Chris Long travelled to Prague to visit the Czech Airlines Training Centre.

Managing effective ab initio pilot training with the reduced flight hours mandated by recent regulation has been a challenge for all. The commercial choices are stark – but with an increased awareness that we must significantly enhance manual flying skills, there is an argument that there needs to be an increase in the amount of practical flight time. That, of course, imposes significant extra cost; or perhaps the solution is to find a better way of training?

The team at the Czech Aviation Training Centre (CATC) in Prague, the Czech Republic, has thought and acted creatively, and over the last four years has added 10 hours flight time to the 55 flight hours of the CATC MPL syllabus. What is original here is that the airborne platform used for this flight is a step away from conventional thinking.

Recognizing that some training systems fail to impart basic understanding and skills of aircraft handling, those students embarking on the 21-month CATC ab initio MPL training programme start with 10 hours on gliders. Here the young pilots learn the fundamentals of the primary flight controls, energy management and spatial awareness at the Aeroklub Tábor, some 100kms south of Prague. One of the instructor team members is Martin Sonka, world champion aerobatic and Red Bull pilot, who flies with students in the classic Czech-built glider, the Blanik L13.

As Captain Vladimir Peroutka, Head of Training says, this programme has produced excellent results, and when preceded by the stringent selection process (which only releases some 10% of candidates to the training patterns), has so far resulted in zero failures in the whole training cycle through to the end of LOE. That alone justifies its use, but a further benefit is that at this early stage the students are grouped together for the two weeks gliding course, and thus start to develop the concept of teambuilding/teamwork and CRM, all of which are important soft skills in aviation. Furthermore, the students are also encouraged to pair up as a natural lead-in to the whole process of MPL, in which dual pilot workloads are used as a training regime, modeling future commercial pilot operations.

This would appear to be a clever, low-cost and effective improvement to conventional training processes – it could well be that this is a smooth glide to success – and could become a true “best practice”.

CATC: Airline Spinoff

CATC is located at the Vaclav Havel International Airport in Prague, and in 2012 was acquired by the Air Navigation Services of the Czech Republic (a government body) but acts as an independent company. However, the Training Centre has long-term experience in training commercial pilots when it was part of Czechoslovak Airlines and later Czech Airlines before becoming a standalone business unit.

It provides a range of training across the commercial aviation disciplines, from pilot training, through cabin crew safety and security training, to training for maintenance teams up to the Licenced Engineer qualification.

The initial focus was on providing aviation training for the Czech Republic, with the emphasis on pilot training – which is not only on the ab initio stage, but also for type rating training and recurrent training on a range of aircraft, including the A320 family, B737 CL/NG (and potentially MAX), L410 and ATR 42/72-500. Their FFSs are all reloaded with full UPRT software; consequently that aspect can be competently trained. Supporting ground-based theoretical courses also boost the training choices, and a range of options is available.

This is not just for the aviation sector in the Czech Republic, but for quite some time it has grown to be a major training resource for a broader regional and global audience, with clients coming from other Central European countries as well as Asia.

Ab Initio Options

In common with similar ATOs, CATC is flexible in the choice of ab initio training packages. Some of the self-sponsored students follow the Integrated ATPL, which progresses through CPL/ME/IR and MCC, and finally, a type training. Other students pursue the MPL pattern which, of course, is focussed on specific types for specific airlines. Historically the main client for this is the Smartwings Group, which owns both Smartwings and Czech Airlines. The group owns the largest airline fleet in the Czech Republic and the two airlines together make up a fleet of some 50 aircraft, consisting of Boeing 737, Airbus A320, A330 and ATR types.

Students embarking on the 21-month CATC ab initio MPL training programme learn the fundamentals of the primary flight controls, energy management and spatial awareness on gliders at the Aeroklub Tábor. Image credit: CATC.

The density of the theoretical course and subsequent exams is such that the decision has been made to concentrate on completing that stage before starting on the practical flying training. For those on the MPL, they can use the FBTs on either the B737 or A320 as necessary right from the start, making the translation to the FFS and aircraft in the later phases very straightforward. The now-mandatory UPRT is carried out in aerobatic aircraft, and the three hours flight time includes the demonstration of basic aerobatics and spinning.

An added benefit of this pattern is, from the students’ perspective, that there is sufficient practical training for the award of a PPL on the way to the MPL. It is not mandated in the standard regulated MPL pattern, but it certainly enhances the creation of a rounded set of pilot skills.

With CATC as the training provider, the Smartwings Group is responsible for the training of some 580 pilots and 950 cabin crew. CATC does not select the cabin crew, but the airlines send their crews for First Aid, Fire Fighting and Emergency Evacuation/Ditching training.

Also falling within CATC’s remit is the continuing training of the maintenance teams, up to and including licenced engineers, as well as their own highly specialised multi-disciplined simulator technicians.

Recruiting New Entrants

In common with the rest of the world, there are continuous efforts to recruit new entrants to the industry. Marek Jechumtál, Deputy Sales and Marketing Director, notes that there are strong ties with national universities, and there is an annual open day which serves not just to enthuse a new generation, but importantly, to educate and reassure parents/sponsors of the attraction of the various aviation industry career options.

The view often expressed by young adults is that committing to a career which is so long term is daunting – for them the range of choice and the prospect of frequent job-hopping, which now appears to be the norm, is attractive, and that is at odds with the pattern of a career in aviation. Another critical barrier is the funding, particularly of the high-dollar pilot training, and that deters many prospective entrants.

Although there is interest from an older population group who wish to start a second career, the reality is that the intensive nature of the theoretical course and the information technology involved in the MPL means that this demographic is better suited to the gentler modular route. The pairing of different ages can hold back the quick learners of a younger generation. Even once the licence has been awarded, these older pilots may find that airlines are more reluctant to take on low-time pilots who are a little older, so trying to diversify recruits by engaging with that age group may not be the only answer to the pilot shortage. This reinforces the fact that the industry must concentrate on building the numbers of women on the flight deck to meet the required pilot numbers.

Milan Hühner, FSTD Director, points out that the long gestation period for maintenance or simulator technicians tends to put employment beyond the visible horizon for those who think short term and look for quick rewards.

Major Investment

In October, CATC - in the presence of the Minister of Transport of the Czech Republic and representatives of the Civil Aviation Authority, Air Navigation Services (CATC owner), Komerční banka and the Smartwings Group – inaugurated two new CAE full-flight simulators for the A320neo and Boeing 737MAX. Image credit: CATC.

Milos Kvapil, ex-Head of Czech Airlines Training Centre, is delighted to see that the CATC is determined to benefit from its Central European location as it continues to invest in the most modern training equipment. In a recent ceremony the Czech Minister of Transport declared the entry into service of two new FFS, both manufactured by CAE. These reflect the demand for the two single aisle aircraft – the A320 neo/ceo and the Boeing 737 MAX. They too, are fully loaded with a comprehensive suite of the latest technology, including UPRT software, and will significantly help to respond to the growing demand for such training.

The future is optimistic. A recent agreement with Malaysian Airlines, with the prospect of up to 100 student pilots a year to add to the 30 local entrants, provides a good indicator of both the capacity and credibility of a vigorous training regime. The number of students in training will build from the 30 presently to about 130 by the end of 2020 – a healthy throughput to add to the 100+ type ratings completed each year.

Published in CAT issue 6/2019