or military background) depend on the ICAO-developed multi-crew pilot license (MPL) process. MPL graduates can gain the necessary licensing and experience requirements to fly as a first officer in airline operations with less than 300 hours of flight time, which includes simulator flying.
“This is what the airlines need,” he said. “They can't wait for four or five years of time building and [say] flying up in the North in Canada to build enough hours to qualify.”
Leontidis realizes that one company, even one as large as CAE, can’t fill the pilot needs of all the airlines, business aviation operators, and military services worldwide. After all, the world’s flight schools have produced just 1,000 MPL graduates so far, and CAE perhaps a few hundred of those. “We're never going be a big enough ab initio school to cover the numbers,” he said. “But we want to be big enough that we can serve all [our] customers.” And these customers come back for other CAE products and services, including simulators or pilot cadet recruitment and selection, for example.
It should be noted that CAE does offer traditional commercial pilot license (CPL) training along with MPL for customers that can hire MPL graduates, and this is the case at its Phoenix operation in Arizona. Most of CAE’s cadets already have a job waiting for them when they graduate, although CAE also trains pilots who will need to find a job. But with today’s shortage, 95 percent do so by the time they graduate.
Despite some criticism of pilot quality involving the two Boeing 737 Max accidents and others, MPL graduates are doing well in the field, and some of those who trained with CAE are now flying as captains. “MPL programs are designed to train people around specific competencies,” Leontidis said. “Those are the competencies that ICAO has well documented as being the ones that make a good pilot. We don't think that the two are connected at all [to] what’s happened on the Max.
“I think the knock with MPL is just that it's a little new,” he said. “Our industry is quite conservative.” For those who believe the only solution is to hire pilots with vast experience, they are, said Leontidis, “not thinking straight, because, in our view, you've got an industry problem. The practical and positive thing is to say, ‘How do I train someone to become proficient without having to wait 5,000 hours?’ The whole industry can't afford to wait 5,000 hours because there aren't enough pilots.
“We happily take young people who come from all walks of life. They have to demonstrate the right competencies and the right skills, but assuming they do, they can come from China, Vietnam, India, Japan and we can make very good pilots out of them. I think the system works. And the industry needs that system to work because there's no other way for the industry to support the growth that it is currently trying to achieve.”