Guest Commentary By Vance Hilderman
In the past summer, 61 percent of travelers experienced a flight delay or cancellation, and I was one of them. The aviation industry and the government have been working to solve the problem. But it only seems to be getting worse, due in large part to the fact that there simply aren’t enough pilots to keep flights running smoothly. It seems that the traditional methods of training new pilots are falling short in bridging the gap.
Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves, what are the key factors causing the pilot shortage, and how can the aviation industry address them?
Factors contributing to the shortage
The pilot shortage is a reality that the aviation industry cannot ignore, especially since there has been a drastic increase in air travel demand after the worst of the pandemic. Add to that, many experienced pilots are reaching the mandatory retirement age, with not enough new pilots joining the ranks to replace them. In the next 15 years, approximately 50 percent of pilots will be retiring.
This situation was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, as many airlines implemented layoffs and early retirements to cut costs. Now that air travel has largely recovered, those airlines are more short-staffed than ever before.
And then there’s the high cost of pilot training, which can take up to two years and cost $100,000 at the average flight school. The high cost is mainly due to the expense of paying for and maintaining training aircraft, which are increasingly costly and rare, making it harder to schedule flights.
For instance, a Cessna 172, one of the most commonly used aircraft in pilot training, costs over $400,000 new and burns about eight gallons of fuel per hour on average. With aviation fuel typically costing more than five dollars per gallon, just the fuel costs for a single hour of flight time can be $40. That quickly adds up over the course of a pilot’s training, during which they must complete at least 1,500 hours in the air. It’s no wonder many are now looking for alternative careers rather than face long and costly training.
The rise of VR training in pilot education is an exciting development in the aviation industry, and one that has the potential to address the pilot shortage by dramatically reducing training costs and speeding up the training process when compared to relying on traditional training aircraft. With VR, pilots can simulate various scenarios and practice their skills in a safe and controlled environment without needing to schedule an actual flight.
Using a VR headset, a student can step into a virtual cockpit that meticulously replicates the real thing — every switch, every dial, every blinking light. This training can include an array of scenarios, from routine takeoffs and landings to complex in-flight emergencies, all set in various weather conditions and different times of the day. In fact, scenario-based training, like training with how to deal with a fire during a flight, is one of the main use cases of VR since training for such situations in a real aircraft could seriously threaten safety.
The costs involved in setting up a VR pilot training program can vary greatly depending on the sophistication of the system. Advanced setups with professional-grade VR headsets, high-end graphics computers, full cockpit mock-ups, and haptic feedback systems can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars or more, although that is still well below the cost of the average training aircraft. Once the training systems are set up, the ongoing costs of VR pilot training are minimal, especially when compared to the cost of fuel, aircraft maintenance, and wear and tear associated with traditional flight training.
In contrast, a VR training session costs essentially nothing beyond the electricity used to power the computer and VR headset. What’s more, the environmental impact of a VR system is negligible compared to that of training aircraft.
The key roadblock to fully implementing VR training lies, as these things so often do, in regulations. One of the key advantages of VR training is its potential to count towards flight hours rather than having to opt for an actual flight. However, the FAA has yet to approve VR training for flight hours, despite its clear advantages. In Europe, the EASA has already approved VR training, while the U.S. lags behind. This disparity is particularly unfortunate, because, at least in my view, VR is a clear answer to the training problem.
Cutting costs through compliance
Until VR training is approved, we need to find other methods of reducing costs. One of the best ways we can do that, at least from where I sit, is by correctly applying regulatory frameworks like DO-178C and DO-254 in the manufacturing and design processes for training aircraft.
The role of DO-178C and DO-254 in aircraft systems and avionics is crucial for ensuring safety and reliability of both software and hardware. DO-178C defines processes and objectives to achieve the highest level of software integrity and quality, and DO-254 provides guidance on the planning, development, and verification of hardware elements. Together, these standards make sure avionics systems work safely and at high performance levels.
Now, normally engineers tend to think of DO-178C and DO-254 as expensive necessities and somewhat of a hindrance. Compliance standards certainly make the development process more strict and require more checks along the way, and by extension require more hours from engineers and avionics developers.
That said, the correct implementation of standards, such as DO-178C, can reduce costs in other areas. For example, strict DO-178C compliance improves software reusability. That means developers can use parts of software and code in other systems, which cuts down the overall time required for creating them. Better avionics quality resulting from DO-178C and DO-254 improves pilot reliability which can lessen required training time.
What’s more, adhering to these standards decreases the likelihood of both returns or failures, which results in a more reliable and cost-effective training aircraft system overall. And when manufacturers and developers adhere to DO-178C or DO-254 from the start, this will help them streamline the development cycle. Cost savings should funnel down to the end user, making it easier for flight schools to afford new aircraft.
A better future for aviation
As the pilot shortage continues to place immense pressure on the aviation sector, innovative approaches and technologies can help tackle the problem at its roots. By understanding the root causes of the pilot shortage, the industry can invest in smarter training and development methods to ensure more trained pilots for the future of aviation.
Vance Hilderman, is the principal founder/CTO of three of the world’s most significant aviation development/certification companies including TekSci, HighRely, and AFuzion. Hilderman has trained over 31,000 engineers in over 700 aviation companies and 30+ countries. His intellectual property is in use by 70% of the world’s top 300 aviation and systems developers worldwide, and he has employed and personally presided over 500 of the world’s foremost aviation engineers on 300+ projects the past thirty-five years. AFuzion’s solutions are on 90% of the aircraft developed over the past three decades. His latest book, Aviation Development Ecosystem, debuted at #1 on the Aviation category best-seller list.