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Flight Training in Today’s Simulated World Where Should the Regulators Fit?

Posted 12 days ago ago by Admin

As the quality and cost of flight simulation decreases, the regulatory limitations on its use within the flight training industry remain stagnant. Looking much like it did decades ago, the credits offered on the use of simulation provide very little in the way of aeronautical decision-making (ADM) and focus on simulation versus flight-hour credits on limited aircraft-based maneuvers. Does this maneuver, credit-based simulation model truly capture the capabilities of the flight training simulation available today?

Many years ago, we acquired an FAA-approved flight training device (FTD) for use in our flight school. The acquisition model at the time was purely based upon the hours of flight training credit the FTD would provide back to the customer. Approved maneuvers were inclusive of both VFR and IFR training, however, the IFR training credits far outweighed those of VFR maneuvers. The ability to offset 20 hours of instrument flight training into the FTD was a tremendous savings to the customer, and the training quality was quite good.

My curiosity, though, caused me to seek out additional areas of training where the FTD would thrive, even if no FAA training credit was available. Our staff developed scenarios to include cross-country dual and solo flights, teaching our tour pilots routes and airspace checkpoints, as well as simple local area orientation flights to new pilots and instructor staff. Although we found success in these training events, the real benefit was found during flight instructor training.

Using the FTD, which had dual controls, we were able to enhance the flight instructor's learning exponentially by simply exposing the student to elements that previously were only available through time in the aircraft. Initial quality enhancements were found in the ability of the instructor to articulate each maneuver much more precisely, accurately, and effectively. This improved articulation came from the hours spent practicing in the FTD at a fraction of the cost of flying the actual helicopter.

An additional benefit achieved was the ability to introduce the instructor-in-training to the techniques of instructional intervention. The ability in aircraft to rapidly lower the collective during a power failure at a hover, engage the incorrect pedal during a power failure at altitude, or not lower the collective during an autorotative entry would place an actual aircraft in a potentially compromised and unsafe condition. Within the simulated world, the ability to introduce the student to these common mistakes of the average student enhanced their situational awareness and mitigation strategies as a flight instructor. The outcome is a safer, more prepared flight instructor and a reduction of accidents within the flight training environment.

During a Part 141 base inspection, an FAA Inspector observed a flight instructor student receiving instruction in the FTD. Upon debrief of the base inspection, a negative write up of non-compliant use of the FTD for training of a flight instructor was noted. We were advised that nowhere within the Training Course Outline (TCO) was it approved to provide FTD training in lieu of flight training and this action was contrary to the regulations. As our FTD was listed within our TCO’s for other courses, the inspector’s specific issue was its use with a flight instructor student. The Inspector was correct that using the FTD in lieu of flight training was not permitted, however, its use in support of ground training or just for practice was in fact regulatory compliant. As this was our intended path, the issue went away.

The event I’ve just described occurred almost 25 years ago. As we’ve seen the technology and capabilities of simulation improve to near-realistic visuals and true-to-feel flight controls, the regulations by which this technology can be credited for use have changed very little. The ability to use an FTD in an FAA-approved flight instructor course of training remains non-compliant. This is truly ridiculous!

The simulated world and the equipment utilized to engage that world continues to improve and, in many cases, the cost of this technology is decreasing. Virtual Reality, a term used by gamers and other virtual-experience enthusiasts, is changing the landscape of the flight training simulation market. The ability to create a visual world combined with various aircraft all using a computer that fits in your living room is a thriving reality for pilots learning to fly today.

The FAA has caught on and is evaluating new simulation technologies as we speak. Cliff Johnson, a senior research and development engineer with the FAA, has taken on this challenge. Located at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center (Tech Center) in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Cliff and his team are evaluating multiple new simulation technologies. Their focus is to redefine the FAA’s path to determine flight training simulation credit through the lens of new training technology. Recently, the Tech Center invited pilots from industry with varied levels of experience to participate in a series of tests and evaluations using many of the new technology devices offered today.  

The FAA has openly stated they are missing the mark by evaluating simulation as solely a maneuver-centric standard. The ability to engage a pilot’s use of ADM and allow those decisions to play out in a simulated world follows the accident data and may truly get to the root cause of human-factor issues.

One can only be hopeful that the FAA continues this path creating an environment where flight training and checking both benefit from the many technologies available today and in the future.

In a flight training industry where knowledge, skills, and abilities to support decision-making through simulation comes first, and the stick-and-rudder skills that only come from actual aircraft are secondary, we will see a safer flight training industry for us all.          

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