Science. Data science. Brain science. Virtual reality science.

Flying home from Orlando, with time to reflect on last week’s World Aviation Training Summit (WATS), the 26th annual event, I was struck by the richness of content in the presentations in the Pilot Training stream which I chaired.

WATS 2024 was a truly transformative week, dramatically shifting the focus of the civil aviation training community from the traditional emphasis on flight simulator hardware - visual and motion systems, mostly – to the science of learning.

Simulation-based training has always been about science and engineering, of course, but more so on the physics of making simulators ever-more realistic: the optimal stroke-length of hydraulic, later electric, motion platforms… the polygon count and brightness of image generators and displays… making IOS controls more instructor-friendly. And certainly there is still that element to the business with periodic incremental improvements.

What was especially encouraging this year was the large number of presentations on how humans learn – not just the requisite knowledge and skills but also how to adapt, how to make decisions in situations which are not necessarily taught during recurrent.

There was a plethora of presos on data analysis, artificial intelligence, and their practical applications: 

Aleksandra Kapela of Symbiotics (UK) and Cedric Paillard of the Airline Pilot Club explained how APC is using psychometric assessments coupled with simulator evaluations and AI to determine the best candidates to become pilots for Avianca, winnowing 1,700 applicants to 180. 

Thomas Bessiere, CEO, and Dr. Kevin Verdière, Product Manager, Hinfact, explored ‘augmented intelligence’ (a term I prefer) for improving the objectivity of pilot performance assessments, leveraging research at France’s ISAE (Institut Supérieur de l'Aéronautique et de l'Espace). Hinfact announced an agreement at the show to integrate their data analytics into Airbus’ CBTA/EBT training: Airbus and Hinfact Offer Complete CBTA/EBT Training | Halldale Group

Paul Garcia Sanz, Lead Aerospace Engineer for Data Machine Intelligence, Germany, talked about using AI to reduce pilot workload by helping to analyze huge amounts of cockpit data, unlock new training scenarios, and build trust through ‘Explainable AI.’

Thales Training & Simulation’s Margareta Freitas described the French Civil Aviation Authority’s PERCEVAL project (Pilot Behavior and Competence Evaluation) which seeks to use non-intrusive means – ambient audio, gaze-tracking, heartrate watch, etc. – to capture psychological and cognitive factors during crew training to support instructor evaluation with objective data.

Captain Erika Armstrong, best known for her book The Chick in the Cockpit, lasered in on ‘The Pilot Brain,’ including an assessment of most pilots as ESTJs: Extraverted (introverts who exhibit extroverted behavior); focused on Senses when processing data; logical and independent Thinkers; and Judging – preferring order, such as checklists.

In the premier WATS breakout session for Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), the overriding impression was that the effort to make eVTOL aircraft ‘simple’ to fly is an extremely complex task, especially considering the variables of operating in urban canyons. NASA, the US Air Force, and myriad companies are honing in on this unique ‘clean sheet’ pilot training challenge with intensified activity leading to 2025 launches.

Coincident with WATS, the Royal Aeronautical Society published a major briefing paper on eVTOL safety using a ‘pre-mortem’ approach with operational scenarios set in a 2035 timeframe. (I had the privilege of serving as the task force editor for the paper.) Royal Aeronautical Society Publishes eVTOL President’s Briefing Paper | Halldale Group.

WATS 2024 got off to a robust start with a keynote from US FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker (More Training, Supervision, and Quality Control | Halldale Group), who also brought a strong team from AFS-200, Air Transportation Division, led by Rob Reckert. After two years of personnel churn at the agency, it was encouraging to learn the new Who’s Who and the FAA initiatives which impact the training community.

Following his keynote, Administrator Whitaker toured the exhibition hall, including flying the Loft Dynamics H125 virtual reality-driven flight simulator, which the FAA is evaluating to help develop guidelines for qualifying VR devices for training credits. Is FAA Guidance for VR Flight Simulation Imminent? | Halldale Group.

The emphasis on science and analysis – asking the fundamental ‘why’ of how to achieve the best possible training and operational outcomes – is especially encouraging because, although that has always been the aim, the training community has not always adequately documented its rationale, methodologies and value. This has unfortunately led to emotion/politics-driven legislation such as the FAA’s so-called ‘1500-hour rule.’

The advent of VR and eVTOL, combined with competency-based initiatives, is triggering a ‘re-think’ of training – a science-validated pathway to aviation piloting which channels the best practices of the traditional using emerging modern tools to create a more refined, objective curriculum... and more proficient, resilient pilots... always with safety at the forefront.

WATS sponsor-block