Former premier of the Soviet Union Vladimir Ilyich Lenin once said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” If you hold that axiom up to the light, you might think that this uncanny attribution was about the aviation industry.
Sometimes the industry inches along like Caribbean molasses; other times, we manage to unlock a torrent of changes. After spending some time at the National Business Aviation Association’s Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) in Las Vegas last week, I think we might be closer to the latter.
Personally, the highlight of the show was the Day 2 panel composed of leaders in the rapidly emerging advanced air mobility (AAM) sector. It foreshadowed a series of tectonic shifts that are happening in our industry.
As I tuned in, the panelists—all key stakeholders driving the innovation from UP.Partners, Kittyhawk, Joby Aviation, Blade UAM, Beta Technology, Overair, and Jaunt Air Mobility—spoke about the trajectory of the industry. As a pilot, it was both inspiring and a little frightening.
We might look back and notice that this was a week when a decade happened.
Naturally, I thought about the downstream effect this might have on the training industry. Already, some players like CAE, the global simulation provider, and other commercial training operations have made strategic investments to position themselves for this change.
In its own words, CAE noted, “With a sizable eVTOL pilot workforce needed, we are at an inflection point in aviation. … New training technologies and methodologies will shift the training paradigm towards affordability and scalability while keeping safety paramount for the unique challenges of advanced air mobility.”
Companies have begun thinking about their future, but inversely, I haven’t seen the same vigor from flight students and commercial pilots about how these shifts might affect them. I don’t think many are anticipating these things and might be slow to react, owing to the inertia of hope—the hope that the jets they’ve longed to fly for the bulk of their careers will be there when it’s their turn.
One CFI Duty: Professional Development
So, there’s one flight instructor responsibility that goes beyond the flight deck: to encourage professional development.
This is the thing I would’ve valued the most when I was also a new flight student—for someone to have taken me by the hand and shown me a map of the industry before I launched my own expedition.
I’ve realized this is important, especially with advancing tech as the backdrop. As I’ve mixed with students and other pilots and paid attention to the talks by people on these panels, I’ve noticed a gap.
Frankly, I’m not convinced that students in the industry are aware of the things that loom regarding their careers.
The Trend is More Important Than the Instance
Whenever movement is involved, it is more important to pay attention to trends—and rates of change—than a specific instance. This is a principle I explain to my students when we practice stall recoveries and approaches to landing to help them correctly anticipate what to do.
For example, in the landing phase, if you’re high on final, only paying attention to the VASI or PAPI lights, and just throttling back to idle power instead of watching how quickly the airplane is “sinking,” you’ll eventually end up below the glideslope because of the resulting high descent rate. A better thing to do is to “feel the airplane,” as I like to say.
I’ve found that this also extends to trends in the industry, and how we should think about disruptions or opportunities.
Trends, like headwinds, tailwinds, and crosswinds, are forces affecting the industry, and may be viewed as a disruption to incumbents, or could be an opportunity for outsiders trying to get in, depending on what side you’re on.
Today, there is a confluence of trends, such as the rise in advanced air mobility, that drive the industry—and pilots need to “feel the airplane” and adjust accordingly.
Falling Sky or Inflection Point?
When I came into the industry, one airline pilot who was visiting my college jokingly advised that we should expect at least two disruptive events for each decade we planned to be in the industry. We laughed along, but it was another smart person who also said, “a true word is spoken in jest.” Sure enough, there have been frantic moments (like the Boeing 737 Max saga), where the acorns of disruption fell on our heads, and like fretful Chicken Little, we thought that the glory days of travel might be over. Thankfully, the industry has proven to be resilient.
However, there are other moments we can’t afford to overlook. In those instances, it’s more helpful to look at thematic changes in the fundamental way business is being done, and for that, the more appropriate voice would be that of the late Andy Grove of Intel.
In his 1996 book, “Only the Paranoid Survive,” Grove masterfully explains the idea of inflection points, “when the balance of forces shifts from the old structure, from the old ways of doing business and the old ways of competing, to the new. Before the strategic inflection point, the industry simply was more like the old. After it, it is more like the new. It is a point where the curve has subtly but profoundly changed, never to change back again.”
It is no coincidence that CAE expressly framed its new offering as an inflection point.
How do you know when you’re going through an inflection point? Unfortunately for some, the realization comes after the fact. In our industry, some inflection points of the last two decades were the approach to airport security post 9/11, the 1,500-hour rule for pilots flying under Part 121, the embrace of low-cost carriers and their business model, and perhaps the merger of American Airlines and US Airways.
I believe we are at another inflection point with advanced air mobility because of the series of trends or forces at play around our industry.
Well, how does this apply to flight students or even pilots already in the business? Is the sky falling? Not quite, but it is pertinent to pay attention to these things as you plan your career.
Many of the AAM companies have indicated out loud that the product roadmap for their companies is toward automated aircraft, widely accessible to the public, citing pilots as large operational expenses thanks to salaries and statistical risk profiles. This could be a threat or an opportunity depending on what you bring to it.
The thematic trend is that the way we travel in the future will look vastly different from now. As the timeline for these changes isn’t clear, instinctively, some people will try to eke out all they can to recapture what they’ve already invested in flight training—but ultimately, it will pay to be open-minded about where the industry is going and lean in that.
As the future is rapidly changing, pilots need to plan for both the short and long term. In the long term, I speculate that the future of being a pilot is going to look a lot different from the past, simply because flight might become more accessible to everyone else, driving down the exclusivity of being a pilot. Pilots might spend more time as fleet managers in the future more than anything. So, regardless of what the short-term future looks like, it’s important to bundle flying skills with complementary skills—such as management, finance, design, engineering, and other disciplines that keep the world going around.
Michael Wildes is an aviation professional with an appreciation for all things aviation, media, business, and philanthropy. A 2016 Embry-Riddle graduate, Wildes has his bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science, and currently works at the university’s flight department as a flight check airman. He’s also served as an assistant training manager and quality assurance mentor. He holds MEI, CFI, and CFII ratings. You can e-mail Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org