Research work has been conducted by Boeing to help assess professional competencies in ab initio training. Julie Boatman Filucci finds out more about the results.

“You have to ask the right questions, because we need the right data,” says Dr. Douglas A. Larson, channel sales executive for aviation education, with Boeing Global Services. It’s the reverse of the way training organizations - and airlines - have approached the measurement of adequate pilot development in the past - and causes both ATOs and airlines to miss an opportunity to drive professional competencies into applicants earlier in the process for better results. One of the right questions: How do you incorporate professional competencies into the ab initio training realm for better results?

Larson completed his dissertation towards his Doctor of Education (Ed.D) at the University of Colorado, Denver’s Educational Leadership, Professional Learning and Technology department in 2017. He presented the initial findings from that work, titled, “Multi-Dimensional Assessment of Professional Competence During Initial Pilot Training,” at APATS 2017 and WATS 2018, and followed up with CAT on further developments in July 2018.

For the grist behind the dissertation, Larson partnered with Emirates Airline, which conducted research by surveying stakeholders affiliated with its National Cadet Programme (NCP). The analysis that resulted formed recommendations for implementation of the flight program developed for the newly launched Emirates Flight Training Academy (EFTA) at the Dubai World Center Airport in the United Arab Emirates. Specifically, those results would validate and improve the design of a multi-dimensional competency assessment tool for the new academy.

Assessing professional competence during initial training. Image credit: Boeing/Larson.
Assessing professional competence during initial training. Image credit: Boeing/Larson.

What’s a Professional Competency?

Emirates Airline has established its set of professional competencies to use within line training and assessment, based on the IATA core principles - which had been in turn developed through evidence-based training. The airline utilized the eight competencies, which include aircraft handling, communication, use and management of autoflight systems, workload management, problem solving and decision making, leadership, teamwork and support, application of procedures, and situational awareness. Emirates added its own ninth competency, aircraft systems and operational knowledge. These were used as the basis for defining professional competencies for the research.

The survey went out to current cadets, recent graduates, initial instructors, advanced instructors, and examiners connected to the NCP. Results of the survey clearly indicated that more could be done to develop and assess competence during initial flight training - and that such a formative assessment tool would have strong support amongst the various stakeholders in the NCP. In fact, the assessment tool was the most glaring piece of the puzzle that was lacking.

Their experience is not unique. If you looked at Part 142 training centers overall, and various AQP examples, you would find the quantification and assessment of the desired professional attitudes exists but not at the ab initio flight training level. Basic professional competence is not demonstrated by applicants, on the whole, and requires further development by the airline much of the time.

Airlines have been dissatisfied with initial candidates in these areas, but instead of working with training providers to attack the problem holistically, they’ve tried to solve it themselves. Larson contends (and has concurrence from peers) that it would be far better for airlines to work to “do it earlier and not get to the crisis - instead of saying ‘This is the new normal,’ and managing the crisis over and over.”

Because it becomes a crisis - that’s not too strong a word - when an otherwise qualified applicant fails in making the transition from ATPL training to the line because he or she has not internalized the proper mindset. Those professional aptitudes not only serve well in the cockpit, but they tend to be good skills for life management also, adding to the strengthening effect they have on a cadet’s overall success in a training program.

Airlines must identify the cultural change they seek - they cannot just focus on the knowledge and skills parts of KSAs. Defining competence is critical: “We use that word in two significantly different ways,” says Larson. Micro-competence: on a task basis, observable by the instructor at the ATO and airline training center level; and macro-competence: in which the airlines look for something bigger related to operational performance.

And that’s what’s in it for the airline, aside from the “soft” benefits of a better work environment and more competent crew. By starting early, both the initial investment in creating overall professional competence means solving the problem as well as ensuring that the ongoing costs are lower.

For example, one fairly simple area of reinforcement lies in the Aviation English levels of applicants. Because AE Level 4 is assumed for incoming pilot candidates, airlines deliver initial training at that level. But clearly, if the candidate has stagnated at Level 2 without the proper intervention – and the professional attitude to identify the problem and work themselves to change it - incomprehension inevitably results. And then? The candidate requires more training, or washes out of the program entirely, wasting not only their time, effort, and money, but the airline’s investment in that candidate as well.

The minimum standards have been set by industry, and codified in the processes of certification. But, traditionally, professional competencies have not been included (in the worst case) or not well articulated. As Larson puts it, the common refrain: “‘I know it when I see it,’ is not good enough.”

What’s more: Data collection and management at most ATOs is limited (and still often paper-based), and the current regulatory oversight doesn't adequately require anything but an antiquated file system. In fact, some CAAs make it difficult to adopt new systems as they themselves struggle to modernize. And when they do collect the data? Analysis ensues - but only if there are the resources to do it.

Making it Relevant to the ATO

What about performance factors, such as route, crew, fuel planning…on time departure performance in the flight training environment - we can measure this now, using current dispatch software at most ATOs, and with refinement, obtain even more granular data just by capturing it and analyzing it. The professional competencies involved here include the one Emirates has added: aircraft systems and operational knowledge.

We see application of this within the hub system used by Emirates, around its main base in Dubai. On-time arrival is a key feature for any airline, but because of the way Emirates manages its system, it takes on particular importance. It saves the company more money in the long term for crews to burn additional fuel to achieve a shorter time enroute - and on-time performance - than to save money on fuel but misconnect an Airbus A380 at the hub - and need to care for passengers for 20 hours until the next flight. “Sometimes going full speed to be on time is the best economic decision,” says Larson.

The crux is to capture these analytics and deliver them in close to real time to the airline client. But what about at the ATO level? At an example flight school, the Diamond DA40s in use don’t burn a lot of fuel overall, so running 0.2 hours over on a flight might not mean much to the individual student or instructor. But it can mean a lot to the ATO when multiplied over the fleet - and it will certainly mean more to the airline when that extra 12 minutes comes from a late Boeing 737.

Gamification is another area where Larson sees promise. Gamification to drive performance takes advantage of the “inherent competitive streak in those who want to be pilots.” By making a competition out of performance at the ATO, the flight school can drive the desired awareness into the students and instructors - and gain benefit to its own bottom line. Fuel management and flight departure, duration, and arrival metrics can be tracked and displayed in a way to promote learning. Groups of students can become a model “airline,” and learn operational values through completion, “you learn what’s being measured,” says Larson. “You’ve put it into a game that has a real-life value.”

As the numbers of pilots and maintenance technicians required continue to climb, according to Boeing’s latest Pilot and Technician Outlook (from its Commercial Market Outlook released every summer), the report has expanded to include a look at the increased demand for personnel in business aviation and rotorcraft operations. Modeling professional competencies in a wide range of ab initio training programs - not just those for pilots - takes on increased importance as companies invest in recruiting and retaining applicants. Larson sees application for the knowledge gained in secondary school STEM programs as well as at the TRTO level. “We’re working across all market segments to develop programs that address workforce development and education,” says Larson.

EFTA expects to grow to its capacity of 600 cadets in about three years. Image credit: Emirates Flight Training Academy.
EFTA expects to grow to its capacity of 600 cadets in about three years. Image credit: Emirates Flight Training Academy. 


Now Boeing has its own dedicated platform to deliver content, in the case of ab initio training, through the acquisition of Peters Software into Boeing Flight Services in October 2015 - now the group forms the core of Boeing Services Deutschland GmbH, in Cologne, Germany. Both pilot and maintenance training under EASA can be managed through the learning management system developed by the division. This program is currently undergoing its initial implementation at EFTA. Content to support FAA training organizations, and those following other regulators, is also in work.

When fully operational, the new program enables new data collection and analysis across an ATO. It's the key to having “learning - and all the operations related to learning - in the same system,” says Larson. Dashboards will give a snapshot of the current state at the academy, allowing complex data to be digested readily. They’ll allow for the flagging of concerns, to keep the student on track.

But developing the macro view requires an analyst with domain knowledge and access to data from many systems. That administrator must understand the prerequisites - how the student comes into training at any point. “We could correct issues at a simpler point of training if we know what the deficiencies or weaknesses are,” says Larson.

To Captain Abdulla Al Hammadi, vice president of Emirates Flight Training Academy, automation of the analysis will be key, especially as the academy continues to grow. “At this moment, we have a lot of data, a lot to analyze and use to improve the program,” says Al Hammadi. “We are working to put parameters into the system to automatically identify those areas. We look to being a model of continuous development, not just one system off-the-shelf and then not changed for years.”

The determination at EFTA is very real: With 200 cadets now on site, and flight training to begin near the end of September, EFTA expects to grow to its capacity of 600 cadets in about three years. While many aspects of training retain a personal touch, with that volume of students, automation of data tracking and analysis will be critical if EFTA is to succeed in its mission for Emirates - and its cadets.

Supporting the Instructor Too

There’s an additional benefit as well: to “level out” the experience level of the instructor. As lower tenures persist across the industry, fewer instructors have the teaching experience (or the life experience in general) to be able to “know it when they see it” when it comes to professional competencies, in particular. By parsing what a good CFI tracks in a student’s development, and automating that to the extent possible, Larson sees the potential to support newer instructors with a better checklist of what to look for.

The outcome is to provide measurable and relatable professional competencies and values, to capture data and display it (on tablet or mobile/smartphone), and ultimately move to automatic collection of some elements of the data. The greater benefit as a result? Consistent training and information across the training timeline - and, finally, the development of professional competencies from an early stage to reduce training costs and improve results in line training. 

Published in CAT issue 5/2018