Building a better flight training experience

Symposium participants share insights

May 12, 2011

What can aviation educators do to make flight training a better product—one that is more likely to succeed for its customers while turning out good aviation citizens?

An energetic quest for answers, spurred by the sharing of insights among professionals in the aviation education industry, marked the 2011 Pilot Training Reform Symposium May 4 and 5 in Atlanta. AOPA Director of Flight Training Initiatives Jennifer Storm and Air Safety Institute Chief Flight Instructor JJ Greenway participated in industry panels and led discussions about improving the flight training experience.

The event, chaired by the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators Inc. (SAFE), carried the theme of “Securing the Future of General Aviation through Pilot Training Reform.” SAFE heralded the event as a landmark gathering of aviation stakeholders joined in a collaborative effort “to discuss lack of growth, decreased student starts, increased student attrition, and flat accident rate trends vis-à-vis our current flight training system.” Flight instructors, it said, are aviation’s “first and last lines of defense” against pilot trainees turning their backs on aviation.

SAFE Chair Doug Stewart’s opening remarks included a nod to a former mentor who shared that “all our limitations are self-imposed” and encouraged the group to move forward together. He shared his belief in “ARM” or “association relationship management”—that no one group can create the necessary change alone.

In the keynote address, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt noted his appreciation for the “movers and shakers” of the flight training industry who were in attendance. He pointed to the role of aviation educators in developing “an aviation citizen” who uses good judgment in decision making, recognizes and manages risk, and is accountable.

Babbitt also addressed the importance of support for new pilots in the form of mentoring—something he said he has seen from both sides during his aviation career. “Mentoring is a transfer of experience. I learned a lot from the pilots who mentored me in my career as a pilot, and I in turn mentored my students when I was an instructor and my first officers when I was an airline pilot,” he said.

Babbitt asked for the help of those attending in developing the FAA’s five-year strategy for transforming GA safety, and he addressed pilots’ concerns about the equipment costs and operational benefits of the eventual transition to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

“I know that ADS-B equipage is an investment, and times are tough,” he said. “But this technology has already helped GA in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. We hope pilots everywhere will take advantage of it.”

“So I ask that you use your influence as educators to help pilots understand the benefits, and learn to use the technology for enhanced safety. Because that’s what it’s all about—educating pilots to be safe pilots and good aviation citizens,” he said.

Storm participated in an industry leadership panel moderated by Martha King of King Schools. Storm shared key findings from an independent research study commissioned by AOPA on “what the optimum flight training experience looks like,” and she discussed how to evaluate the most promising ideas for development in an industry “that unfortunately doesn’t have unlimited resources.”

Storm also participated in the panel “Growing General Aviation Through Pilot Training Reform,” moderated by Julie Filucci, manager of Cessna Pilot Centers. Against a backdrop of challenges including high student pilot dropout rates and steep declines in the issuance of new student-pilot and private pilot certificates, AOPA last year launched the Flight Training Student Retention Initiative to help plug the “leaks” in the aviation training pipeline, Storm said.

Storm added that AOPA recognizes that better support for student pilots as a necessary ingredient in retention, and is currently developing enhancements to the Flight Training website and a new flight training scholarship program. To open up the communication channels with flight training providers, AOPA relaunched the Flight School Business newsletter and committed to hosting regional meetings to discuss current challenges and potential solutions.

In the breakout session dedicated to the growth issue the following day, AOPA’s model of the pilot lifecycle—from a person becoming aware of GA to taking an introductory flight to completing training and remaining an active participant—was used as a framework to develop solutions in each key stage.

Greenway, the Air Safety Institute’s chief flight instructor, led a panel discussion on safety challenges. An experienced presenter of aviation safety topics, Greenway brought the institute’s special perspective and educational focus to bear on the discussion.

In addition to moderating the event’s safety panel, Greenway led a three-hour breakout session that included aviation notables Martha King; Mel Cintron, manager of the FAA’s general aviation and commercial division; and two dozen other government and industry leaders. Greenway led the group’s effort to come up with five initiatives that were presented to the full session later in the day. These initiatives were crafted in an effort to guide government and industry toward a reduction of the fatal GA accident rate.

SAFE is currently compiling recommendations generated by each breakout group, and will post them to the symposium website. The symposium’s first tangible dividend came quickly. Responding to a recommendation proposed by the Aviation Educators breakout group, Aviation Supplies & Academics ( ASA) announced it is now offering the PDF versions of its syllabi for download from ASA’s website at no charge.

AOPA President Craig Fuller noted that AOPA’s sponsorship of the symposium was a worthwhile investment to support the effort to reinvigorate GA.

“Growing the pilot population is critical to the future of general aviation. We applaud SAFE's efforts to bring this group together to discuss a common goal. We believe that collaboration is essential to finding meaningful solutions, and we look forward to continuing to work with SAFE and all others with a vested interest in addressing this challenge,” he said.

Stewart closed the event with a challenge to take the energy the group had generated and put it to good use. “We’ve worked too hard to have it disappear,” he said.