Lessons Learned from Remote Flight Instruction During the Pandemic

When the pandemic struck and the lockdowns began, flight instruction seemed like one of the riskiest activities you could undertake. Imagine trapping yourself inside the cockpit of a small aircraft, sometimes for hours on end, with a relative stranger.

But as the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of all invention.” Hardworking CFI’s came up with new ways to teach. Much was borrowed from the worlds of high education and computer flight simulators, which many students already had and were proficient in using.

So can technology successfully be used as a tool for aspiring pilots? Is it limited to flight simulators, or is it only a nifty coaching tool for flight simulator enthusiasts? Let’s take a closer look at how remote flight instruction has worked out.

Get the Techonology Right

There is no doubt that remote flight instruction pulls from the very edges of technological innovation. To train a student remotely, you’ll be using screen share and webcams to provide real-time feedback.

To make it all work, a high-speed internet connection is vital. Having familiarity with the simulator your student uses helps but probably isn’t as important as you might think. And having a computer and a workspace that can handle it all is important too.

If you’re working with a commercial simulator program, either Flight Simulator from Microsoft for PC or X-Plane for Macs, the student probably already has one or the other. Many students go overboard setting up elaborate cockpits and controls–you’ll be impressed at what some student pilots have come up with.

But a lot of this isn’t necessary to use flight simulators effectively. A lot of what professional pilot training and UPT consists of is procedural. And the flight simulator is the perfect procedural trainer, especially if it has your make and model of trainer built in.

Some flight schools have experimented with bringing their students in to use AATDs and simulators while the instructor sits at a safe distance. In these cases, you’ll have to work through the technical issues you encounter on a case-by-case basis.

No matter how you do it, no one walks into it being naturally-perfect. It’s a learning process and most flight instructors aren’t familiar with teaching in this manner. They didn’t learn this way, so seeing how to communicate their expertise can be a challenge.

Maximize Your Time

Everyone realizes that there is no real substitute for flight hours in the plane. But making ground training more encompassing has benefits that extend well beyond the pandemic.

The real advantage of remote flight instruction is that it frees students and instructors from the regular confines of the ever-demanding flight schedule. With remote learning, you can hop in and out of the plane at will. You can pause the simulation to discuss the finer points of a maneuver or more deeply explain an approach plate.

As with any flight lesson, making a plan of action is a good idea. Think through what works well over the flight simulator. You’ll want to be sure to include pre and post-flight briefings, just like regular lessons. You’ll likely be surprised at how much more comfortable some students can be asking questions and staying engaged using this format.

Best Practices for Remote Flight Instruction

A how-to guide for remote flight instruction has yet to be written. At this point, it’s up to individual CFIs to use their best judgment about how much to do with students. While instrument and commercial pilot requirements lend themselves to simulator training easier, some creativity is necessary when working with primary students.

Also, don’t ignore using online meetings solely to review groundwork. There’s no reason you can’t hold ground school online.

Review the Use of Training Devices and Regulations

If your school is lucky enough to have one or more basic aviation training devices (BATDs), you likely already know how useful they are. For Part 141 professional pilot schools, up to 15 percent of a private pilot’s time and 25 percent of an instrument pilot’s time can be credited from a BATD. For Part 61 learners, 2.5 hours from the private and 10 hours from the instrument can count.

But perhaps more importantly is to look at how your school has integrated this training into the curriculum. Pay special attention to how you can use the devices in the commercial pilot requirements for training and experience.

Get the Right Webcam Views

If part of the training in question involves maneuvers and motor skills, have your student mount their smartphone or tablet on a tripod. The goal is to be able to see them move the controls. There’s only so much you can ascertain from screen sharing of the instrument panel.

If you’re working in this fashion, the instructor will want to view both things–the webcam view of their student at the controls and the screen share of the flight simulator. Two monitors could be used, or simply a split-screen if you’re good at multitasking on the computer.

Practice the Flipped Classroom

The education world has been abuzz for a few years now about the “flipped classroom,” which is a new term for what was once called student-centered learning. Whatever you call it, the idea is that the student is doing most of the talking, grading, and critiquing. The instructor listens more than talks and offers more coaching and guidance than lectures or formal teaching.

The remote learning situation is the perfect setup for this type of teaching. Let your students lead their own lessons, and consider yourself more of a coach than an instructor.

Look for Tips and Innovative Products Online

Finally, instructors should take some time to research what others are doing and what products are out there to make their jobs easier. For example, Gleim has been selling a virtual cockpit using an X-Plane training course for several years now. They’ve got a full curriculum for it to help students during real-world flight training.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s unlikely that remote flight instruction will replace standard flight training in the long term. But for many flight instructors who have made use of the technology, it presents opportunities going forward that can make regular flight training all the better.

Student pilots are likely to discover an enormous benefit to remote training with their instructor. In the past, students used simulators to augment their training but have been in the dark about it. They went home and tried to emulate what they learned in the plane or simulator but often had to make do with no feedback.

With the flight instructor giving tips in real-time, the student can easily prep for lessons with lots of independent, though well directed, study. After all, flight instructors have enough experience to pull from that they can tell their students how to approach a task or procedure on the simulator in a way that benefits their flying in the plane. The Air Force Academy has launched innovative airmanship development programs using similar techniques

Safety Considerations

There are two risk considerations flight instructors should keep in mind when considering the benefits of remote flight instruction. The first should be obvious–a computer flight simulator program is nowhere near the real thing. Lessons learned on the computer will need to be repeated in the plane, and the CFI will need to take careful care that the student indeed meets the learning outcomes in the air. The goal is that getting to that level now takes much less time.

The second set of risk factors are those associated with COVID. As the pandemic begins to wane, we can look to a future where flight training looks more like it did before. But in doing so, face masks, social distancing, hand washing and sanitizing the plane’s cockpit are still going to be very much parts of our lives. COVID is still around, and taking common-sense precautions is in everyone’s best interest.

Conclusion

While the technology makes it look flashy and the terminology makes it sound intimidating, remote training is just a new way of chair flying. Pilots have been using various techniques for decades to learn procedures better and minimize aircraft training time.

If the pandemic didn’t force you to adopt remote flight training, it’s not too late to begin. Doing so helps both students and instructors get the most out of their time together.

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