Aviation Schools Training Online for Now, Eyeing Future

 - April 29, 2020, 2:27 PM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

Aviation trainers have adapted their curriculums to an online environment to the extent possible in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, stressing a need to maintain currency and skills of today’s pilots and mechanics. At the same time, the training experts who spoke on Tuesday during an AIN webinar, “How the Aviation Training Industry Is Coping with the Covid-19 Pandemic,” emphasized the need to ensure that the pipeline of students continues to move in anticipation that the pilot and mechanic shortage will return in a few years.

At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, instructors have had to learn how to reorient the curriculum to online use, said Kenneth Byrnes, associate dean of the College of Aviation and chair of the flight department at the university’s Daytona Beach, Florida campus. “We want to give them as many tricks and tools as possible.”

While students aren’t on campus, instructors are still using aircraft and flight training devices—under health and safety protocols—to maintain their own currency in preparation for when students return, Byrnes said.

Particularly helpful, Byrnes said, have been the 360-degree videos that they used for in-classroom maneuver training with virtual-reality headsets. These videos are now online. Meanwhile, courseware teams have been exploring where they can update materials and video lessons. Technicians, meanwhile, continue to maintain aircraft using social distancing, masks, and wellness checks verified through various-colored wristbands. “We are utilizing this downtime,” Byrnes said.

He anticipates that classroom activity will restart in July “at the soonest.” But it is important that the university continues to work toward getting the students their certificates and ratings “so we have room for the incoming class,” Byrnes said. He is encouraged that the fall numbers look strong—on paper up by as much as 25 percent—because “we believe this is a short-term issue. The pilot shortage was years in the making, and it’s not going to end.”

Byrnes does believe the shortage will “take a breather for a year or two or possibly three,” but he said trainers must continue to work to develop new pilots because otherwise “we’re going to be in the same boat where we were a few months ago.”

CAE chief learning officer Chris Ranganathan agreed that there might be around a two-year hiatus from the workforce shortages, but likewise said it would be “shortsighted for us not to continue ab initio training…Otherwise, down the road, we will be right back to where we were. We don’t believe there will be a lasting change to the fundamental problem.”

During the pandemic, CAE centers have remained open, as possible, with strict health protocols enforced. This has been a challenge given the worldwide distribution of the CAE training network.

“We’ve had to deal with many different travel and local restrictions," Ranganathan said. "There is a significant amount of localized decision-making process based on what is allowed and what is not and above all what is safe.” 

Like Embry-Riddle, CAE has instituted new protocols for the centers and modified recurrent programs to an online environment. Many regulators have provided temporary relief to enable the shift to online training, but this is not standard and it is only temporary, Ranganathan said.

“Our instructors had to be trained up to use the tools,” he noted, particularly in areas such as maintenance training. This has been key because customers with downtime have opted to use this period to spool up on training.

But as it works to keep training going to the extent possible, CAE has been collaborating with international organizations on guidance material for recovery plans, including use of the virtual classroom for competency-based training and refresher courses. “We continue to innovate,” Ranganathan said, adding that some of the adaptations created now will be used in the future. “Everyone’s experience is evolving there. We can see a future where there is a transition to some of these tasks.”

And as the current services have slowed, CAE has seen this as an opportunity to get simulators installed and updated.

Craig Joiner, senior v-p of brand experience at Fulcrum Labs, which specializes in adaptive-learning technologies, said his company has seen a notable uptick in demand for adaptive-learning tools from maintenance schools. These schools already were looking for online tools, and “the urgency of crisis seems to accelerate this process,” Joiner said, particularly as the pandemic has dragged on. “We’ve definitely been busier than ever in aviation maintenance training.”

And Joiner believes that while it might take some time for the jobs to return, the first that do come back will involve maintenance technicians. “Aviation maintenance will be on the front line,” he said.

During the crisis, this training is critical “to make sure people can move forward and also that they don’t slip backward.” But Joiner said he could foresee a “blended experience” where these tools are incorporated.