Becoming a skilled airman is largely a result of training. The more you put into it, the more you’ll learn.
By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor ATP/CFII. Challenger 604/605,
Gulfstream IV, MU2B
When considering the strides made in aviation over the course of the past 100 or so years, it’s natural to focus on how aircraft have flown faster, climbed higher, and become more technologically advanced.
While those things are exciting, what’s equally important – but not as interesting to talk about – are the concomitant advances in learning methodology and simulation that allow pilots to operate an aircraft safely and efficiently. In a time before flight simulators, all training was done in a real aircraft.
In the barnstorming era, learning to fly was analogous to teaching a 16-year-old to drive using a brand-new Lamborghini. Learning to fly has always been expensive.
Enter the flight simulator era
Edwin Link was born in 1904, and took his first flying lesson in 1920. He became a flight instructor and barnstormer, but is most famously known for inventing the first commercial flight simulator.
His primary goal was to reduce the cost of becoming a pilot, so, using parts left over from his father’s piano repair business, he cobbled together a crude cockpit mock-up.
Musical theory was the impetus for replicating aircraft motion. Link’s familiarity with air compression as applied to playing an organ, along with the mechanics of how a piano produced sound, convinced him that he could reproduce the sensations of flight within a ground-based device.
Originally called “The Pilot Maker,” the strictly mechanical-pneumatic device would eventually be renamed the Link Trainer. At first, Link’s device was snubbed by the fledgling aviation industry. Not a single flight school would buy it.
Instead, it found its way into amusement parks. Any sale brought in much needed cash, but entertaining the general public wasn’t what Link had in mind. His heart was in aviation, so he did what any passionate entrepreneur would do – he started his own flight school.
Link’s big break came in 1934, when he was able to sell 6 devices to the US Army Air Corps. The Army wasn’t that keen on the concept, but was willing to give it a try considering its history of 12 fatal air mail accidents in a 3-month timeframe.
The incidents all stemmed from flying in instrument conditions, which was something the Link trainer could replicate easily. Less than a decade later, the Link Trainer would see widespread use in training pilots for WWII.
One of its more notable uses was to train Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber pilots, including former US President George HW Bush (then an ensign), at the Naval Air Station (NAS) in Fort Lauderdale FL. During the war, Link Trainers were also used to train Pan Am pilots on the massive Boeing 314 flying boat.
Twelve Boeing 314s were produced between 1938 and 1941 (9 going to Pan Am), and the aircraft saw widespread service crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Aviation has an inherent interconnectedness, and one invention often begets another. Rudy Frasca, a naval aviator who taught pilots on the Link Trainer at NAS Glenview IL, would eventually go on to form his own company. In 1958, he built his first flight simulator in his garage.
Sixty years later, the company founded by Rudy Frasca, now known as Frasca International, has produced in excess of 2600 flight simulators and delivered them worldwide.
Anyone who has come up through the civilian ranks as a professional pilot and started a couple of decades ago, is likely to have experienced one of the original Frasca general aviation trainers.
The early model Frasca 141 (single engine) and 142 (twin engine) devices were equipped with round gauges and lacked motion or “out-the-window” visual displays. For all intents and purposes, they were exclusively instrument or procedural trainers.
Smaller Part 61 “mom and pop” flight schools couldn’t afford those simulators, so they typically appeared at larger Part 141 schools and in university aviation programs.
Sim training for airline pilots
During the 90s, at least 2 regional airlines (called “commuter” at the time) used Frasca 142 simulators as a screening tool during pilot interviews.
Today, airlines have gotten away from purely technical interviews in which flying ability is weighted above all else. Now they use a more human-factors-centered approach to hiring. This wasn’t always the case.
Before regional jets and advanced glass cockpits became the norm, a newly hired commuter pilot could find himself slogging through the northeast corridor, flying 5 legs a day with approaches down to minimums in a sparsely-equipped Jetstream 41 turboprop.
In 2000, the interview profile at Atlantic Coast Airlines, a United Express carrier based at IAD (Dulles, Washington DC), consisted of a normal takeoff, non-published hold with a parallel entry (conducted on raw VOR needles), and an ILS approach back to the airport.
Although it was possible for a sadistic instructor to fail an engine, both engines of the Frasca 142 kept turning. The belief at the time was that, if a pilot couldn’t fly a basic profile to commercial standards, this wasn’t the job for him. Ultimately, the benefits of simulation proved to be twofold: cost reduction and safety.
In 1948 the Curtiss-Wright Corporation developed the first simulator that accurately replicated flight control feel. This was possible because analog computers were employed to solve equations of flight dynamics.
Once again, Pan Am was a big proponent of simulation, and used the Curtiss-Wright device to train 125 crews on the 4-engine Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.
Prior to the simulator, Pan Am required 21 hours of inflight training time per crew. The simulator reduced that time to 8 hours and lowered training costs by 60%.
In 1951, a Pan Am pilot would turn simulation into an industry in and of itself. Albert “Al” Ueltschi, who had been employed with Pan Am since 1941 and served as company founder Juan Trippe’s personal pilot, started a small company at LGA (La Guardia, New York NY) called FlightSafety.
Ueltschi, who was doubtless familiar with the benefits provided by simulators of the day, believed that corporate pilots should have the same advantages. Today, FlightSafety International (FSI) is a household name in the world of aviation, and operates 320 full flight simulators in learning centers all over the globe.
The organization supports 135 aircraft models through 4000 courses for pilots, technicians, flight attendants, and dispatchers. Most pilots are familiar with simulators that use hydraulics to provide the sensation of aircraft motion.
For a long time, hydraulically-powered simulators were considered state of the art. While they were a huge improvement over the pneumatic/mechanical simulators reminiscent of the Link Trainer days, they had some big disadvantages.
Simulator providers need a place to house the hydraulic equipment, and a paid staff of mechanics is required to maintain it. In addition, the fluid itself requires special handling due to environmental considerations.
The latest technology is electric motion and control loading. FSI pioneered this methodology, and claims the new simulators run quieter and use 80% less power. The effects of electric motion are most noticeable during taxi, especially on aircraft that use a tiller for steering.
Even the best hydraulic simulator always seemed a bit sloppy when making turns on the ground, but the new electric simulators smooth out ground handling and add realism to the taxiing. Another area of improvement is visual depictions.
Simulators with visual displays could always produce instrument meteorological conditions and runways to some degree, but the specificity was not there until the past decade or so. New graphics technology, like FSI’s VITAL1150, have amped up the realism.
The 8K resolution of the VITAL system can be used to generate advanced weather scenarios typical of those encountered in the real world, and, in turn, provide an exercise in decisionmaking. Pilots will recall that the older technology weather avoidance scenario used to be a blob of weather directly in front of the aircraft.
For the most part, it was an exercise in futility, as the pilot’s response always seemed to be, “Well, we’d better go around it.” Now, the visual correlates with the radar, and provides cues more in alignment with what a pilot would see in real time.
CAE is the other major player in the flight training simulation industry. According to the company’s website claims, “CAE has the world’s largest civil aviation training network, with 250+ full-flight simulators in 50+ training locations in some of the world’s most desirable destinations.”
Simfinity is a proprietary CAE product designed to ensure continuity and consistency across training devices. The Simfinity suite of products includes a virtual simulator (VSIM), simulator-based courseware (SBC), and a CAE instructor aid tool (IAT).
VSIM is enormously helpful to a pilot who is completing initial aircraft certification. The software allows a student to interact with all aircraft systems on a laptop. As procedures (virtual button pushing and switch flipping) are accomplished, the output is indicative of what would be seen in the actual aircraft.
Replicating aircraft malfunctions is also possible. The self-paced and self-directed nature of the Simfinity suite allows form-differentiated instruction. Students learn in different ways and at different rates, and standard classroom pacing may not reach all learners.
VSIM, in concert with simulation-based courseware, permits a broad-based or in-depth analysis of aircraft systems, depending on which of these the student deems most appropriate for their style of learning. The days are over for a monotone instructor standing in front of a class of 30, endlessly lecturing about diodes buried deep in the fuselage.
The Covid-19 effect
Over the course of this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has placed tight constraints on the aviation community. Nothing has grounded corporate aircraft, but the ancillary effects – especially as they relate to training – have challenged flight departments.
Due to Covid-19, social distancing has reduced the throughput at training centers, and reduced commercial flight schedules make it difficult to get to and from training. However, the concept of remote learning is nothing new to the aviation community.
Both FSI and CAE have distance and online instructional programs. In some cases, vendors have gotten a little creative and had to rethink whether courses traditionally taught in-person can be delivered remotely. Medaire, known for its Management of In-Flight Illness & Injury course, is now offering a virtual learning option.
A Medaire training pack that includes a wrist monitor, bandages, personal precaution equipment, and a manikin, is sent in advance, and students receive training via the Zoom delivery platform.
MedAire has also incorporated a Covid-19 module that addresses crewmember safety in hotel rooms, disinfecting aircraft surfaces, delivering oxygen to coronavirus patients, and personal protection and mitigation measures.
Given that FAA has granted exemptions and extensions on landing currency, medical expiration dates, CFI renewals, BFRs, and certain testing and checking requirements under the guise of Covid-19, it’s worth considering whether the virtual training format will be approved for additional FAA-mandated courses in the future.
Or, more interestingly, if no incidents or accidents are attributable to these exemptions to the rules, maybe the expiration dates of said rules should be extended permanently.
In the world of distance learning, it would be a disservice to the aviation community to fail to mention 2 of the earliest pioneers in the field – John and Martha King.
In the mid-1980s, they transformed what was an in-person ground school into video-based training. Without a doubt, there’s a plethora of pilots with a stack of King Schools VHS tapes tucked away in a closet or basement.
Over time, the original tapes gave way to disks and, now, online training. While many believe King Schools is geared only toward private pilots, they offer a host of courses targeted at professionals.
Selections include, but are not limited to, jet transition, RVSM, international procedures, CRM, EVAS, ADS-B, and Oceanic RNP.
Pilots often view a training event the way they look at death and taxes – they know it’s inevitable but they don’t have to like it. Still, most pilots take a positive approach and have come to realize they get out of it what they put into it.
Learning is a change in behavior as a result of experience. Sometimes one undesirable experience in a realistic simulation is all it takes to change behavior forever. But, if not, thankfully there’s a reset button for another try.