Editor’s Note: From time to time, The Journal of Civil Aviation Training (CAT) magazine presents a Guest Commentary on important issues facing the community. The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

This commentary is offered by Dr. Mikhail Klassen, Co-Founder, Chief Technology Officer and Chief Data Scientist of Paladin AI, a venture-backed startup in Montréal, Canada, that offers aviation training centres the ability to affordably transition to competency-based training using AI-powered training analytics software. Mikhail holds a PhD in astrophysics from McMaster University.

Herewith are some of his thoughts on developing changes to pilot training.


By Dr. Mikhail Klassen

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many questions about aviation training: How do furloughed pilots maintain recency? How do flight schools continue their training when pilots are isolating at home? How will training organizations handle a surge of necessary type conversions if airlines overhaul their fleets in favor of more fuel-efficient aircraft?

The crisis will undoubtedly usher in many changes to the way that people travel, from the experience at airports to the way that aircraft are cleaned and maintained. “Biosecurity” has entered the popular vocabulary and it also applies to the way that we will restart pilot training. Even if a vaccine becomes widely available tomorrow, travelers may forever be more health-conscious when traveling, in the same way that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 made everyone more mindful of security.

The “new normal” will need to anticipate future pandemics, which may become more frequent due to climate change, as tropical diseases move to higher latitudes and long-frozen pathogens thaw out of the arctic permafrost.

Nevertheless, aviation will adapt and overcome these challenges. These months of self-isolation spent working from home have taught us that video conferencing is a poor substitute for the real experience. Meanwhile, our Instagram feeds remind us that there is a whole world out there worth exploring.

For those considering a career in aviation, the future is still hopeful. While IATA predicts that a full recovery of passenger numbers back to 2019 levels could take three years, there are technologies on the horizon that could bring down the cost of training.

Evidence-based training implementations have the potential to certify a pilot using lower-level simulation devices, and adaptive training could help pilots graduate in less time. Flight schools adopting evidence-based training programs such as the Multi-crew Pilot License (MPL) offer students a more affordable fast track to the flight deck of a major airline. If the MPL program could be coupled with data-driven adaptive training technology, then the process of becoming a First Officer could be sped up even further.

Adaptive training technology is in its nascent stages, but because of a confluence of factors, including a positive regulatory environment favoring evidence-based training, low-cost, cloud-based computation, and powerful deep-learning algorithms that can objectively measure the competency of a pilot, true competency-based training is now possible. Full disclosure: Our startup, Paladin AI, is actively developing and deploying such technology, which will drive down the cost of training by reducing the need for remedial training and queue up the right training at the right time, all without burdening instructors with extra paperwork.

Flight schools have been adapting to the crisis by shifting ground school into the virtual classroom. Many students can now continue their training remotely, while others can receive basic refresher training via an app on their phones or tablets.

There is also the idea that recurrent training could be brought closer to home. Regional training centers operating lower-cost or more modular flight simulators could offer recurrent training locally, without needing to send pilots to another country that may still have travel restrictions in place. If these training devices are equipped with training analytics software, the proficiency of the pilot could be quickly validated without the physical presence of an instructor.

Smart training centers of the future will be deeply connected learning environments, training tomorrow’s pilots while requiring fewer instructors. With intelligent systems automatically generating lesson plans, handling scheduling, and automating assessment, adaptive learning technology will combine the best of human expertise (in piloting and instruction) with semi-autonomous hardware (training centers and aircraft).

Challenges remain, however. Training centres have had to implement strict new protocols in the face of COVID-19, which include social distancing between staff and frequent sanitizing of training devices. Many pilots remain furloughed, awaiting a return to more regular operations, and airlines are radically restructuring.

One other trend that the pandemic has accelerated is the shift towards greater environmental consciousness. Some government bailouts have been contingent on greening operations, and the ICAO CORSIA program for aircraft emissions comes into force after 2020. This will likely accelerate the shift to more fuel-efficient narrowbody jets and perhaps the adoption of short-range electric or hybrid-electric aircraft for regional travel. Large investments in urban air mobility and remotely piloted aircraft systems have not slowed during the pandemic. All of this will create some interesting career opportunities for pilots, as well as business opportunities for training organizations.