Tomorrow’s lesson

What will tomorrow’s flight training be like? From the end of WWII until just a few years ago, methods for civilian pilot training in the US changed very little. Flight training was conducted on a one-on-one instructor/student basis, much like traditional master-and-apprentice training methods long used by tradespeople like masons and electricians.

That’s still true at many Part 61 flight schools catering to pleasure and personal business flyers, but over the past several years flight training at large-scale professional pilot training programs has really begun to change. Why the recent dramatic changes? And what do they mean for flight instruction in the future? The answers derive from pressing industry needs — many more pilots, generated far more quickly than in the past, in fewer training hours, and using far fewer instructors.

The only way to increase throughput like that, is through top-to-bottom integrated flight-training “factories” to meet tomorrow’s pilot demands and today’s business opportunities, all while targeting 100% safety. That’s a tough assignment, and industry leaders are still trying to figure out how to do it. While changes required to meet those objectives are already occurring, infinitely more remain to be introduced or even conceived — we won’t see flight training methods stabilize until today’s gross imbalance of professional-pilot supply-and-demand levels out.

Among changes already occurring at the big flight schools is formalization of our former freelance service business into an integrated and sophisticated industry. Traditionally, quality of pilot training varied almost solely by quality of instructor. There was plenty of room for CFIs to go their own ways, and to pursue their own teaching philosophies.

But the first step for increasing training throughput has been to heighten efficiency by homogenizing flight training to get more consistency — changing an art into a science, you might say. Today’s structured methods, particularly at larger flight schools, are designed to smooth out disparities between individual CFI methods through standardization, while increasing the number of students taught by each instructor. More students per teacher means greater training efficiency, and at the same time, reduced impact of the growing CFI shortage.

Until now, this change in student/instructor ratio has largely been accomplished through reduced one-on-one groundschool instruction — the trend has been toward transferring aeronautical knowledge via teachers in classroom settings, supported by highly programmed assignments and testing.

But more efficient classroom teaching of groundschool material is not enough to solve the staffing problem — that’s why down the road we’ll see a continuing trend toward self-taught “learn-at-your-own-rate” computer training. Many airlines are already doing it, along with the big corporate flight training organizations, and Cessna is leading the way into even the smallest flight schools with its exciting new multimedia Private Pilot program.

From self-taught computer groundschool training, it’s only a short step to addressing the next big instructor productivity block — all of that labor-intensive, one-on-one training we’ve traditionally done in airplanes. Sure, simulators have already been increasingly supplementing airplanes, especially for instrument training, but current versions don’t yet solve the instructor-staffing issue. To address that problem we’ll soon see “smart” simulators teaching maneuvers to flight students without the presence of an instructor, except for stage checks, help sessions, and perhaps an occasional flight in a “real” airplane.

Think of how much more efficient it will be when students can practice and master stalls on their own in the “smart simulator,” after you’ve introduced the subject. No longer will remedial lessons to conquer learning plateaus set student and instructor training schedules so far behind.

Automated simulator instruction will consist of preprogrammed exercises taught, administered, and graded automatically, which can be repeated by the student until performance standards are met. (United Airlines has already been computer-scoring pilot performance in simulators for years, for its pre-employment sim check.)

Increasingly, self-paced interactive computer ground instruction will be integrated with self-teach simulator sessions to diminish use of real aircraft for training, as is already happening at the major airlines. But just to show how far this technology is projected to go, the NASA-funded AGATE advanced technology project is working on “smart airplanes,” which will ultimately guide and diagnose student performance in actual flight.

What happens to the CFI with all this automation taking over? With decreasing one-on-one instruction, the CFI’s role will increasingly become one of project management, with emphasis on instructional design.

Draconian as that may sound, it’s not necessarily bad for CFIs, because with such changes flight instructing becomes a profession in a sense that it hasn’t been before. Instead of just playing someone else’s music, flight training pros will increasingly write the score as training managers.

Improved standardization in routine cockpit tasks and “standard” emergencies will result among our students, due to the total and ultimate patience and consistency of computers over humans — students will be able to practice challenging maneuvers and procedures over and over on their own, until getting them right. No longer will one instructor’s weaknesses or time constraints on a given day permanently impact the quality of a key lesson for a student.

Increased training automation is also good news when it comes to CFI compensation. With instructors devoting less time per individual student, they’ll have time to take responsibility for more of them, meaning CFIs can ultimately earn higher salaries. One reason airline pilots make more money than other pilots, is because their piloting skills are amortized over so many passengers. By breaking the traditional one-on-one student/instructor ratio, CFIs can service a larger customer base and therefore escape their current earning limitations.

Of course there are also huge instructor challenges with such changes in how training is delivered. How far can standardization go? Will student judgment and decision-making skills develop adequately with the reduced CFI involvement? Certainly we don’t want to see independent thinking bred entirely out of the new pilot ranks.

Then there’s the human element — with increasing standardization and automation, will CFIs continue their important roles as mentors, counselors, and cheerleaders? If not, we’d all better watch out.

If anything, increasing standardization makes it more important than ever to individually coach our students — to encourage comprehension of “the big picture” despite the detailed training, and to help students make it past the rough spots. And we’ll have to work extra-hard to continue delivering the joy, fulfillment, and confidence that comes with an “Attaboy!”

One must also question the potential loss of valuable learning that traditionally came from unexpected and unprogrammed flying events. Never have I forgotten my own surprise lesson of planning a trip to an Indianapolis area airport — only to learn when I couldn’t find it at the end of my flight, that the airport no longer existed. Let’s hope the wonderful opportunity to make real-world mistakes is never refined entirely out of flight training.

As for the CFI shortage, such changes will not likely totally solve it until pilot demand slows. In the meantime we’re going to face stiff staffing competition from other careers & professions both inside and outside aviation, meaning demand for professional instructors will go through the roof. That’s one reason I’m not personally concerned about the economic future for flight instructors. Demand for professional CFIs can only go up, and with it will go pay.

In fact, it’s only a matter of time until progressive aviation educational institutions see the light and begin offering “Professional Flight Training” options, along with their traditional airline, corporate, and management programs. After all, who else is going to develop the new technology, training methods, and materials we’ve been talking about?

By now I suspect that CFI readers of this column have divided into two camps — those enthused about this promising sci-fi future for flight training, and those who are at this moment red-faced, angry, and pounding their tables (if they haven’t already given up reading this and burned it, that is.)

With all this talk about computers teaching pilots, what happens to the romance of flying? How do computers and simulators fit in with grass strips and taildraggers? In short, what will happen to recreational training in the era of standardization? Well, those are darned good questions and will make a dynamite topic for an upcoming column.

But as the aviation industry inevitably leans more and more on standardization and technology to increase the efficiency of pilot training, our challenge as instructors will be to retain the individualized CFI attention so important to every pilot’s success… motivating and influencing people, creating better pilots, and growing the industry, all through our own very personal enthusiasm and caring.

Regardless of the exciting new tools available, let’s never, ever lose sight of the critical human element in flight training — us. That’s the secret of tomorrow’s lesson, and yesterday’s as well.

–Greg Brown

This blog entry reads as if Brown wrote it today, but it first appeared in “NAFI Mentor” in 1999. Although Brown is certainly a perceptive writer, the fact that his story is still relevant 15 years later is pretty incredible. Whether that says more about him or about the speed at which our industry evolves is debatable. 

What do you think of Brown’s ideas? And what of the fact that something written so long ago can still be so apt today? Let us know in the comments. –Ed.

Flight training ripe for disruption

As a Boston-based firm we have grown up surrounded by educational institutions that have had a fair amount of success producing thought leaders and disruptive innovators. Harvard and MIT have spit out their fair share of companies that have brought innovation to sectors like technology, finance, retail and education. Like many of the companies in this region, we subscribe to a healthy does of what we call disruptive innovation, a term coined by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and thought leader on commercial innovation. (See a video of Christensen describing the concept.)

As Christensen puts it, disruption is an innovation that creates a new market by applying a different set of values, which ultimately (and unexpectedly) overtakes an existing market.  We can point to examples like Apple, Kickstarter, BirchBox, and Coursera (leader in Massive Open Online Courses or MOOC).

Few areas in flight training have been exposed to such innovation. Sure Garmin put out the G1000 and Cirrus produced the SR20 to increase safety, but both products were built at a higher price point that only the top tier of the industry could access. True disruptive innovation transforms a product that only a small portion of the market can access (due to affordability and expertise) and makes it available to the majority of the market.

The opportunity is that there are plenty of areas within flight training that are ripe for disruption.

Student Recruitment 

Both collegiate and for-profit academies struggle to communicate their value to today’s students, the millennial. As an example, Coursera, a driver behind the MOOC movement has focused on bringing world-class education to everyone. They have figured out a way to attract huge amounts of both professors and students onto their platform because of the value they provide. That value is learning at your own pace on your own terms, and having access to a huge community of other learners interested in the same things as you. For flight training, having ground school taught online could not only save the student some money but could also open up the pool of potential program applicants.

As an example, National Aviation Academy is working with Broward College to provide distance learning by having students take all their courses online through Broward College. That way they can complete their course work and flying without having to travel back and forth between campuses.

Student Lending

We all know the cost of education for a student pilot is substantial. I believe there are ways we can offset that cost with new forms of student lending. Take a look at what CommonBond is doing to connect alumni with students to provide financing at a lower rate. Why can’t this be done for aviation? Pilots are a tight-knit group that generally cares about the future of aviation and many are looking for a way to give back. For collegiate aviation it is easy. Alumni can invest through CommonBond and help an aviation student fund their education while earning a competitive return on their capital. Why not expand that same model to academy training?

Cost of aircraft

New aircraft are expensive. We heard at the Redbird Migration Conference a new Cessna 172 will be priced somewhere north of $400,000. As the prices continue to rise, the number of training programs and the number of students will continue to diminish. As an industry, we are squeezing out many organizations and preventing them access to equipment. The good news is that a handful of companies have started to take action and are working on putting a lower cost aircraft into the marketplace for flight training.

Accessibility of training equipment

Combine the cost of new with the average age of training aircraft in the market today (40-plus years old) and the problem of accessibility begins to grow. We get calls everyday from flight training programs that are looking for ways to upgrade their fleet of 1972 Piper Warriors or 1975 C 172s. Accessing replacement aircraft for these programs is a challenge because there just aren’t many options. Most programs have a certain margin stack that they need to fit all of the aircraft costs into in order to break even and not charge the student more money. From a leasing/financing perspective there are very few products that can do that effectively for the majority of the market.

A company that has had success in another industry is Zipcar. They were able to create a model that gave urbanites affordable access to vehicles on an as-needed basis that made more sense than owning the car outright. What if we could do that for flight training? What if we could give flight training programs the ability to “rent” aircraft hourly for one flat rate that included maintenance and insurance? Could that change the way aircraft are consumed?

So many other companies and industries have faced many of the same challenges flight training faces and have been able to innovate and change. As companies and individuals start to go after the opportunities in our industry all of flight training will benefit from the disruption. What other opportunities do you see?

–Nick Abate, director of marketing and analytics for Brown Aviation Lease

Flight instruction as the future of education

This blog originally appeared on the author’s personal website, and is presented here with minor editing.

When I am in discussions about education reform and education entrepreneurship, I often forget that I own a flight school, but then I see a pattern that I recognize and realize that “it’s already happening in pilot training!”

First, some statistics. At any given time there are about 100,000 people in the US who have a current student pilot certificate. This is a round number because the term for a student pilot certificate has just recently extended to 5 years for those under 40 from twoyears previously. Of those student pilots, about 25,000 students take the private pilot written exam every year and about 91 percent pass.

Becoming a pilot is actually pretty easy, but a very thorough and rigorous process. There is a ton of content and decision-making skills you have to master along with mastering the physical part of flying. However, the process is highly flexible, adaptable and personalized.

Multi-modal Instruction

A student has many options to learn to become a pilot. They can watch videos like King Schools, Sporty’s or even some free videos on Youtube. They can read various text books, FAA books, the FAA website or even various material on the internet. They can talk one on one with a flight instructor. They can take classes at a flight school or college. Or, they can even play video games on the computer, like Flight Simulator, or mobile device. Each of these usually includes some form of formative assessment – small quizzes that ensure that you comprehended, retained and can apply the material as you are learning it.

The great thing is that you can mix and match. I really enjoyed watching the King videos. They were corny but entertaining and they had quizzes at the end of each video to ensure you got the material. If you got something wrong, they would immediately take you back to the place in the video so you could re-watch the section and then take the quiz again. This loop would continue until you got it right or cancelled out. In contrast, my friend who was taking lessons at the same time really enjoyed reading the textbook. He read it cover to cover, over and over. I can’t do that!!!

At the same time, we would be training on the actual flying part with an instructor. Our instructor was quite good. He would be throwing questions at me in context to ensure I was getting through my material. Similarly, I was taking practice tests on my iPhone while I was sitting in boring meetings at work. With this much reinforcement, I knew exactly when I was ready to take the test.

There are many insights I gained from my flight school.

  1. Instruction should be de-linked from certification.
  2. However, instructors should be continuously using formative assessment to ensure the student is comprehending, retaining and able to apply the skills, knowledge and judgement you are instructing.
  3. Instructors should be measured by the success of their students.
  4. Instruction should move at the pace of the students motivation and abilities.
  5. Instruction should be provided in as many modes as feasible.
  6. The student should be free to chose the modality that works well for them.
  7. The student should be free to select an instructor that works well for them.

Of course, the biggest difference between flight training and traditional education is that the motivation to do it is completely student driven. However, I believe that students are born naturally curious and want to learn. They just want to learn what they see value in learning. So, why don’t we harness that natural curiosity and desire to learn and use it to provide a better education for each of our citizens. I learned meteorology, physics, biology, mathematics, geometry, passenger management and more, all driven by my desire to fly a plane. I had no real desire to study any of those subjects, but my desire to fly a plane drove me to learn quite a bit about each. Every person has a passion. Every person has interests. Can’t we discover those interests and use them as a platform to deliver the education they will need to be a positive, contributing member of society???!!!!

The biggest lesson is that the problem isn’t money! Learning to become a pilot easily has a school year’s worth of content in it and the total cost including gas and plane rental (the biggest expenses by far) was less than $10,000. That is less than we spend to put a kid through school for a year. Take out the plane rental and the gas and the cost was under $2,000. The instruction costs $45 per hour for 20-30 hours. The videos cost under $300. The equipment costs another $200-400. Learning to fly is expensive, but if you take the unusually high cost of the plane and gas out, it’s actually pretty cheap. Why isn’t all school this cheap?

I think I will continue to add to this article over time, as I continue to learn so much about teaching, learning, etc from my flight school.

–Vince Talbert, co-owner of Middle River Aviation and co-founder of Bill Me Later

Create a positive CFI culture

Recently I had an opportunity to visit with the NTSB. Normally any visit with the NTSB would be under circumstances that none of us would like to be in, but this was different. I was invited to the NTSB training center by a flight school owner and his instructors. We had just eaten pizza and I was sitting in the classroom when I really began to see some of the secret sauce of this successful flight training business.

This flight training business has a yearly full-day CFI standardization workshop, but they also bring the group together once a month. The monthly meetings do have the usual updates for standardization and ongoing issues, but they go quite a bit farther. They take the time to really share and celebrate successes in a way that makes it obvious the staff feels like they are part of something important and meaningful. It was such an upbeat and inspiring meeting, I secretly wanted to fill out a job application.

This particular monthly meeting included the NTSB meeting, which consisted of a full program of looking at actual evidence of training accidents and a tour of the NTSB training “laboratory.” The obvious effort involved in putting the evening on and having it go beyond the day-to-day logistics and issues of training operations was obvious. The investment of time and energy in the CFI as a person and whole aviator has resulted in such a positive and supportive CFI culture that it overflows into a positive and supportive customer experience at this school.

The CFI is the face of a flight school and the face of aviation as a whole for our new pilots in training. Efforts that show school leadership has an interest and values its CFIs are modeling the behavior we expect to be projected by the CFI to our customers.  As humans we tend to emulate behaviors that are modeled for us. So you may not have the NTSB training center with the pieced together remains of TWA flight 800 in your backyard, but there is always some type of experience you can make available for your staff to feed their own desires as a pilot and a person.

What do you do to create a positive CFI culture?

–Shannon Yeager, AOPA vice president of strategic initiatives in the Center to Advance the Pilot Community


Soloing is overrated

I think most of us would agree that landing is probably the most difficult single task that we have to learn as aviators. The pressure of learning to solo was used by the military in WWII when we had to have an efficient system to weed out those that either didn’t have the commitment or “natural ability.”  It was then baked into tradition and it carried on as the former military pilots and instructors shaped the civilian training programs. So it goes today, the vast majority of would-be pilots have to demonstrate that they can do the most difficult thing first before we will show them the other two-thirds of training.

So I have to wonder, is solo-first the best way to make more pilots? Many say that they know a person will finish if they make it through solo. What about the students who dropped out before solo? Were they really incapable of flying? Maybe they began to think that all you do in flying is to go around in a circle and it’s not worth the money. Then they go to the Bahamas for a SCUBA diving trip. Did we need to lose all of these students?

From the standpoint of a recreational pilot in training beating up the pattern over and over again early in training can be quite demoralizing. Many of today’s potential pilots have never personally experienced what recreational aviation is prior to flight training because of things like airport fences and other exciting recreational options available to them. So without any context for what flying is like, the initial goal for these people is just taking off and getting in the air. We then put the most difficult challenge in the first third of training and if they are not a “natural” the difficulty of solo can easily eclipse the goal of just being above the ground–and they drop out.

Instead we could give them experiences of what flying after a certificate is like as they proceed through training by pushing the solo until two-thirds of the way through training. We can then keep the goal of finishing looking more and more attractive as the training becomes steadily more demanding. When the goal is bigger than the hurdle they will be more apt to stick it out and beat up the pattern later in training to earn their certificate because they have experienced the gold at the end of the rainbow.

There is nothing in the regulations that says that solo needs to be accomplished before moving on to navigation and other real world flying tasks. One thing I do know is that no one gets into flying to do laps around the airport. Part 61 says an applicant only needs 10 hours solo with some of that time required for cross-country and preparing for the checkride. Given that, we can definitely focus on landings a little later in the training process, smooth out the difficulty curve, and see more students become certificated pilots. Heck, there will be at least one landing to practice with every flight anyway.

–Shannon Yeager, AOPA vice president of strategic initiatives in the Center to Advance the Pilot Community.

Where are the instructors?

No matter where in aviation you look, it seems the hot topic is making new pilots. Or that the pilot population is aging. We, as pilots, need to hurry up and make more before our airports all disappear.

I own a small flight school in Massachusetts called FCA Flight Center operating out of Fitchburg (KFIT). For us, the problem surely isn’t new students, it’s getting CFIs to train them. There seems to be a larger hole in CFI ranks than in students. I’ve searched high and low all over the Internet with no luck, including a website designated for CFIs to job search. We currently have six part-time instructors. Nonetheless, we do not have any working three days per week. The planes sit on the ground on beautiful flying days.

As far as I’ve researched, we’re the highest paying flight school in the area for CFIs. The camaraderie here is great. The competition is friendly. When the instructors aren’t flying with students, they fly together out for dinner or currency.

We also have a thriving active pilot’s association on the field with more than 120 members. The Fitchburg Pilots Association EAA chapter 1415 has monthly meetings with anywhere from 50 to 200 attendees. CFIs and pilots here have no trouble making friends.

Once the CFI issue has been solved and flight training is being provided properly, we have two items left I can see to bring GA over the top. First would be to provide help to all airports to have a thriving pilot’s association. We need leaders to bring them together. That’s when pilots fly more and fly safe. Next would be marketing. General aviation fails tremendously in this area. Just try telling someone not in aviation you’re going to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for a week in July and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the best kept secret in the world. Boats, motorcycles, and even gun clubs market themselves better than we do. It’s about time we ask our friends like Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman to help us market GA to the general public.

Charley Valera, owner FCA Flight Center

Schools must innovate to survive

Redstone College, which has become known for its airframe and powerplant and advanced electronics technology (avionics) programs, is currently working hard to make significant improvements to its course content, instructional tools, equipment and methodologies in order to better prepare students for the complexities of the field in the 21st century. The school is constantly working with the FAA to make sure the education students are receiving in the airframe and powerplant degree program is in compliance with the latest technology and regulations.

One of the major areas in which Redstone has strived for improvement is its class and curriculum organization. One of the problems they have faced is that the teaching of turbine engines and their systems had become fractured, with a basic class on turbine engine theory followed by multiple classes on a variety of systems. Redstone asked the FAA to approve a reorganization of the material so the theory class was more comprehensive and cohesive, while the study of various systems was combined and taught as a single follow-up class. The FAA approved the change, which ensured a firm foundation in theory and made the connection between various turbine systems clearer. The result has been that students have shown a dramatic increase in their understanding of the complexity of turbine systems.

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