Investigation of the opportunities to improve ab initio pilot training: An ethnographic study

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Lohmann, Guilherme M

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Carim Junior, Guido C

Campbell, Chris

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Ab initio flight training refers to the initial stages of pilot training when individuals with little or no previous experience in flying can develop the complex psychomotor skills required to fly an aircraft. Unfortunately, this training program is lengthy and costly, which does not make it accessible to everyone, and has remained unchanged since post-WWII. The training structure includes rigid classroom lectures, followed by practice in an aircraft, and posterior on-the-job training. This study investigates opportunities to improve ab initio pilot training by exploring the learning and teaching pedagogies and educational technologies adopted by flight schools.

An ethnographic study was conducted in a flight school in Australia via observation, field notes and interviews. The ethnography's long-term and immersive characteristics enabled the researcher to study the flight school culture in its natural context. The study made visible the perspectives of students, instructors, and flight school managers about training delivery. A dialectical approach was employed by comparing the varying responses and viewpoints provided by students, instructors, and managers.

The findings suggest that ab initio pilot training could be improved by adopting backseating as an extra activity and using desktop simulators for the different training stages. Backseating is learning by observing peers' flying lessons to reinforce any areas they struggle with. Flight observations can have many additional benefits, such as learning from common mistakes, recognising patterns, and supporting areas where difficulties have been experienced in a stress-free environment without incurring extra costs. However, some concerns were also reported, including regulations and weight limit issues, students becoming nervous when observed, or not having enough time to backseat flights. The thesis proposes a framework for the process needed for backseating to evolve from a learning technique to a pedagogical approach. Several factors facilitate adoption of backseating in flight schools, such as recognising the benefits of the implementation and the need for change, not incurring extra cost, involvement of instructors in the decision-making process, and exposure to different pedagogies. However, barriers including instructors' self-confidence and emotions, concerns about students' needs, lack of follow-up by managers, and regulatory ambiguity must be overcome.

Using desktop simulators would enable students to practise flying skills during self-study time without the risk of damaging the expensive advanced aviation training devices (AATDS). The findings indicate that flight instructors hesitate to encourage students to use desktop simulators despite the documented benefits of using the devices. The reason appears to be their belief that students can develop bad habits if they misinterpret what they have been taught and practise without supervision. The bad habits associated with the devices include looking down at the instruments too much instead of looking out, using excessive force in the controls, and forgetting to trim the aircraft. However, the study showed these bad habits may be caused by students' lack of experience, which is a natural part of the learning process.

The advantages of desktop simulators have been discussed in the literature, however, negative perceptions may be explained by a resistance to accepting a change in how ab initio pilot training has been traditionally delivered. Hesitancy towards the technology could prevent students from embracing what desktop simulators offer in the early stages of training. To overcome negative perceptions, managers and instructors need to understand the documented benefits of the devices, and instructors must be involved in the decision-making process.

This study contributes to ab initio flight training research by suggesting ways to improve ab initio pilot training. Flight schools could adopt backseating training flights and desktop simulators to provide students with the resources necessary to practise psychomotor flying skills during self-study time, which may accelerate training.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy


School of Eng & Built Env

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flight simulator

pilot training

aviation education

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