The civil aviation training community seems to again be at one of those Dickensian crossroads – “best of times, worst of times.”

With the continued ramp-up of competency-based and evidence-based training, implementation of upset prevention and recovery training, a broader range of training devices, including virtual- and other-reality technologies, the promise of 5G connection speeds, and deeper understanding of student behaviours and instructional techniques through AI-aided data analysis tools, all potentially leading to unprecedented refinement of curricula for cadets and line pilots … plus plenty of business for everyone in a growth market … it’s in that sense the best of times in this industry.

Au contraire, more than any other time I can remember, many people are apprehensive about flying.

It’s not just the ongoing MAX saga and the extreme scrutiny every flight will receive if/when the aircraft is allowed to return to service. It’s also the coronavirus pandemic, making suspect any public gathering place such as airports, and especially a confined flying tube with recirculated air. It’s increasingly unruly passengers acting out their frustrations onboard (even those who are not denied the companionship of an emotional support pony). It’s the ongoing threat of terrorism, whether causing frustrating queues at security or re-routing to avoid being shot down in a conflict zone. It’s malefactors and eejits flying drones into approach patterns. Soon it may be autonomous, low-altitude flying-taxi traffic in urban areas. It’sflygskam flight-shaming by those with climate change fears who would reduce us all to pedestrians. It’s ridiculously cramped seats and confusing baggage regulations and fees.

The training community cannot do much about these worst-of-times issues, but it can significantly influence others: concern about manual flying skills, concern about a pilot’s mental health or physical fatigue, concern about the declining experience levels of the two people in the cockpit brought about by retirement of experienced captains and the economic- and regulation-driven pilot shortage, and the inherent inability of governance to keep pace with technology advancements.

Ten years ago, in the emotional aftermath of the Colgan tragedy, the training community failed to present a scientific research-based argument documenting the benefits of simulation and its role in the training of airline pilots. Having achieved zero-flight-time authority decades earlier, the inward-looking industry had long taken for granted the role of full-flight simulators. But it could not satisfactorily debate the specifics of their value to the US Congress, and the result was the (undocumented as well, but better marketed) 1500-hour rule.

The MPL scheme, now a dozen years on and inconsistent in implementation, is similarly lacking documentation as to its effectiveness. Do we truly know how competent such graduates are? Or how they compare with pilots produced via traditional schemes?

Today’s BoT/WoT circumstances present a new opportunity to get it right. The aviation training community is experimenting with all manner of curricula, training tools and selection criteria, seeking the magic formula which will yield competent, professional and resilient flight deck managers. That formula must be rigorously analysed using defensible scientific criteria, so we can declare without equivocation that “this is the best way” to train pilots to fly modern airliners.

To be credible to the nervous flying public (including legislators), the research must be conducted by trusted independent organisations, not by training industry insiders who can be perceived to influence the results to their benefit. The research must demonstrate that, from the point a candidate self-selects to attempt to join those elite crews who hold hundreds of lives in their hands and heads to the moment they are conferred their shoulder stripes, the training system, step by step, is absolutely solid – validated in theory and in practice, with an abundance of supporting scientific evidence.

This is the challenge of our time, and the imperative: develop the optimum airline pilot training path… and prove it.