By Kathryn B. Creedy
The US Air Force provides better pilots in half the time, according to Secretary Heather Wilson who spoke before last week’s FAA Workforce Summit, providing a solution for the commercial industry to the fact that we don’t have the physical capacity to train the number of pilots needed every year. Wilson echoed aviation training professionals and international pilots who have been quietly transforming pilot training outside of the US.
Wilson explained the new program under testing by the Air Force relies on simulators and Virtual Reality (VR) and, like her civil counterparts worldwide, paves the way for a realistic, near-immediate solution to the crippling pilot shortage. It re-imagines pilot training with a 21st Century curriculum. It is not just the use of simulators and VR, it is tossing out antiquated training methods.
New Training Regime Mirrors that Recommended by World’s Pilots, Trainers
The Air Force’s new training regime is exciting not because it is being proven but because it reflects the combined wisdom of training professionals around the world who understand the industry cannot keep doing what it is doing and succeed.
“We have to start out with safety as a priority,” said USAF Secretary Heather Wilson. “We can’t reduce expectations for performance.”
Years ago, pilots around the world identified what is needed to help students master skills needed to become a pilot. Indeed, these programs make up much of the speeches and discussions at two leading training events – the World Airline Training Summit (WATS) and the annual Royal Aeronautical Society’s (RAeS) New Era for Pilot Training & Assessment scheduled for the end of September. In addition, the Flight Safety Foundation published a detailed report on how to improve both safety and training.
“I think this is the biggest opportunity for improving the proficiency and safety of pilots,” Wilson said, referring to changes in the Air Force program and recent training changes made by FAA. “I commend FAA changes for allowing more time for simulation than actual flying.”
“We found we were able to take out five to nine weeks of pilot training, not by changing the standards but by recognizing how much overlap there was between undergrad pilot training and the next step in pilot training,” said Wilson.
Wilson’s statement comes at a time reliance on simulation is under attack. In fact, in rather stunning testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Air Line Pilots Association President Tim Canoll said simulators aren’t good enough. It is a familiar argument I hear from veteran pilots who love to argue with me over social media.
“Experience counts when operating complex equipment in a changing environment and so does constantly maintaining and sharpening skills and judgement through training,” Canoll told the committee. “Experience in the cockpit allows pilots to gather information through their senses about their environment and aircraft. That cannot be simulated in training. It can only be learned from time spent at the controls. Today’s simulators simply can’t replicate complexity of commercial flight making real world experience essential.”
ALPA seems to suggest industry wants to replace flying in training. The fact is, no one is suggesting training on simulators alone and, indeed, everyone recognizes that real-life flying is important. This is not about trading simulators for flying experience, it is about smarter training. That is why it is instructive to understand the Air Force program.
“It cannot be assumed that critical skills and knowledge will be obtained only through hours in the air,” said Former ALPA President Randy Babbitt.
More Opposition to Hourly Metric
But even Former ALPA President Randy Babbitt extolled the advances in training developed since the 2009 Colgan accident. Indeed, Babbitt, who was also FAA Administrator during Colgan, quoted Flight Safety Foundation’s call for modernizing pilot training that favors competency/evidenced based training over hours as seen in this video of the Summit. What makes his statement so powerful is the fact ALPA condemned the FSF report he quotes and members have characterized FSF as industry hacks.
“The commercial aviation industry is at a crossroads, and the practices it adopts now relative to how the pilots of the future are selected, trained and mentored will have critical safety ramifications during a period of projected rapid global growth,” he said as he launched panel discussions, quoting what he termed a unique document from a well-known group. “With the perspective of more than 70 years spent focused on aviation safety–related research, education and advocacy, Flight Safety Foundation believes that a pragmatic, data-driven approach to pilot training is essential to the continued improvement of the industry’s safety performance. The industry needs to embrace, and national civil aviation authorities need to have the flexibility to adopt, competency- or evidence-based training methods that target real-world risk and ensure a progressive and satisfactory performance standard. It cannot be assumed that critical skills and knowledge will be obtained only through hours in the air.”
Babbitt also said that he is uninterested in maintaining the status quo but is more interested in improving safety.
“Since Colgan we have certainly made advances in training techniques and we’ve made huge advances in simulation and simulator capabilities,” he said. “We now have a lot more avenues available to us to provide safer and more skilled pilots. We have the tools. We have the techniques …Experience counts but experience by dictionary definition is literally observing things and acquiring new skills and understanding. Experience does not mean doing the same thing a thousand times. That’s simply repetition. Instead, we want to build real experience so no one is surprised. An early mentor told me a good pilot is never a surprised pilot. So, if I’ve seen seen everything that can happen in an airplane I won’t be surprised. We can come together and develop the best practices so we wind up with the best trained, best skills and, with the highest level of safety, of people who are entering commercial cockpit of our aircraft tomorrow.”
Taking 5-9 weeks out of training
“There are things we can test a pilot on in a simulated environment that we can’t do in the aircraft environment,” said Wilson echoing other airline trainers. “But, if it happens in real life, we want them to identify what is going on and take appropriate action to land the aircraft safely.”
Wilson noted last year, the Air Force was 2,000 pilots short, including 1,300 fighter pilots. She also said the service is increasing training from 1,200 pilot to 1,400 next year and 1,500 in 2020. That is why her inspirational speech, crystalized the path forward for both military and commercial aviation and her message was simple. In fact, US Air Force Reserve Brigadier General Mark Casto noted Air Force retention targets are to keep 65% of pilots but actual retention is 50%. A pilot for XX, Casto also noted the financial disruptions, bankruptcies and consolidations also took their toll on the airline industry because much of the burden rested on the shoulders of employees.
‘Efforts to address the problem by throwing money at it is not working,” he said. “We then went to a technology solutions with remote pilots. There is a love-hate relationship between airlines and the military but we need to address this as partners.”
“This is doable,” she told the audience assembled at Washington National Airport’s historic terminal of tossing out the set syllabus and rigid training times. “We haven’t changed much about pilot training for 30 years. So, we asked whether you can improve the skills of pilots while reducing the time it takes it to learn to fly. The students in this immersive new program successfully earned their pilot wings in half the time as traditionally trained students. You can improve pilot skills while reducing the time it takes to learn to fly with simulation, VR and individualized learning models.”
In fact, airline trainers at WATS and RAeS identified one of the biggest problems with pilot training is the lack of individualized learning. They recommend curricula be changed to account for different learning styles and, instead of passing a student along, monitor that student closely to ensure mastery of skills. Furthermore, they recommend the most important change would be providing students with immediate feedback on how they could perform better. Finally, they recommend incorporating modern training techniques and technology that enhance learning as well as provided web-based lessons to meet students where they learn — on the commute, in the dorm, and at home. Many of these recommendations have been adopted in the new Air Force program, which Wilson said, could be copied since the sims the Air Force uses cost $15,000 at most.
Wilson started by addressing safety. “We have to start out with safety as a priority,” she said. “We can’t reduce expectations for performance. We started out adjusting the syllabus where it made sense and found we were able to take out five to nine weeks of pilot training, not by changing the standards but by recognizing how much overlap there was between undergrad pilot training and the next step in pilot training.“
“This,” said Wilson in describing the proposed training regime, “is advanced pilot training.”
That reduction in training time is important because airline trainers have had to increase the number of training sessions owing to a decline in the quality and experience of new pilots. They explain they have to re-teach the discipline and professionalism pilots learned in structured learning environments, noting it is lost to non-airline time building necessary to achieve an ATP.
“Instead of a syllabus,” Wilson explained, “we identified 120 skills you needed to master in order to graduate from undergraduate pilot training. Instead of a set schedule, we let them work with instructors toward mastery of those skills. We also provided 24/7 access to simulators in the dorms. There is no more poster of an aircraft panel on the wall. No more chair flying. Instead we gave them a simulator in the dorm.”
A significant change was flipping the in-air and simulator coursework. “We used to have them start out in jets with four rides per week and two sim sessions,” she explained. “We flipped that to four sim sessions and two jet rides a week. In those sims, they not only have virtual instructors but immediate feedback on what they could do better next time. The ratio of instructors to students was also different as was the repetition. By using simulators and Virtual Reality, we can take pilots through more practice simultaneously with instruction before they enter a live situation.”
The Air Force also monitors student vital signs. “We wanted to know not that they were stressed but when they were overstressed,” she said. “Inside the VR glasses we had sensors looking at the eyes not only to monitor where they were looking but inside the eye for stress receptors to monitor how someone is learning and training. That relationship between the instructor and the student learning in a different way improved performance and has reduced the time it takes to train pilot.”
Finally, the Air Force changed flying time. “On their first couple of rides in jet, normally the instructor flies 90% of the time. Now the student flies 90% because they have already flown that sortie multiple times in the simulator. VR and simulators are far better than even 10 years ago. There are things we can do to enhance safety and efficiency that we could never do in live aircraft environment.”
Numbers add up to new thinking needed
“Here’s the reality,” she said. “The math doesn’t add up when it comes to the demand for pilots. Both the military and industry have to look at the problem holistically. The industry trains about 4,500 to 5,000 pilots a year and the projections for the next decade are about same. I’m producing 1,400 to 1,500 pilots per year who have an obligation to stay with the Air Force for 12 years. There are also opportunities in universities but all of us know that pathway is very hard.”
She likened today’s challenge of developing more interest in aviation to the World War II effort that created the civilian pilot training program, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, and the Tuskeegee Airmen who made up the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group.
“Today the industry demand is increasing and outpacing production of pilots and affecting our ability to defend ourselves and meet the needs of growing economy,” she said. “We have a national shortage of aviators and we need to be good wingman to each other because if we continue to cannibalize off each other we will never solve the core problem. We need to work together on a national strategy to overcome barriers to entry and foster retention of senior pilots and professional aviators. It is prudent the FAA is taking the lead; driving solutions with a mutual benefit for national security and the commercial airline industry. We have to start with safety at the core. We have to look at new pathways. We have to meet the demand cost effectivity and provide multiple pathways to become a pilot. It’s time to start. We need a new vector and airspeed.”
That new vector includes the changes made to training curricula.
“This,” she concluded, “is advanced pilot training.”