At first glance the main changes in the new Cessna Recreational/Private Pilot Training Course appear to be the fact that it's now an online course and that the course includes specific videos and graphics pertaining to the new Cessna SkyCatcher. But while those features are significant, they are not the biggest or most significant improvements in Cessna's training approach or materials.
Cessna's official pilot course materials are produced by John and Martha King of King Schools. Both the original course (which included a briefcase full of DVDs, a textbook, a test prep book and a Cessna 172 manual) and the new revised course are designed to be an integrated curriculum that matches each book lesson with the parallel flight training lesson a student would be receiving. By contrast, the King Schools courses are organized by subject matter (e.g. aerodynamics, weight and balance, regulations).
The new course has the advantage of interactive learning — which is to say, a student can click on a diagram and see how the control surfaces of an airplane move, for example, and each lesson has multiple-choice quiz questions at the end that offer instant feedback. Some video clips are embedded in the text, although most of them are still separated out in a "flight preview" section. But the learning in the new Cessna course is far less passive than reading out of a textbook, even with DVDs to supplement the text lessons.
The fact that the new version is an online course also makes it easier for a flight instructor to work with the student on various lessons anywhere there's an Internet connection. And while, yes, it's true that, in itself, that is a limitation (can't work on the course in Uncle Jim's cabin way up in the woods for the weekend), the old textbook, handbook and test book were awfully heavy to lug around. So while there are pros and cons to each approach, it's certainly a defensible trade-off.
But the biggest change — and, in my opinion, improvement — in the course is a fundamental shift in its instructional philosophy.
"This is the first practical scenario-based training that teaches risk management from day one, all the way through the training, so that when a person gets their license, they're really ready to be 'pilot in command,'" John King explains. "There's a focus here on managing, from the get-go, those things that really cause accidents — making sure students become really situationally aware and able to make better decisions as a pilot in command — so that they're really ready to be master of the aircraft, not just skilled in the maneuvers."
For years, John and Martha King have been arguing that pilots do a poor job at risk management, which is why 85 percent of aviation accidents are attributed to pilot error. They've developed a risk management course of their own, and they've suggested that flight instructors spend more time teaching "scenarios" that get students more comfortable with diverting from their goals or plans if risk factors shift. But working with Cessna on this newest course has given the Kings their first comprehensive opportunity to implement those recommendations.
The curriculum is divided into phases, and each phase has a knowledge section, and then a "flight preview" section that contains videos, a number of flight instruction "scenarios" and a checklist for both instructor and student to keep track of what components in that phase, both in knowledge and in skills, have been completed. The scenarios, which can be customized by each instructor to be relevant to local conditions, airports and terrain, set up particular missions — much as the last version of Microsoft's Flight Simulator incorporated scripted "missions" to add a storytelling component to the experience. But the Cessna scenarios each have a particular goal: to practice certain flying skills while taking into account bigger-picture factors, including time pressures, weather, changing conditions, pilot fatigue and other elements that impose decision-making stress on everyday pilots.
A lesson on landings, for example, might require a flight to a different airport first, where winds might be too high to land. How high is too high? What skill level is required to take them on? How will the student make that decision? What are the other options available? And can the student successfully show the instructor how to process all those variables and come up with a safe, risk-managed decision? In many cases, the instructors will be advised to make the students divert to another airport, so they get comfortable with: a) not achieving their goal (something pilots historically have difficulty accepting) and b) changing flight plans, waypoints and plans on the fly, so to speak.
The goal is to create a new generation of pilots for which serious risk management assessment is as much a habit and ritual as the preflight inspection of hinges is now, and that is far more comfortable with diverting from a destination or changing plans as conditions shift. Time alone will tell how well the Cessna course accomplishes this goal, but in looking through the course curriculum, it's already clear that instructors teaching this course will be focusing on the big picture, flexibility and risk assessment in a far more integrated and institutionalized manner.
The fact that SkyCatcher-specific videos are going to be integrated into the course to supplement the current Cessna 172 videos is just a bit of icing on this cake. (Students will be able to select which airplane videos they want to watch.)
There are many things to like about the new Cessna course, both in terms of its technical delivery and its content. But the big news is the very serious emphasis this course places on teaching real-life situational awareness, flexibility, risk assessment and decision-making. The impact of that could be far-reaching and could save a lot of lives. And both Cessna and the Kings are to be commended for their efforts to ensure that student pilots reach that destination safely.