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.