Virtual Reality in Flight Training: More Than a Fad

VR presents immediate opportunities for more realistic lessons for more students.

If you’re planning to sign up for flight training in the near future, there’s a strong chance you may be handed a virtual reality (VR) headset before a pair of David Clarks. 

Protecting your hearing is still important, to be clear, but what we mean when we say “put your headset on” might signify something completely different in the near future. I would go as far as to say that VR might be the most prominent training tool in the next decade. 

Sure, those in a structured part 141 training environment might encounter this first, but VR headsets are here to stay. They’ll certainly change the way the next generation of pilots train.

A Promising Opportunity

I saw it for myself. Recently, before I “departed the pattern” at my university, owing to record enrollment, the university announced a new approach for incoming flight students: flight students would work exclusively in virtual environments for the first four weeks of their instruction—through VR headsets and traditional simulators—to allow them to get to know the flight deck, flight controls, and get a feel for takeoffs and landings. Then, after those four weeks, they would transition to hands-on work with real aircraft.

From my brief experience conducting stage checks with students enrolled in this program, I was impressed at how quickly they were able to piece together the core framework of flying. It’s a promising prospect that—when used well—could shorten the gap students have to cover to become pilots and save them a lot of money. 

Was it a perfect transfer of learning? It’s too early to say because there are obvious adjustments that need to be made, but I am optimistic.

Aviation Maintenance Science senior Cameron Pike tests a virtual reality application that simulates the removal and replacement of an aircraft carburetor — software that he helped develop. [Photo: Embry-Riddle/Chris Piccone]

In terms of learning steps for various procedures, this approach all but ensured that students could master the first level of learning—rote knowledge. Instructors could also use deliberate practice, a training tool taught to all CFIs, to ensure students master these steps. 

Instructors have to adjust too, as they’ll need to figure out how to train using these tools, and even how assessment is done. Indeed, curriculum will have to be adjusted to accommodate the new approach, and while there will be some missteps, we should lean into the future.

I’d even encourage instructors to resist the urge to be dismissive too early. It’s easy to be skeptical, but think of all the technology that was off to a shaky start. If you don’t believe me, remember that at one point, “the telephone was dangerous.” In 1933, Clarence Day, a prominent columnist, detailed some of the strange ideas people had of the telephone in its early days, especially because it had “this dangerous stuff called electricity in them.” 

Now, apart from the onslaught of robocalls today, only a luddite could argue against the upside of the telephone. I believe this is the way to think of these new training devices—not dismissed as just new technology, but studied as an improved way of doing things.

Focus on Knowledge and Practice

If you try to train students using the “way we’ve done it before” approach, don’t expect much success. 

Instead, instructors should focus on knowledge and practice. It isn’t reasonable to expect that this will be the place to fine-tune psychomotor skills. That’s absolutely what the airplane is for. Still, every student and instructor can agree that prior to some of these systems, the embedded pattern to transfer learning came from chair flying as much as possible, calling out steps, and  hoping that would translate in an airplane. It isn’t unfair to say that students found themselves learning way more than expected in the airplane, instead of being able to just practice.

There should be an easier way. That’s what these immersive experiences offer—a direct way to develop the other domains of learning—cognitive and behavioral skills. With the right nudges, students can develop their cognitive skills, recognize the rates of change that the airplane might experience with the environment, and even understand how the instruments react to pitch and power changes. 

We take for granted that this is what most people are probably doing inside the airplane when we say they’re learning to “feel the airplane.”

Hard Skills and Soft Skills

VR can also help students directly improve these behavioral skills with the right guidance from an experienced instructor. 

Knowledge and practice are what I would group as hard skills. If those hard skills are developed on the ground, it would ensure that when students get into the airplane, they can focus on the other hard skills of aviating, navigating, and communicating, like:

  • Situation and spatial awareness
  • Decision-making and problem-solving
  • Workload management and efficiency
  • Teamwork
  • Communication

From my experience, students have been stuck at the first stage, aiming to still master knowledge and practice, and graduate flight training without getting to the finesse part of flying. They barely have time to get through the maneuvers, let alone have time to consider everything else. 

While things like the new airman certification standards (ACS) encourage a more comprehensive approach to encourage students to go beyond just doing steps, these immersive technologies could help us take it further because they give them more opportunities to learn.

Beyond the Airplane: Overall, Interactive Learning

There are even broader applications on the horizon that should excite you, especially on a macro level as the tech world begins to focus on these immersive environments, i.e. the metaverse. Consider how The Weather Channel has become more creative, putting Jim Cantore in the eye of the storm come hurricane season. Why not pilots, too?

We’ve already seen some industry and military facilities already using augmented reality (AR) to train technicians in the maintenance, repair, and overhaul of heavy metal and military aircraft. Again, why not pilots too?

I suspect that it will only be a matter of time before entire ground training courses depend on this technology, even with scenarios built-in, done in a compelling way. If we’re able to accomplish that, at the end of a student’s flight training journey, they’ll actually have a holistic set of skills they need to be well-rounded. 

As the FAA wrote in its 2017 November/December Safety Briefing, the shortage of pilots and technicians demands more accessible means for training. Considering that cost, convenience, and the enduring requirement for one-on-one instruction in aviation training have been the biggest barriers to entry for would-be aviation professionals, all these mixed-reality offerings can “reduce the cost of hands-on training, increase comprehension and retention, and enable multiple students to work in teams, or individually at their own pace.”

I’d love to hear from you. How do you think this new approach to training will affect the flying community? Are you optimistic or skeptical? Send me a line at michael@flying.media and let’s discuss.

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