Chuck Weirauch reviews Horizon Air’s newly developed distance learning programme.

For those airlines considering the introduction or expansion of their distance learning programs as a means to help reduce training costs while meeting FAA requirements and actually enhancing their training programs, the choices and challenges can be overwhelming at times.

First, there are many company training providers such as CAE, courseware providers like ProPilot and flight schools such as Aerosim Academy that offer packaged distance learning programs that can be tailored to specific pilot training needs. Aviation organizations such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) are into the game as well, offering numerous online training courses. But how does one choose the best solution?

Second, since a major percentage of flight schools are integrating online distance learning courseware into their curricula that can be based on mobile devices and electronic flight bags (EFBs), newer pilots may be expecting the same type training for a considerable portion of their airline recurrent training. Considering that according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, the majority of higher learning educators in the US responding to the survey consider distance learning as the future of education by 2020, airlines might need to move more in this direction just to maintain equilibrium with the country's educational system.

Third, keeping up with FAA rules and guidelines concerning distance learning can be a headache. While the agency increasingly understands the value of the distance learning approach, the process of gaining approvals can be complex and time-consuming.

Does It Pay Off?

To get that answer, all one would have to do is to ask the members of the Horizon Air distance learning team, who will be sharing their views and experiences in developing the airline's endeavor into this training arena at the 2015 World Aviation Training Conference and Tradeshow (WATS). Caysie Duax, manager of the Horizon Air AQP program and Carl Carlson, manager of Crew Resource Management (CRM), will be leading the WATS 2015 Regional Airline Training (RATS) Breakout 1 - Distributed Learning session. This session is designed to help kick off what should be a lively sharing of approaches and lessons learned towards the advancement of this growing technology for airline training.

According to the Horizon Air team, distance learning is fast becoming the norm for pilot training programs. And while there are certainly benefits to this methodology, there are also challenges associated with distance learning. The challenges they have faced include the initial program set-up and approval, the availability of development resources, content management, record keeping/qualification procedures and pilot acceptance. They have found that all of this effort in employing a computer and mobile-device-based distance learning program has paid off big-time for the airline.

Program Overview

According to Joe Hutchins, Horizon Air manager of ground training, the biggest money-saver for the airline is in the reduction of hotel costs for pilots not located near Horizon's base of operations. Under the airline's earlier traditional annual three-day recurrent training program, these aircrew members would be staying at such accommodations. However, there are savings in other ways as well, he pointed out.

"It used to be a three-day recurrent ground school," Duax explained. "In time, we have almost completely replaced it, at least from a recurrent standpoint. Now it's down to four hours of on-site classroom time and technically 12 hours of home study, along with generally 10 hours of line-orientated simulator time. We started doing distance learning at least four years ago as a supplement to the classroom training, and we use computer-based training for every one of our curriculums now."

The Horizon Air recurrent home study includes quarterly two-hour PC-based online courseware sessions, and another two hour training package. The on-site four hours of ground training, once a year is held in conjunction with the pilots’ recurrent simulator training event. A few months ago, the airline distributed iPads to its line pilots. When the pilots' PCs and iPads are connected online with the airline's GreenLight learning management system, they can access and complete their home study recurrent training modules. The aircrew members can also review their previously completed modules recorded and stored in the GreenLight LMS for refresher training.

“We broke the CBT home study down to a quarterly program, so we don't give students all the content at one time now,” Hutchins said. “We try to give it more seasonally every three months. We run completion reports out of GreenLight, and with that, the crews get credit for the certain amount of hours that they have spent on their training modules. That information goes into their training records, along with a cross-reference system.”

Technical Issues

According to Duax, one big problem was that the training content system did not initially work with the iPads that had been distributed to the Horizon Air pilot group. The reason for that problem was that the LMS was not optimized for mobile devices. This problem has since been addressed and resolved. Before, pilots were required to complete and send in their distributed learning modules only on PCs while online.

“I think that the biggest thing with pilots even getting onboard with this distance learning program was the fact that they could not do it through a mobile device," Duax said. “But now, as we survey them in the coming year, we feel that their attitude towards this approach is going to improve markedly, because now they do it whenever they feel like it.”

Horizon Air does not employ the iPads as electronic flight bags, but rather as a device to provide pilots with charts, navigation and weather data, along with utilizing it as a training tool. The airline expects FAA approval for a fixed cockpit mount for the iPad within the next month, although a ruggedized tablet that serves as a Class-1 EFB is already hard-mounted in the cockpit on each of the regional's Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft.

Another problem is that the airline does not have dedicated courseware development staff to create distributed training modules. Instead, classroom instructors who routinely develop and update classroom courseware are tasked with writing the online learning modules. The instructors create this content with Articulate Storyline 2 e-learning course development software, and then publish it out to the GreenLight content host to be accessed by the aircrew members.

“Unfortunately, we hire new pilots every two weeks, so our instructors are literally in the classroom all the time, and it’s difficult for them to go back and make sure that the distributed learning content is up to date,” Hutchins related. (Horizon Air has lately been hiring a little less than 20 new pilots a month.) “The upside is that we have had the airplane (the Q400) for almost 15 years. So there are not many changes on an airplane over a certain amount of time. We are not at a high risk of outdated content, but we do audit it. If I had a fear of distance learning in any sense, that's probably where it would lie, making sure that everything is up to date. In class, you get instant feedback.”

Next Steps

Although Horizon Air has established a solid distributed learning program, Duax said that the airline still wants to improve it.

“There are pieces of our distance learning program that we still want to implement to make it more robust,” she reported. “We are not 100 percent where we want to be. One problem is that we ourselves don't know how to make the course content super-engaging, so kind of the next phase for us is to add video and animation along with simulation. But pilots can always go back and review anything that they have done in our learning management system, which is a good way to do refresher training.”

More Than a Money-Saver 

There was no problem in getting Horizon Air’s upper management to approve the recurrent distributed learning program - in fact, management was the one that had asked for it in order to reduce training costs, Hutchins and Duax reported. And although the original goal was to reduce recurrent hotel costs for pilots, the program has paid off in other ways as well. While Duax said that the biggest advantage to implementing the distance program has been saving a lot of money from hotel expenses, Hutchins added that that there were other advantages that have led to more efficiencies in the airline’s operations.

“It's not just hotels, but increasing efficiencies in general as well,” he said. “We bring someone in for four hours instead of overnight, and eight hours the next day, and in the world of Part 117, we have just bought ourselves a lot of potential pilots. So our pilots are out there flying. Another advantage is that you can get information out to the pilots quicker. Now because we are doing CBT every three months, if we really need to get something out there, we can put it into our quarterly package or just decide to do a stand-alone CBT. It makes us more nimble this way.”

Other WATS/RATS Track Topics

The Horizon Air-led Breakout Session 1 will also include three new regional pilots who will discuss the effectiveness and training gaps in their new-hire training programs. Session 5 will focus on an FAA regulatory update led by Rob Burke, Manager, FAA Air Carrier Training Systems and Voluntary Safety Programs Branch. Session 6 will cover the management of cockpit automation, a new model to reduce un-stabilized approaches, and upset recovery training. Breakout Session 2 will provide an update on the pilot shortage situation and the ways and means to help resolve this problem. For more details on the Regional Airline Training conference at WATS 2015 go to www.halldale.com/wats.