A focus on training could be the wisest investment around for aerospace companies – cutting back in this area is a false economy, says Alan Peaford.
The tragedy of the Ethiopians Airlines Boeing 737MAX fatal crash in March may have had its roots in the faulty software or system that had been added to the aircraft, but the disaster – like others before it – raised questions about training and the industry’s attitude to it.
Today, there is no doubt that a renewed focus on training – how it is provided, how much it costs and what technology we use – is central to the whole future of aerospace and defence.
Aviation is a growth industry, although recruitment and retention has become more vital than ever before.
There has been a lot of talk over the years about the need to develop the human capital to meet the expected demand but there have, in truth, been few fundamental changes to some of the key barriers – cost of training, government attitude, shortage of instructors and lack of access to (or approval of) the latest technology.
The 2018 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook, a respected industry forecast of personnel demand, projects that 790,000 new civil aviation pilots, 754,000 new maintenance technicians and 890,000 new cabin crew will be needed to fly and maintain the world fleet over the next 20 years.
Manufacturers, maintenance providers and aviation services are also facing tough challenges as the demand is driven by the anticipated doubling of the global commercial aeroplane fleet as the industry reacts to record-high air travel demand at the same time as we see a tightening of the human capital supply.
Aviation has lost some of its sexiness, while at the same time public perception of fully autonomously piloted aircraft and greater use of robotics has meant fewer people think of aviation as a viable long-term career. Concerns over climate change, too, are a threat as some governments talk about curbing aviation.
Technology has indeed made a great difference. Aircraft are safer today than ever before; in the military sector there are fewer aircraft but they offer greater capability, the intervals between maintenance events has been reduced – but the reality is we still need more.
Counting the cost
,Cost remains a major issue.
In the UK the Government developed an aviation strategy and in consultation realised that depth of concern over cost as a potential barrier for new entrants wishing to become commercial pilots for example.
It can cost up to $150,000 to gain a commercial pilot licence. Unless an individual is successful in securing a full scholarship, this cost needs to be self-funded. A 2015 survey found that for over half of trainees, the cost of training would exceed $130,000 but only 12% had any kind of sponsorship, 45% had taken out a loan and 42% were aided by their parents. To add insult to injury, unlike most other professions there was no relief on VAT charges for pilot training costs.
The UK is not unique in this. Generally, only middle class, wealthy young men make it through to pilot or aviation engineering training. The industry has failed to attract women to its ranks at scale and despite serious efforts over the past decade, there are still only around 6% of the pilots in the world female.
Of course, high cost is understandable. The price of certificated equipment is massive. The capital cost of simulators and the operational cost of real aircraft for type rating is huge.
The adoption of improved technology is presenting new opportunities for pilots and engineers.
Many airlines have adopted the competency-led Multi-Crew Pilot Licences (MPL) programmes where much of the training is undertaken through simulation and focuses on an individual airline’s standard operating procedures (SOP) rather than the traditional Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) route which is built upon hands-on flight experience that is more focused on single engine and multi-engine.
In the USA, the Air Force has identified that the rapid acceleration in technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) artificial intelligence and big data analytics as providing new opportunities to make pilot training easier, safer and more cost-effective.
VR is being used to provide all the realistic experience of operating a fighter jet without any of the danger, and at a fraction of the price.
And while jet fighter pilots are seen as the ‘Top Guns’, the support teams in areas like MRO, for example, are of equal importance. Innovation in maintenance and support roles has included the use of augmented reality (AR) for better training and data analytics to streamline maintenance procedures.
The US Air Force’s new Boeing T-X trainer aircraft now come with AR training exercises for MRO crews so that they can carry out vital work on aircraft while on deployment. AR technology can create a virtual layer over a certain part of the aircraft, which provides trainee engineers with all the information and guidance they need to quickly locate the part and identify the tools needed to fix it.
Layering is also key to technology like Collins Aerospace’s Coalescence. We had the opportunity to play with this bit of military pilot simulation kit at IDEX last year. It is incredible as it takes VR to the next level.
Coalescence surrounds trainees with 3D photorealism. Your body quickly begins to react as if those surroundings were real, and other live participants can train with individuals for multi-crew interaction.
Through a virtual-reality (VR) headset, users can see real-world elements in front of them – including their hands – in an immersion of the virtual environment.
Simulation also enables fast reaction training in the case of incidents.
In 2009, Air France flight 447 (an Airbus A330) stalled and did not recover, eventually crashing into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 228 passengers and crew on board. The event is now used in simulators by airlines around the world as fresh pilots get to feel a high altitude stall and learn to react.
In a move back to more traditional techniques, pilots now take to the air again to carry out unusual attitude training. This is all part of the need to ensure that training is realistic, relevant and practical.
Part of the original appeal to customers for the Boeing 737 MAX was that it did not require simulator training, which can cost about $1 million over an aircraft’s life, but there is pressure now to consider change.
In comments to Reuters, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said computer-based training, which some pilots had received to transition to the latest 737 MAX from older versions of Boeing’s 737, would not go far enough to satisfy Canada.
“It’s not going to be a question of pulling out an iPad and spending an hour on it,” he said. “Simulators are the very best way, from a training point of view, to go over exactly what could happen in a real way and to react properly to it.”
The industry needs to understand there is a cost for training – but there is a greater cost for not.
Sharing the burden of cost must surely become a no-brainer for industry if we are to have enough people to meet the demand.
Sam Sprules, director of UK-based AeroProfessional, which specialises in supporting aircraft operators and aviation companies with their people strategies is campaigning for a change in attitude, said: “We’ve long heard about the skills shortage. We know that the cost of training is a barrier to entry for many aspiring pilots. We’re aware that there are many more qualified but out-of-work pilots who haven’t clocked up the necessary hours. It’s also no secret that airline-funded training is a thing of the past, and the pay-to-fly scheme has become more prevalent.
“However, despite this being common knowledge in the industry, little seems to be done about it. Instead, it appears that the aviation world is locked in a game of cards, with new talent anxiously waiting for the next move before dealing themselves in.”
Sprules uses simple logic. “According to Airbus, the cost of grounding an A380 for a day would be up to £775,000 ($1.01m)” he says. “In total, flight delays and groundings cost the industry around £17 billion per year.”
Airlines stand to gain much more from training and retaining a pilot, than waiting for the issue to resolve itself or go away. Quite simply, it won’t.