Chuck Weirauch takes an in-depth look at a number of the players in the low cost training market.
B-747 Simulator in pristine condition, hybrid six hydraulic actuators, spares, test set - $500,000.
This ad placed recently on the Trade-A-Plane Website might be one way a flight training organization could meet the challenge of providing lower-cost flight crew training solutions, but advances in training technology have now brought about much more cost-effective ways to accomplish that same goal.
Fixed-Base Cost Savers
Dick Verburg, the founder and president of Multi-Pilot Simulations (MPS), believes that fixed-base flight simulators are a key to improving aviation safety, as well as reducing training costs. The company produces a line of Level 4 through 6 Airbus A320 and Boeing 737NG type-specific flight training devices that are fixed-base.
"With today’s advanced visuals and advanced audio we can create the flying sensation with a fixed-base simulator," Verburg said. "We expect to replace full flight simulator hours on a fixed base to substantially lower the cost, where we can say that we train more hours for less money using a fixed-base FTD. So we expect that the fixed-base simulator will play an increasingly important role in training."
According to Verburg, a major reason for reducing training costs is to allow more comprehensive training for younger pilots being hired by airlines. Doing so will help reduce the number of incidents and accidents, he predicted.
"First of all, look at the rate of accidents," Verburg pointed out, "Most of them are handling skills related. And secondly, the fleet is going to be doubled by 2032. And in my book, that means that the number of accidents and incidents are also going to be doubled if we don’t do anything. So we in aviation have to pay attention to the growth in the industry, because we will be getting youngsters in who will need to be more efficiently trained to be able to handle the ever-growing complexity of the aircraft."
Currently in Asia, but also in Europe, student pilots are going immediately from training to an airline operation with a Boeing or Airbus airliner, Verburg added. So flight schools there have to train the students in flight school all the way to the ability of operating jet aircraft before they get to the airline.
"And that is where our simulators play a major role," Verburg emphasized. "So just a simple type rating is not enough. New-hire- pilots have not learned the airmanship in it yet. Those flight schools that do not do this will fail and go under. Those flight schools that are seeing the need for training to getting pilots ready for an airline are therefore able to attract more students, because their placement rate is high. They can only do that if they use this sort of device. So our key part of the industry is to make it affordable for those flight training organizations that need an affordable device, which can do the bridge courses or airline orientation from the single engine to a jet operation when they go to an airline."
Alsim is another fixed-base FTD manufacturer whose philosophy is that motion is not necessary for advanced flight training because of rapidly improving visual system technologies. The company's core product is the ALX FSTD, which can be reconfigured from the cockpit of a single engine piston aircraft to one of a medium twin fanjet. The result is exposure to a number of different aircraft without the cost of individual devices for each type of training aircraft.
"One way of conducting training is that when you start with students, they have to practice the instruments in relation to the airplane," said Alsim Project Manager Genevieve Cyr. "Since they don't know what type of aircraft they are going to be subjected to, it's not sufficient to subject them to just the instrumentation for a Diamond DA 42, for example. The logic that goes into our simulator is that if you expose students to different types of aircraft, they will be sensitized to all of the different reactions they need to have - and the logic underneath all of these instruments for different types of aircraft."
Again, while some FTD manufacturers are looking to provide lower-cost motion platforms to their lower-level devices, Alsim does not see the advantage in doing so. Instead, the company provides a 208-degree high-fidelity panoramic visual display with three projectors, along with a full cockpit, with its ALX FSTDs.
"We have never been convinced that motion is bringing value to the training quality at initial stage, especially in regards of the performance of “low-cost” systems that can be found on some AATDs," said Mickael Herard, Alsim's FSTD Qualification Manager. "The feelings are often not very realistic, and you feel more like you are in a roller coaster than in an actual airplane. But we are sure the technology will continue to progress, and we may have very good motion in the future."
In Alsim's opinion, the best motion system is the visual. That is because the company's panoramic visual system offers a very highly realistic environment compared to TFT screens usually embedded in motion-equipped AATD.
"In addition, we believe that a very realistic cockpit environment with aircraft-like switches, avionics, smooth instrument display, realistic sounds, low transport delay and a strong control loading contribute much more to the pedagogical benefit offered by the immersion," Herard summed up. "Our next step will be to develop learning and training software tools to emphasize the pedagogical capability of our simulators, and to improve self-learning and scenario-and-competence-based training, as well as pilot assessment, along with showing how the simulators are not restricted to the ‘credit hours’ common use."
Another newer full cockpit FSTD is being provided by ASTi, in conjunction with Glasgow, Scotland-based Airliner1's Flight Management Computer Trainer, the combination of a fully simulated 737 cockpit with a projection mini-dome and the former company's new Simulated Environment for Realistic Air Traffic Control (ATC).
According to Neil Waterman, ASTi's Commercial Aviation Lead, the company is seeing a lot of interest in innovative lower-level FTDs that direct specific tasks. Before, training organizations had to go to full flight simulators for realistic cockpits to train such things as procedures flows in a more immersive environment, he said.
"So trainers would have to go to the high-end device and have to lock out time that would be better used putting the crews through real training," Waterman explained. "In summary, we are really seeing a lot of interest in these devices because they are cost-effective for specific training needs, and they are at the level of physical replication that the crews are comfortable with."
While several airlines and FTOs employ flat-panel devices for procedures training provided by Level D manufacturers, one of the problems has been that while such devices do provide such functionality, they just don’t look like a cockpit and they don’t function physically as a cockpit, Waterman said. From a human factors standpoint, flight crew members simply don’t feel that the flat-panel devices give them the same environment at the same level of understanding as to what is happening when they are not surrounded by that familiar array of the cockpit. That includes the ATC environment, which he described as a complete phase of the flight simulation environment that has been missing up until now.
Cost Saving Technologies
With better preparation of younger pilots for their airline careers a growing concern, Aerosim is seeing more airlines employ its iPad-based Ethos program so that new-hires can use their mobile devices to practice, learn and better understand procedures and their flows before their scheduled training for such on flat panel devices or even the FFS, said Aerosim CEO Dave Rapley. One concern is that some new hires have only been flying a single-engine aircraft, and that means they are not really going to be ready for a crew cockpit environment in a simulator.
"Airlines have been teaching procedure flows in the simulator, and now we can prepare them to learn all of their flows on their iPad in their hotel the night before they come in for their simulators sessions and learn their procedures," Rapley said. "No one has done that before. It is more about understanding the process of the flow. It explains the process of the flow and then allows them to test themselves and they can keep doing this until they eventually understand. This is the missing gap between the systems knowledge and the platform. The gap that was missing is the integration from your systems knowledge."
Rather than a bare minimum of learning tools, Aerosim has placed a full suite of Ethos tools on the iPad that covers all of the elements to make new hires successful with their oral, or be ready to go to the simulator, Rapley added. He also said that the company has merged the iPad or tablet to the flat panel trainer so that now pilots can earn all of the airline's procedures in the hotel either self-paced on their own, or with an instructor on a flat panel device. In this manner, the new pilots are getting the same training without getting into a full-flight simulator, he reported.
"For us we see that better preparation of the pilot is somewhat critical, and the reason why is that quite often new pilots coming in to airlines are ab-initio pilots with zero experience to begin with or are transitioning from another airline," Rapley explained. "This means different type ratings and all kinds of skill levels coming in. So the airlines want to provide their pilots with more information so that they can prepare themselves based on their level of expertise. The goal is that everybody at the end of the day will be at the same level when they go into the training center. That's where the mobility comes in."
With the success of Ethos venture, Rapley is convinced that mobile learning will become the future for flight training. He already believes that it is the next evolution of distance learning.
"I can say without a shadow of a doubt that all of pilot learning will be on some form of a tablet in the future, other than those sessions where you need to be in a crew environment," Rapley summed up.
Intelligent Tutor-Driven Simulators
The first phase of what is planned to eventually become a complete self-contained private pilot course driven by intelligent tutor-based software in a flight training device is intended to be released sometime this spring by Redbird Simulations. The first training modules of the Guided Independent Flight Training (GIFT) system are currently undergoing testing at Redbird's Skyport Laboratory and will be released to select Redbird customers within a couple of months for beta testing, according to company president Todd Willinger.
With the GIFT system, a student can study videos and other self-paced learning materials packaged in separate modules (one each for ground school, the fundamentals of flight and flight systems, for example) that are based on what is required to pass the FAA's Private Pilot Practical Test Standards (PTS) for Airplane. When a student runs the learning material and flies them in the FTD (currently a Redbird AATD) the device-driven GIFT software guides the student through the lessons, and then allows the student to perform a test or maneuver, correcting the student as necessary, such as for being too high or low on a glide slope.
The student's performance is then rated and scored against the PTS. The student can perform the test or maneuver as many times as necessary to become proficient. There is also a Check Ride module available. After a module session, an instructor can log in and check student practice, Willinger explained. Then when the student and instructor get into the training aircraft, the instructor knows to focus on those items that need to be improved upon. The focus can be on particular items that the student seems to be struggling with, so the GIFT system can actually be a benefit to the school as far as identifying some weaknesses of the student on a part-task level.
"We think that in the future the GIFT system modules could become the flight training curriculum," Willinger predicted. "We think that there is a need for it as self-taught learning. It is a lot less expensive to learn all of the basics of these types of maneuvers in the context of performing them in one of our devices than it is in an airplane. So there is an economic factor that comes into play as well."
"You could almost consider this to be a giant X-box game, because it is that sort of interactive training that is taking place," Willinger summed up. “So we need to be looking at younger generations as to how we deliver content, and be competing for their attention on a whole different level than in the past. I think that this is one of the struggles that aviation has had - how do you grab that attention from 16 and 17-year-olds, for example."