The aviation industry is facing a dilemma: There are not enough pilots to respond to the pent-up demand for air travel, forcing operators to either reduce capacity or slow expansion plans. This problem affects every segment of commercial aviation from airlines to business jet operators. Complicating this scenario is a lack of resources, both instructors and flight simulators, to train new recruits or advance pilots into the left seat in a timely fashion. One unexpected solution to this problem is virtual reality (VR).
VR is the concept of being completely immersed into a computer-generated environment—like the flight deck of an aircraft—with both visual and audible representations through a head-mounted display like a headset. The user can then interact with that environment through a mix of hand gestures or in a mixed-reality application using physical buttons or levers.
Gamers love this technology, but in real life, companies around the globe realize the benefits that include reduced training costs, faster training, and better comprehension and retention for their employees.
In a recent study, VR emerged as an amazingly effective learning modality, beating out traditional classroom instruction and e-learning by a wide margin. Consulting firm Price Waterhouse Cooper released a study in June 2021 that showed VR learners mastered content four times faster than in a classroom setting, were 275 percent more confident to apply skills learned after training, and were more emotionally connected and focused than classroom or e-learners.
VR works remarkably well in the flight training environment. Pilot Training Next is the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) new VR-infused training program that has shaved months off its traditional undergraduate pilot training program. This saves time and money and gets pilots in the cockpit sooner.
Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) has “front-loaded” VR into its private pilot training curriculum and has reduced the amount of time for a student to solo by 30 percent. This immersive training experience allows the student to hit the practice area with less anxiety and more confidence and decreases the distractions encountered in the initial stages of flight training.
Knowledge retention—the ability to remember what you learn—is an important aspect of learning. For pilots, this is important; a huge part of training is memorizing procedures, checklists, and rules. VR can improve knowledge retention by up to 400 percent.
“Learning by doing” is an adage supported by studies (Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience) that suggest students remember only 10 percent of what they read, but 90 percent of what they do. The advantage of VR is less retraining and better pilots that can recall emergency procedures and checklists.
It does not take much imagination to see how VR could reshape training in an airline or business aviation setting. The USAF and ERAU are two notable examples where VR has upset the status quo. This is certainly a case of “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.”
In traditional airline and business aviation training programs there are opportunities for improvement—both in efficiency and cost. Operators in these segments often employ a range of devices from low-tech, low-cost “paper tigers” to much more expensive computerized low-level flight training devices (FTDs) and full-flight simulators (FFS) to train simple tasks such as flight deck flows and procedures. Until the advent of VR flight-training applications, there were few devices available in between.
The results from this approach are mixed. In the case of the paper tiger, staring at a cardboard poster for hours on end, with no feedback—right or wrong—is an ineffective mode of learning. Whereas, putting a student and instructor in a FFS to teach and learn preflight tasks such as flight deck setup, engine starts, and even pre-taxi flows and procedures is extremely expensive and overkill for these training tasks.
FTDs and FFSs are better suited for those training tasks when the aircraft is airborne to teach and improve “stick and rudder” skills. VR provides an “off-ramp” to these programs by offering a tailored solution that is appropriate to meet the needs of both the student and the organization without breaking the bank.
Visionary Training Resources (VTR) is a VR training specialist that developed its FlightDeckToGo training system to supplement higher-cost training platforms to enhance the training process. “The beauty of VTR’s FlightDeckToGo is that it expands the opportunity for pilots to easily spend more time in their new work environment, the flight deck," said VTR CEO and co-founder Evey Cormican. "This enables them to train anywhere and at any time, to perform that training using the most effective learning process, engaging auditory, visual, and kinetic learning centers of the brain simultaneously. This is a method which has been proven—long before VR—to be the most valuable and efficient means to learn a skill.”
FlightDeckToGo is a VR training platform comprised of a self-contained headset with embedded software, hand tracking devices, and built-in eye-tracking sensors that are fully integrated with advanced learning management systems. Unlike other VR systems, the VTR device is completely untethered—meaning it is not connected to a computer terminal—and can be used virtually anywhere such as, at home or in a hotel room.
“VR is designed to augment simulator training, not replace it," added VTR’s Cormican, who is a current airline captain and former simulator instructor. "FlightDeckToGo is here to train any skill that can be off-loaded from the simulator or aircraft. It is a task-to-tool approach. The technology is ready to be utilized now. The friction resides in old methods of training and thinking.”
Accordingly, the strength of VR is to relieve dependence on expensive FTDs or FFSs. Cormican said, “The task-to-tool approach looks at all requirements. Those that can be done in VR should get developed.” She continued, “Approximately 80 percent of what a pilot needs to know is cognitive, including the headwork and the interface of pilot and flight deck. VR training is so much better than a 'paper tiger' and many FTD, flat panel, or cardboard bombers.
“[VR] can and will replace the low-level training devices. What it will also do is give pilots a flight deck tool they have been desperately trying to reproduce outside the airline to help funnel the information they must know in a steady, organized, easily consumable way. It is a win for the airlines and the pilots: better standardization, faster proficiency, and a stronger bottom line.”
VR has the potential to help improve the training process by increasing standardization and improving the preparedness of students. “As training center capacities are maximized," she said, "retraining events become a challenge. VTR reduces the training outcome variability by providing a better prepared and more standardized pilot to the simulator training environment.”
Cormican believes there are huge opportunities to not only improve training, but to use VR to improve training costs, “Time spent training in the higher-end FTDs and FFSs is currently not being utilized as efficiently as it could be. By introducing pilots to VTR’s training before they enter the FTD phase, expensive devices may be used for what they are intended: flying...not learning basic flows and procedures.”
VTR plans to leverage VR to also include an emphasis on teaching soft skills such as CRM, decision-making, and military-to-civilian transitions. Cormican believes VTR’s proprietary technology will lead to a paradigm shift in flight training.
In development for this year is the ability for multiple pilots to work together with an instructor in a VR environment. “The benefit and desire to remotely put a crew together on the VR flight deck with an instructor was evident during Covid. The technology is now capable, and we are working through some challenges to implement and make this possible for our airline clients. Imagine the ability to have a paired crew in training work through their flows and checklists prior to going to the training center," she said.
The next phase of VR training is exciting, Cormican provides insight into what the future may bring by saying, “The opportunities are truly staggering. Customers have asked for a 'virtual tiger' with checklists so the pilots can run through QRH/non-normal and normal checklists as many times as they want, to perfect responses and correct verbiage. They have asked for normal and non-normal engine starts, ground emergencies, inflight scenarios, CRM training scenarios, and external walk-arounds. The opportunities for self-paced, instructor-led, good training are endless. Think about your best instructor on their best day training all of your pilots. Standardization and SOP compliance is the key to maintaining the safety standards aviation demands.”
In civil aviation training, VR may just be the next “big thing” that reduces the dependency on expensive training devices—both lower-level devices and full flight simulators— and the number of instructors in the “schoolhouse.” The strength of VR is the immersive experience where training becomes more efficient and less costly and pilots become more competent by retaining knowledge longer.