The way flight crew trainees learn is changing as cockpit automation, the pilot’s role and the learning process itself reshape approaches to aviation training.

“We don’t just want to do what we’ve done for the last 20 years for the next 20 years,” Boeing Aviation Services development lead for the 737 MAX training development program Scott Andersen said. “Who are the pilots that are going to fill the pipeline? They are not the people who have sat in those seats for the last 20 years.”

When Andersen created the Boeing 737 MAX curriculum, it was clear a new approach was needed. 

“Our training program needed to fit the learning style and collaborative approaches that students of today need to be applying in the flight deck,” he said. “We’re not only going to create good quality pilots; we’re going to create good crews. We have lot of automation in the aircraft now. We have to think about things differently.” 

Rather than the old-school approach of sitting in a classroom and being lectured, Boeing is adopting a facilitated learning approach that encourages pilot trainees to learn in groups and to use theory to solve problems. Students are left to figure out which tools they should apply for themselves.

“Just think about the exact opposite of a lecture. Facilitated learning means you’re going to tell me something. If you can teach me something, it shows the highest degree of learning,” Andersen said. “I am managing your learning; I am not responsible for your learning.”

Boeing’s 737 MAX trainees give demonstrations to their peers, working from flat-panel trainers in interactive classrooms that have been designed to fit the learning style of next-generation trainees. 

Unlike a full-flight simulator (FFS), which does what it is programmed to do, the flat-panel trainer “knows right from wrong,” Andersen explains. The device—designed specifically for the 737 MAX by Boeing and simulation equipment supplier TRU Simulation—can introduce and demonstrate systems, giving trainees a safe place to learn and practice. After just 48 hours of flat-panel training, the students rapidly progress to FFS training, so they can use what they learned in the wider context of the aircraft.

“The first time on a full-flight simulator is an immense culture shock. You know that there’s a [physical] switch; you’re just not prepared for it to actually be there,” Andersen said.

With that in mind, the flat-panel trainers support a range of touch-screen movements, including pinch and twist, as well as pull-and-slide motions.

Similarly, the structure of the training has changed, from being a list of chapters in a reference manual to something that more closely reflects real life. 

“We are not going to teach systems by chapter. We start with [the idea of] walking out to a cold dark aircraft, then we go through the process of the flight, through to descent and shut down. When they take on information, we want them to know what to do with it, rather than waiting for the magic day when it all makes sense,” Andersen said.

However, Boeing has yet to decide whether it will apply this new approach to 777X training. 777 flight crews typically have more experience and have been through type ratings before.

“The 777X will be our next new aircraft. We are looking at the processes now, but it is a completely different pilot mix,” Andersen explained.

Training company L-3 CTS also sees a greater role and increased demand for lower-level trainers. “Full-flight simulators are associated with checks and the risk of losing your licence,” L-3 CTS VP airline training Robin Glover-Faure said. Therefore, it makes sense to place trainers in crew rooms where pilots can self-train and practice in a less stressful setting. 

The pilot shortage also means that younger and less-experienced pilots—with the learning profile described by Boeing—will need to progress more rapidly to the left-hand seat. “That’s only going to increase,” Glover-Faure said.

According to research released by training provider CAE, 180,000 first officers will need to transition to captain by 2027 to meet growing demand (see sidebar). This is more than in any previous decade. Previously a command would take eight to 10 years, but this is no longer the case.

“We are not selecting people to be first officers; we are selecting them to be captains,” CAE Group president, civil aviation training solutions Nick Leontidis said. “They [airlines] can no longer recruit experienced pilots from the street; they are going to have to think and plan  ahead much earlier.”

The knock-on effect is clear. Increased demand for pilots increases the need for younger recruits, who will quickly progress to senior positions with less experience. On the plus side, this generation has huge exposure to technology—Leontidis said video games build up core skills that are beneficial to pilots—but tapping those skills requires a new approach. Technology has changed, so learning must change too.