Future Flight: Tomorrow's Training

Surprises are in store for flight instruction

April 1, 2000

Part 4 of 12

Most pilots today don't fly their first precision approach until they're well into an instrument-training curriculum.

But Eric Eckman of Swedesboro, New Jersey, isn't like most pilots. A freshman at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, he shot an instrument landing system (ILS) approach last fall during his first flight lesson. That's right, his first primary lesson—not his first instrument lesson.

Actually, for Eckman, they were one and the same. He is one of 40 students who began a combined private pilot and instrument rating course last fall. In conjunction with NASA?s Advanced General Aviation Transportation Experiments (AGATE) program, Embry-Riddle worked with Jeppesen and other organizations to develop a 70-lesson integrated private/instrument curriculum.

By early February, Eckman had completed lesson 44, logging about 60 flight hours and another 15 hours in flight training devices (FTDs). The curriculum utilizes FTDs, personal computer-based aviation training devices (PCATDs), and aircraft.

"When I had about 15 flight hours, we went up in actual instrument conditions and I shot three instrument approaches with circle to land," he said. "It was neat to be able to do that. It definitely stands out among everything else." The aspiring airline pilot hopes that the integrated curriculum will benefit him in the future, given his career goals and the IFR environment in which he will operate.

Eckman actually is in the second group of Embry-Riddle students to embark down this training path. Eighteen students finished in an earlier group, explained Dr. Steven Hampton, a professor of aeronautical science. "Some of them are now instructing here, within two years of when they started flight training. That?s pretty good."

He said it?s tough combining the private and instrument courses. "It?s a pretty good challenge for anybody," Hampton explained. "What I worry about is the continuity of the training." Training of the first group was interrupted by several things, including aircraft problems and smoke from brush fires that halted flight operations. So far, the only challenge this session has been an approaching hurricane that forced the evacuation of Embry-Riddle?s aircraft for a few days.

Also using the integrated private/instrument curriculum is the aero club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. "They?re working at their own pace," Hampton said. "Some students there are about a third of the way through. I?m very pleased with the effort they?re putting into this."

One of the big challenges with the Wright-Patterson program has been the ground school, which is conducted over the Internet. "The other thing we?ve recognized is that we need to do a better job of integrating the PCATDs into the ground school," Hampton added.

PCATDs?which, as far as Hampton is concerned, include both FAA-certified PCATDs and off-the-shelf products like Microsoft Flight Simulator?are restricted to teaching cognitive activities such as holding patterns and approach procedures, where they can provide practical experience, practice, and reinforcement. The university relied heavily on PCATDs during the first private/instrument class, and experienced some negative learning. For example, the computer?s performance didn?t always match that of the actual aircraft, especially during slow flight and stalls. Also, if the monitor isn?t properly sized and positioned, it can lead to poor scanning habits.

Nevertheless, Hampton is a big believer in the potential of personal computer-based training devices. "Primary flight displays and multifunction displays lend themselves much more readily to the PCATD," he said. "It?s clear to me that these devices will be much more important."

Another issue is the checkrides. Yes, plural?right now, students in the integrated course have to take separate private pilot and instrument rating checkrides. But Hampton and his staff have drafted proposed practical test standards for the private/instrument curriculum, and he said that the FAA was very receptive to the concept. He has asked for a waiver allowing combined private and instrument flight tests this spring.

AGATE?s goal is to reduce training time and cost by 25 percent. NASA?s Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), the follow-on to AGATE, seeks a total reduction of 50 percent by 2007, and an additional 25 percent by the end of the program, 20 years from now. "I used to think that that was ridiculous," said Hampton, who now believes that in 20 years it could be reality.

Hampton prefers to look at the goals as reductions in cost; for example, students spend more time using inexpensive personal computer-based simulators, and less time flying a more expensive airplane. Even if total time was not reduced, using that approach would reduce costs considerably.

The introduction of GPS has de-manded more instructional time, he observed. If navigation could be taught more effectively, more time would be available to spend on basic flight skills.

What else does Hampton see in flight training?s future? He believes that the next big issue will be introducing the new multifunction displays that are central to the SATS concept. Continued work on the curriculum will facilitate their implementation. "I think that Web-based training is the way to go. It?s much easier to update, so it?s always current?you can almost establish a standardized ground school."

Also coming: Virtual reality. "I see that as an extension" of the PCATD, he explained. "A lot of it is driven by cost. Once you see [virtual reality] in the [personal computer] gaming world, I think you?ll see it in GA."

Is it realistic to think that virtual-reality computer gaming could influence the future of general aviation flight training? Yes; in fact, a precedent exists.

Have you heard of Herb Lacy? In 1998, the ensign and U.S. Naval Academy graduate saw a lifelong dream fulfilled when he was accepted into Naval flight training. But Lacy, who had never flown an airplane, found himself at a disadvantage in the extremely competitive program?many of his classmates had previously received flight instruction, and some were certificated pilots.

Lacy decided to level the playing field. He bought a copy of Microsoft?s Flight Simulator 98 and used software tools to create a representation of the Beech T?34C Mentor in which he would learn to fly. Lacy even added local landmarks near Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, to help him with situational awareness. He spent more than 40 hours flying the customized simulator before climbing into a Mentor cockpit.

His efforts were so successful that not only did Lacy graduate near the top of his class, but the Navy investigated the idea of using computer gaming software for training. An experiment showed that when pilot trainees practiced with Flight Simulator, 54 percent more received above-average flight scores. So the Navy decided to issue Flight Simulator 98?modified with a software shell, much like Lacy?s version?to all of its flight students.

The Navy isn?t the only training outfit using Flight Simulator. Galvin Flying Service at Boeing Field in Seattle is one of a growing number of flight schools using the program.

Nick Frisch is Galvin?s flight department manager. He said that Galvin?s training facility has been rewired with a computer network, Internet access, and a computer lab, and Frisch expects increased use of simulations in training. "I?ve got a lot of instructors who are early adopters of new technology, and they?re struggling to keep up with the amount of new technology that people are stuffing into cockpits." Galvin is installing Garmin GNS 430 GPS receivers in its Cessna 172 trainers, and is employing Garmin?s simulation software for the unit?as well as flight-planning software, DUATS, and non-FAA-certified flight simulation software.

"In the multimedia classroom you can bring [Microsoft] Flight Simulator up on the projector, and fly it down the localizer on the autopilot. You can put in wind and other variables, all in a controlled environment," he said. "Can we create training programs that use low-cost tools and give good results, and train instructors to use them? My sense is the answer is yes."

Frisch worked at FlightSafety for 10 years training Beech Baron and Bonanza pilots. "What I became aware of working in simulation is that in pilot training, you?re teaching behaviors." He said that simulations are particularly valuable in teaching rote learning tasks, understanding of concepts, and visualization of ideas. "A pilot can be conditioned to do specific things at a specific time," he said. "Flying an approach involves a series of events, all of which have specific actions that a pilot needs to take. You don?t need to be in an airplane to teach that."

Frisch noted that there is a downside, which is true of any simulation. "Any type of repetitive behavior tends to build habits," he explained. Without training in the relevant skills or supervision, somebody using simulation software can develop bad habits that may have to be "unlearned" later. "For the pilot who has been conditioned and understands all of the situations affecting the flight, there?s no question in my mind that a pilot who [practices using simulation software] is going to remain more proficient than a pilot who doesn?t." Such practice, properly done, particularly helps to maintain the pilot?s instrument scan, he said.

One of Frisch?s flight instructors is Bruce Williams, Microsoft?s product manager for Flight Simulator. Williams, who wrote a chapter for the book Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 Official Strategies and Secrets on using the program as a training aid, is enthusiastic about the prospects and realistic about the limitations.

"Give me an hour on Flight Sim and I can teach somebody VOR [navigation]?you can focus on that one specific thing," Williams explained. "Show them a slip or a skid from outside the airplane. With a force-feedback joystick, you can teach people the principles of trimming?the forces won?t be exactly the same, but it?s much easier to teach that sitting on the ground than it is sitting in an airplane. The cockpit?s a lousy place to learn most of these mental skills."

He said that the program?s interactivity makes it a great classroom tool. "But it?s like any tool. You?ve got to use it effectively. [Users] have got to have a systematic approach to it, and they?ve got to be supervised at some point."

Williams uses Flight Sim as "white board" for ground schools and pre- and postflight briefings, instead of drawing himself. "Most people are still thinking of the simulator in terms of flying from one point to another," he said. "I don?t think that?s the real value?I think it?s in practicing specific procedures."

Interest in Flight Simulator as a procedures trainer goes beyond general aviation and the military. Williams said that some airlines have expressed interest in using the product for basic airport familiarization, allowing pilots to orient themselves to an unfamiliar field before stepping into a significantly more expensive full-motion simulator for a checkride. "It?s not a substitute for being in the airplane, or a substitute for being in the expensive simulator, but it?s a great adjunct," Williams said.

Although it has been upgraded and enhanced over the years, Microsoft?s Flight Simulator is hardly new?the program was initially developed in 1979. Considering the inroads that a 21-year-old product is making in flight training today, it?s difficult to characterize flight training 20 years from now. The only certainty is that it will be considerably different from training today.


Links to previous installments of "Future Flight" may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links0004.shtml ). Next month?s installment will examine tomorrow?s instrument approaches. E-mail the author at mike.collins@aopa.org .