Learning new skills and regular practice enhance flight department capabilities and improve safety.
By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor ATP/CFII.
Challenger 604/605, Gulfstream IV, MU2B
There’s no doubt it’s a feel-good mantra designed to inspire, but the veracity of the assertion must be questioned. This is especially important when it comes to being a pilot.
Can anyone really be trained to be a pilot, or do potential pilots come ready-built with some sort of secret ingredient that differentiates them from the general population? Every occupation has barriers to entry that are outside the control of a hopeful applicant.
The hardest to overcome are physical. For example, someone with a height under 5 ft is unlikely to be successful as a professional basketball player, no matter their level of desire and commitment. In the past, requirements to qualify for pilot training have been rigorous, especially for military aspirants.
Not having perfect vision disqualified many otherwise suitable individuals. The slogan “Be all you can be” formed part of one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time for the US Army, and attracted a significant number of recruits with hopes of flying helicopters.
Unfortunately, many wound up carrying a rifle and serving in the infantry when they couldn’t meet the requirements. Top Gun, the highest grossing film of 1986, was a boon for US Navy recruiting.
Officially, the US Navy never correlated the success of Top Gun with an increase in interested candidates, but the rate of enlistment jumped 500% the year after the movie was released.
Lt Ray Gray, who was head of the officer program in Los Angeles in 1986, saw an uptick in applicants who had previously dropped out of officer candidate school, or who had been rejected for a pilot training program.
These were arguably the best candidates across the general population of moviegoers. At the other end of the spectrum was a population of woefully unqualified – both physically and mentally – members of the general population who wanted to garner a cool name like Maverick or Iceman while flying F-14s off aircraft carriers and dating Kelly McGillis. Many of them, if they had managed to go past the initial assessments, would likely fail to produce satisfactory results if they were asked to undergo drug screening in Columbus, OH or at any of the many centers across the country, as is common for all applicants as well as servicemen of the US Defense Force to ensure maximum physical and mental fitness.
For most of them, as the saying goes, “How’d that work out for you?” Manning a position on a frigate or submarine was not what they had in mind when they were told they didn’t qualify to fly fighters.
To be fair, the US Navy didn’t exactly attract the cream of the crop by setting up ad-hoc recruiting stations outside of movie theaters that showed Top Gun.
Adrenaline propped up by 64 ounces of soda and an enormous bucket of popcorn is not known as a precursor to good decision-making.
Becoming a professional pilot
Honestly, being a pilot, while it might sound really impressive, is not an easy task. Flying a plane in the sky is unlike driving a car on a road with parking signs. Being a pilot needs a lot of dedication and hard work. Moreover, the civilian track to becoming a professional pilot has one very strict barrier to entry – a bank account with a hefty discretionary balance, or the ability to borrow vast sums of money. Training costs can be quantified on a per-hour basis.
As a result, the more training one needs, the higher the cost. This is true for the individual as well as the employer. Of course, the cost per hour can vary widely as a function of who is providing the training. A 4-year private aviation university doesn’t cost the same as a local flight school, but the same theory applies – more flight hours equate to more dollars invested.
To receive the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, a pilot must log 1500 hours of experience (unless exempt, which is applicable to some). The reason the ATP is so coveted is that it’s a requirement for employment for some pilot career paths. The ATP 1500-hour rule is ironic for 2 reasons. First, the name is a misnomer.
There’s no airline in ATP, as a pilot can train in a Piper Seminole and never work for an airline their entire career while operating under the certificate. Second, the fact that the certificate can be obtained with reduced hours under exemption makes the 1500 hours arbitrary and moot.
Why not 1400? Why not 1600? In truth, there’s no statistical correlation between 1500 hours and pilot performance. It’s merely something politicians can tout as a tool for “keeping the airlines safe,” even if there’s no data to support it.
Measuring pilot experience
Another controversial topic is the concept of measuring pilot experience, which has always been equated to hours penned in a pilot logbook. By default, a pilot with more hours is considered to be a more experienced pilot.
Perhaps that’s true on a global scale, but the specificity of the situation, and hence the hours, matters. At least, the hours matter until the industry can’t readily find pilots to hire, at which point the hours required to obtain employment drop precipitously.
What wasn’t good enough before is suddenly good enough when job candidates are scarce. The college graduate requirement is similar in this regard. When pilots are plentiful, the 4-year degree in colonial political systems with a minor in oceanography seems to make all the difference in the hiring process.
When the pool dries up, so does the importance of ancillary knowledge outside the purview of operating the aircraft. The whole cycle is a bit comical. It turns out that time in type and operating in a specific flight environment are much better predictors of success than overall pilot time.
After all, should a corporate flight department place a great deal of emphasis on how many hours a job candidate spent flying freight in a Cessna Caravan if they’re hiring him/her to fly a Hawker? Certainly, 10,000 hours in a low-workload transcon environment in straight-and-level flight doesn’t translate well to flying 7 legs a day in turboprops in Alaska.
Nor does 1500 hours of pattern work in a Cessna 152 correlate to making timed approaches from a holding fixed with 5 other aircraft on the approach to PAP (Port-Au-Prince, Haiti) in inclement weather. This is where training – or more importantly, how emerging technology is applied to training – reigns supreme.
Gone are the days when a pilot had to diagram the electrical system and recall 20 items from memory to pass a checkride and fly the aircraft.
According to some in the industry, by using specificity of training in concert with technology and cockpit design, anyone can become a professional pilot – even those who missed out on their chances when they left a screening of Top Gun back in 1986.
One of the more interesting new players in pilot training technology is Skyryse, which started in 2017. Skyryse has developed a system called FlightOS, which allows a portable touchscreen device to manipulate flight controls and change flight parameters with the swipe of a finger.
It’s akin to using an iPad to turn up the thermostat in a room or change the volume on a TV. All 4 fundamentals of flight can be controlled via the device by using 3 fingers.
The current testbed is the Robinson R44 helicopter, but Skyryse claims it has partnered with 4 other OEMs (fixed- and rotary-wing) interested in using the product to replace or augment standard flight control systems.
On the Skyryse website, actor Jon Hamm demonstrates how easy it is to fly the helicopter using only his iPad. At first glance, experienced pilots might eschew the setup as merely a gimmick. However, the company has raised $250 million to date and has retained former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and former NTSB Chairman Chris Hart as advisors. It’s worth noting that Huerta was named to the board of directors at Delta Air Lines in April 2018.
Reading between the lines, one might wonder if there’s any interest from the airlines in cutting drastically pilot training costs should the technology pan out. Along those lines, Skyryse uses the taglines “Fly like a multi-pilot crew, without the crew” and “Where anybody can do it.”
CEO Mark Groden contends his long-term goal is “to allow the 220 million licensed drivers to operate any aircraft safely and effectively.” Groden says his product will cut down training costs, alleviate a pilot shortage, and make experienced pilots safer. FlightOS is programmed to respect the flight envelope, but currently lacks the capability to deal with ATC or aid with pilot decision-making.
Time will tell whether a system like FlightOS makes it to certification and beyond. Although Skyryse considers itself a player in ushering in the next great era of aviation, that phase seems dubiously familiar. Something similar was said around the time Eclipse Aviation and a few other manufacturers attempted to fill the sky with very light jets. Few made it to market. But still, this technology is worth watching.
Training for intuitive flight decks
Legacy aircraft manufacturers continue to employ modern technology in cockpit design. According to Dassault, its EASy integrated cockpit enhances accuracy by limiting the time spent entering data into a flight management system (FMS), with the common workspace allowing the crew to work better as a team.
The EASy cockpit system reduces workload, enhances situational awareness, and works on an intuitive interface. The flight deck is where corporate jet manufacturers shine over transport-category aircraft producers.
The overhead panel on a 30-year-old Boeing 737 looks eerily like the most modern version of the aircraft. Compare the differences between a Gulfstream IV and a Gulfstream G700, and it’s obvious they’re 2 entirely different aircraft.
The Gulfstream Symmetry Flight Deck is designed by pilots, for pilots, and consists of a sidestick controller with tactile and visual feedback, and 10 high-resolution touchscreens. Symmetry is complete with 3rd-generation EFVS with touchdown-to-rollout capability, autobrakes, and autothrottles.
Among the challenges when training new pilots in any aircraft are information-seeking and the concept of “what happens next.” The Gulfstream phase of flight intelligence solves this problem by providing relevant info exactly when it’s needed.
Startup to taxi using a Symmetry system occurs in as little as 10 minutes. Gulfstream is clear to point out that they are supporting – rather than replacing – the pilot. Decluttering the cockpit and automating as many features as possible allows pilots to focus on more critical tasks, and, in turn, allows more efficient training.
Both CAE and FlightSafety International incorporate learner-focused training to get the best results in the shortest time possible. Although stick-and-rudder skills are important, they are not as important as they were 30 years ago, when aircraft and engine reliability were more questionable. It’s been said that pilots with fewer hours struggle with decision-making.
This is largely a result of information processing – either there’s too little information or there’s too much, and a novice can’t glean what to focus on or can’t interpret raw data. State-of-the-art business aircraft avionics do an amazing job of converting raw data into actionable intelligence to assist with optimizing decision-making.
The rest can be taught with solid mentoring. Focusing on proficiency, irrespective of how few hours it takes, decreases costs and increases the pilot pool. Maybe not everyone can become an astronaut, but there are certainly more who could become employable pilots if the industry focused on specificity of training and not subjective barriers to entry.