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“There I Was”: Lessons Learned Converting Instructor-based Pilot Training to Blended Learning

by Mike Dickinson

July 6, 2011


by Mike Dickinson

July 6, 2011

Despite the going-in goal of cutting the academic instructor staff by half, we found that with the data we collected from students and their instructors we were able to recommend a prudent blend of instructor-led and computer-based training which resulted in about a 35-40% staff reduction, not 50%. We also had the surprising outcome of improving the academic experience by adopting blending strategies that we tailored to each course.

Several years ago I had the good fortune to work on a project that was the ideal laboratory for learning what works with a blended curriculum. When I deal with contemporary issues and opportunities such as multi-tasking learners and “informalizing formal learning,” the insights I gained from that project still serve as my benchmark for what works from the learner’s perspective.

Undergraduate Pilot Training

The project’s goal was to convert one-half of a 200+ hour instructor-based training curriculum (IBT) to eLearning. This was for the academics that student pilots took in the yearlong journey called Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) where they earned their wings as Air Force pilots. A typical day during that year consisted of three hours of classroom academics and six to eight hours on the flight line. Unlike traditional academic settings, where students take several courses in parallel, in UPT the academic courses are taken in sequence, one at a time, to complement the students’ phase of training on the flight line.

In the early 1980’s the Air Force hoped to reduce cost by eliminating half of the academic instructors at each UPT base – thus the requirement to convert half of the curriculum to eLearning.

A blended approach from the start: experience, classroom, cockpit

Students started with experiential courses such as aviation physiology and elementary survival (high altitude and high-G physiology, ejection seat training, parachute landings, and desert survival) should they have to bail out. Then they moved on to academics that prepared them for various flight line phases – courses like basic aerodynamics, aircraft systems, and principles of instrument flying, aviation weather, and navigation.

Students started in a basic trainer where they mastered takeoffs and landings, stall and spin recoveries, aerobatics, night flying, formation flying, and cross-country navigation. After six months in the primary trainer they graduated to the T-38, a sleek supersonic jet in which they repeated this sequence only in a much faster and less forgiving aircraft. (In the intervening years the Air Force and Navy have merged their basic flight training, and, after the basic trainer, students now split into a fighter track [T-38] or multi-engine track [T-1.])

The perfect learning lab

Here are the reasons I view this project as the perfect learning laboratory from an eLearning developer’s perspective. First, these student pilots’ full-time job was to learn to fly. They were immersed in this job from before sunup until late every night.

Second, the academic courses were all immediately relevant: students needed that information to master the various phases in the aircraft. Much of what students learned in academics would also help them analyze the unending stream of emergency procedures discussed every day on the flight line. Emergency procedures were an inherent part of every daily flight briefing: instructors would choose one student to analyze and resolve a situation verbally in front of the whole class. And before or after every flight, the instructor would grill his or her student on at least one emergency procedure. So what they learned in class was both relevant and continually reinforced on the ground and in the air.

Finally, we had the chance to develop the eLearning courses and then do formative testing with real UPT students. Between their feedback and that of their instructors, we learned what was working and what needed adjusting. We did this through three generations of course updates, so in the end we had a very good sense of what worked, not just generally, but for each course. It turned out that each course had its own attributes when it came to instructor-led vis-à-vis eLearning.

Front-end analysis pays off

Despite the going-in goal of cutting the academic instructor staff by half, we found that with the data we collected from students and their instructors we were able to recommend a prudent blend of instructor-led and computer-based training which resulted in about a 35-40% staff reduction, not 50%. We also had the surprising outcome of improving the academic experience by adopting blending strategies that we tailored to each course. Here’s a sample of what we learned.

Aircraft systems

I had the good fortune at the outset of this project to get some advice from a colleague with much more experience than I, even in 1983. He told me to identify what each instructor liked to teach vs. what they had to teach. “Take signed numbers for example,” he said. “To a chemistry teacher, signed numbers are a necessary evil – a means to the end of discussing chemical compounds. But to a math teacher, signed numbers are part of the joy of numbers.” (This was a conversation with Henry Lippert, Ph.D., Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, TX, at an ISPI meeting, c. 1983.) So which instructor would most appreciate having signed numbers taught online so they could focus on the more fun stuff? Bingo – the chemistry teacher.

As the name suggests, the aircraft systems class covered the aircraft’s electrical system, hydraulic system, etc. It introduced the aircraft’s components like generators, converters, circuit breakers, hydraulic pumps, valves, etc. With the help of schematic diagrams, students learned every detail of how these systems function in normal operations. Then they learned how to troubleshoot malfunctions and use backup systems to overcome them. Everyone has heard of an aircraft that couldn’t get its landing gear down. What the pilot needs to know is how to troubleshoot – while continuing to maintain aircraft control – and use alternate methods of getting the landing gear down.

So the systems course is neither theoretical nor engineering-oriented; it is very practical: here’s a series of components, here’s how they are supposed to work, here’s what can go wrong, here’s what that would look like in the cockpit, and here’s what you can do about it.

Like the chemistry teacher, the aircraft systems instructors loved to teach the “what if” or “there I was” part of the course – diagnosing malfunctions and performing emergency procedures – but they often got bored teaching the basic system operations to every new class of students. Conversely, the technical nature of the course made it difficult for some students; they needed to go at their own pace. Enter eLearning! We found that students and instructors alike preferred a blend where students learned the basics online, then came to class to learn about diagnosing and resolving problems. Those who needed more time on the basics could go at their own pace. And when the students came to class after having finished their eLearning, the instructor could start right off at a level of knowledge that was far above what the traditional method provided.


Naturally, every pilot needs to know what makes the aircraft fly – thus the aerodynamics course. As with the aircraft systems course, we found that students could cover the basics online while the more complex concepts were best taught by a live instructor.

There was one part of the course where the online format really excelled, perhaps more so than in any other topic: takeoff and landing data. The length of an aircraft’s takeoff roll depends on several variables including aircraft weight, thrust from the engines, outside air temperature, atmospheric pressure (those highs and lows you hear about on the weather reports), airport elevation (feet above sea level), and wind direction and speed. You use this data to not only determine if the runway is long enough for the conditions, but perhaps more importantly, to determine the go/no-go speed: what is the maximum speed to which the aircraft can accelerate and still stop in the remaining runway distance if necessary? And, what is the speed at which the aircraft can lose one engine and either take off or stop in the same distance – and how does that distance compare with the actual runway length?

A pilot must have this information before taking off. (A quick war story: there were some summer days at a particular Air Force base in Europe where, to safely get airborne with a fully loaded C-5A cargo plane, we took off in the middle of the night. That was the coolest part of the day and thus provided the densest air. Even so, we took off with full flaps, lumbered down the 7,000-foot runway, and became airborne just before reaching the end of it. Then we inched high enough to raise the landing gear and clear obstacles (remember, this was at night), leveled off slightly to gain enough speed for half flaps, then finally gained enough airspeed to raise the flaps completely and continue the climbout. Don’t you think we paid close attention to two check speeds along the way so we knew if we had enough thrust or not?)

Back to the takeoff and landing data, or TOLD. In order to compute the TOLD, the student had to learn to use a series of charts correctly. This involved tracing a line from one parameter to the next until they reached the end of the chart. See Figure 1 for an example of the charts used for one calculation, takeoff distance. You trace through the various parameters such as outside air temperate, aircraft weight, etc., to get computed takeoff distance.


Figure 1. The chart pilots use to determine required takeoff distance. (Looks simple, doesn’t it?) Downloaded June 9, 2011 from the FAA’s Computer Testing Supplement for Recreational Pilot and Private Pilot, 2004, Fig. 41, Airplane Takeoff Distance Chart, p. 29.


Any intermediate error would often be compound. During practice exercises students needed to determine not only if they arrived at the correct answer, but also if they got it correct correctly. That is, did they trace the proper path through the charts from start to finish?

You can imagine that the instructor must spread his or her classroom time very thin while teaching TOLD. Each answer is the result of several decisions along the way, and it takes time to diagnose each one. Enter eLearning! We found that students strongly preferred learning how to do TOLD calculations online vs. in the classroom. We designed each problem to not only identify correct answers, but also to address anticipated wrong answers with a detailed explanation of the correct procedure and rationale. Students loved it because they could truly go at their own pace, they received very specific feedback, and they could repeat exercises as desired until they were sure they knew the correct procedures. Whereas, in most other courses we ended up with about a 50-50 split between eLearning and IBT, we found students preferred having the TOLD portion of aerodynamics taught 90% online.

Aviation Weather

The weather course proved to be a very interesting dilemma. Unlike all the other courses taught by pilots who also helped on the flight line, a certified weather forecaster taught the weather course. Eliminate the need for the weather instructor and you can easily eliminate one position, or so went the original assumption.

However, it turned out that students loved the weather instructor’s “war stories.” Not only did weather instructors teach things like basic weather patterns and the life cycle (and hazards) of thunderstorms, they tended to enrich the instruction with accounts of actual aviation weather situations. Often that meant diagnosing weather-related accidents, including the signs and decisions that led to them. Students loved that insight, and they loved the opportunity to internalize it by asking lots of “what if” questions.

  • Fog? How about the time a T-38 formation got very low on fuel due to traffic backing up at a Florida Air Force base when fog unexpectedly set in over the Gulf?

  • Thunderstorms? What makes them develop? What should you do if you find yourself in one? Which part is most likely to produce hail (and thus pose a serious threat to your windscreen and engines)?

  • Low cloud ceilings? In Arizona? Yes, it happens once in awhile. What conditions cause that?

  • Freezing level? What’s the significance to you as a pilot?

  • Wind shear? What causes it? How can you overcome its effects, especially when landing?

As you might expect by now, we found we could blend IBT and eLearning for the weather course, but we could not eliminate the weather instructors.

As we integrated eLearning into the curriculum, we recognized one gnawing question: how do we fold self-paced eLearning into an overall group-paced environment? In UPT, traditional classroom instruction sequences with the flight line schedule, all of which is very tightly syncopated to pump out a new batch of pilots on schedule, class after class. eLearning tends to take less time than IBT; what do you do with the leftover time after students finish their eLearning lessons? And what do you do when a student needs more time? These many years later I don’t actually recall how we handled that except that students had some welcome free time if they finished early, and they had access to the eLearning computer lab if they needed more time.

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Mr. Dickinson has successfully communicated a taste of what it was like to integrate CBT and hi-res imagery into a formerly static ILT-drived pilot training program.

I was on the team that designed and developed the Academics subsystem for the US Navy's T45-TS carrier-based combat pilot training system. Intended to provide an integrated multi-media capability to compliment the T-45 aircraft, students and instructors were overjoyed to have computer-aided instruction and audio-visual media integrated with their simulator work and flight training.

Having virtual aircraft in virtual space was quite an achievement in 1987, but it gave students and instructors unprecedented, unlimited, and essentially cost-free opportunities to see, hear, and feel aerial combat maneuvers, gunnery and bombing practice, and situational awareness exercises in high-fidelity, with multiple viewpoints, perspectives, and path tracing options.

IMHO it revolutionized carrier pilot training, and led the way for the Navy's continued pursuit of immersive simulation training systems such as that offered to missile system operators abouard Aegis cruisers and destroyers.
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