Is there a CPU in your future? If NASA's AGATE program has its way, tomorrow's light airplane will be nearly as computerized as a Boeing 777 or Gulfstream V is today. What's more, the AGATE flight training workgroup is proposing a new approach to flight training with heavy emphasis on computer-based instruction and simulators. Flight Training magazine's Greg Laslo brings you up to speed on where this is all headed.
April 26, 1998
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Rember, a good pilot is always learning!
I remember my first flight in a Level D simulator. It was a
business jet, and I was lost among the electronic flat-panel displays, auto-throttles, and
flight management systems. Totally "where-the-heck's-the-airspeed-indicator"
Apparently I wasn't the first person to stare confusedly at the glass cockpit like it
was a wall of televisions at an electronics store. "That's why you fly the simulator
first," said the instructor pilot. "You learn how things work before you get
into the real thing. It's safer, less expensive, and it builds your confidence. That's the
advantage of technology."
Then he said, "Don't let the new gadgets confuse you it's still an airplane.
The technology is there to help you. You've got a lot more information in front of you,
but pull back on the yoke, and houses still get smaller. Push forward, and houses still
The technology in that simulator satellite-based navigation; simplified
engine-management controls; computer-based systems monitoring and control; and
multi-function, flat-panel avionics displays represents the next generation of light
Over the next five years, the aviation industry will attempt to woo more general
aviation pilots by putting technology to work for them. The federal government, academia,
and industry have teamed to develop new programs, technologies, training techniques, and
ways of doing business that will dramatically change how many of us take to the skies in
the near future. The end result, they all hope, will be a safer, cheaper, more convenient
personal air transportation system.
The key word is "personal." The system is built around the pilot, to make the
job of flying easier. Training will be easier and less expensive. A pilot certificate will
be more useful. Proficiency will be easier to maintain. "We'll be able to have safe,
low-time, casual pilots," says Randy Nelson of Cessna Aircraft Company. "Most
pilots don't fly enough to stay proficient."
By tailoring new flight-training products to the pilot, especially one who can afford
to fly and own an aircraft, and by designing new airplanes that permit both easy ownership
and light-aircraft transportation in nearly all weather conditions, general aviation will
be jump-started into an era of high-tech wizardry. Or so the story goes.
"I think we have to differentiate between pie-in-the-sky enthusiasm for future
trends and realistic expectations for the near future," says NASA's Bruce Holmes.
"The immediate effects are easy to forecast. There will be an expanded use of
computing power we have available to us at low cost, and we'll design products for FBOs
and flight schools that are specialized to teach people how to fly."
The impetus behind the technological infusion into general aviation is the Advanced
General Aviation Transportation Experiment (AGATE), founded in 1994 by NASA and the FAA
(http://agate.larc.nasa.gov). AGATE shifted into high gear last year when it announced a
flight training workgroup whose goal is to develop a way to train people to fly that is
less expensive and also creates better pilots. Meanwhile, other workgroups are developing
new avionics packages, power-control systems, and powerplants.
The shifting sand of flight training will be affected by other winds as well. New
aviation consumers are shaking up the way many schools do business. Quality-control
programs initiated by manufacturers are changing the faces of flight schools themselves.
And FAA plans to rebuild the airspace system will change the way we fly from one place to
another. The present way of doing things will change.
The new system is built around a "model" pilot, who will be different than
the student pilot of the past. Last year, the general aviation industry launched GA Team
2000, the industry consortium to boost the number of student pilot starts to 100,000 a
year by the year 2000. By all accounts, the first year a test year was successful.
Student pilot starts for 1997 edged upward nearly 8 percent, to about 60,000 no doubt
partially because of GA Team 2000. That's not a flood, but it's a reversal of a long
downward trend, and the 100,000-start goal appears to be achievable.
GA Team 2000 is targeting a pilot prospect who's affluent, adventuresome, intelligent,
busy, and demanding. He and she has always wanted to learn to fly and is willing
(and able) to pay for top-quality training, aircraft, and technology. But he'll want it
served up his way. He'll want convenient, efficient home study, inexpensive training,
quicker certification, better skills, and a more useful certificate. He wants reduced
workload in the cockpit, and less overall stress to flying. And he doesn't want to pay his
dues to join the aviation fraternity. Training has to be easy and hassle free or it
"New aircraft will look different, feel different, and operate differently for the
pilot," Cessna's Nelson says. "They'll be more user-friendly, and more
information will be available to the pilot. They will ease the pilot's workload, and
thereby make training and proficiency easier to maintain."
Winner of the National General Aviation Design Competition, this airplane
designed by the Kansas Consortium should be flying later this year.
Under those guidelines, a group of aviation pioneers in Kansas is hoping to reinvent
powered flight. The engineers graduate and undergraduate students from a collection of
universities in that state will test-fly a proof-of-concept model for a turbofan
powered, single-engine aircraft designed to be quieter and more fuel efficient than
current piston-powered aircraft.
The students, winners of the "Design it, Build it, Fly it" category of the
National General Aviation Design Competition, an AGATE-related event, will debut their
single-engine aircraft at this year's Experimental Aircraft Association convention and
fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
This is the second time the Kansas Consortium Wichita State University, Kansas State
University, the University of Kansas, and Pittsburg State University has won an award
in the four-year-old competition, which is sponsored by NASA, the EAA, FAA, Aircraft
Owners and Pilots Association, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Virginia Space
Grant Consortium. The Kansas colleges won a $10,000 seed grant to build the design. The
consortium's 1996 entry was a composite, diesel-powered single-engine kitbuilt design that
would have the performance characteristics of a new Cessna Model 172 at about half the
That's the point of the competition to use the academic world's aeronautical brain
power and resources to create an aircraft that appeals to recreational and business
pilots. The competition is open to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at
four-year engineering schools. They must design a fixed-wing, single-engine, single-pilot,
propeller-driven aircraft for two to six occupants that cruises at 150 to 300 knots for
800 to 1000 nautical miles.
Their designs use state-of-the-art technology, including VHF datalink (VDL) radios,
which reduce the amount of spoken communication between ATC and the pilot. VDLs receive
coded radio signals about weather, clearances, traffic, and other advisory information.
Satellite navigation systems will include terrain and obstacle avoidance.
Aircraft of the future could employ impact-absorbing composite construction, have
single-level power controls, and use alternative powerplants, including diesel and
turbofan engines. Both powerplants are being developed now through the General Aviation
Propulsion (GAP) program at NASA's Lewis Research Center. By importing existing technology
to aviation from other industries, the competition sponsors hope to reduce production
costs from 25 to 40 percent.
The technology isn't that far away.
In the AGATE airplane of the future, the instrument panel will be home to
several multi-function flat panel displays. Part of the future is here today in the Cirrus
SR20, which has a flat-panel screen that displays engine and navigation information.
In cold, snowy Duluth, Minnesota, engineers from Cirrus Design are completing
certification work on the Cirrus SR20, a four-place, all-composite, 160-knot,
single-engine aircraft. This year the company expects to receive the type certificate for
the airplane that "gives pilots long-awaited access to today's technological
"In concept, the goals we strive for with the SR20 is what AGATE is striving
for," says Cirrus' Dean Vogel. "It will be easier to fly and to maintain
currency in nearly all weather conditions."
The SR20 is not your father's single-engine airplane. It's a sleek, fast, long-range
cruiser. But that's on the outside.
On the inside, it incorporates cockpit design features currently found only on some
experimental designs or in large, state-of-the-art commercial aircraft. The pilot operates
an ergonomically designed side stick gone is the traditional W-shaped yoke jutting from
the panel. The pilot controls engine power with a single lever and monitors navigation and
engine instruments on a multi-function, cathode-ray tube in the center of the instrument
On the drawing table, the company designed the SR20 to be crash-survivable. The
production model will use seats that absorb high impact forces and a Ballistic Recovery
System parachute to safely lower the airplane, should it become disabled or should the
pilot lose control such as in inadvertent VFR flight into IFR conditions.
It's a contemporary sedan with wings, and according to Vogel, that's what future pilots
want and need.
While more than half of all pilots fly for the challenge (57.5 percent, according to a
new Flight Training survey), far more (more than 70 percent) fly for recreation and
enjoyment. For the recreational, weekend pilot, today's aircraft may require more time and
effort to maintain currency and confidence than they have to give. Those pilots eventually
lose interest. Or worse.
"The only way to make aviation less expensive is to get more people to do
it," Vogel says. "To do that, you have to take away some of the challenge. For
some, it may be too much of a challenge. Look at it this way some people like to do
math problems in their head. Fewer people like to do math problems in their head when
they're stressed. Even fewer people like to do math problems in their head when they're
stressed and they're flying in instrument conditions with the mother of their children
sitting next to them. A lot of people like to fly, but when they aren't current, it
becomes stressful. So, they don't fly as much, and they don't use their airplane as much
as they once did."
To break this cycle, an airplane must be easier to use.
"The AGATE ideals will be to general aviation what the graphical user interface
was to the computer market," Vogel says. "People bought computers before
Microsoft Windows came out, but they were mostly technically oriented people like
pilots are today. Windows, because it was easy to use, really made the computer a
If the pilots and airplanes are changing, so must the method of teaching.
Currently, only about half the pilots who begin flying lessons actually earn their
recreational or private pilot certificate. Also, an untold number of certificated pilots,
having neither the confidence nor the reason to fly, lapse into inactivity when their
medical certificate expires.
The general aviation industry certainly the single-engine, recreational part of it
needs all the active bodies it can get, lest the private pilot become an endangered
AOPA warns that fewer pilots mean less representation before and protection from
local and national governments. Less representation means fewer airports, as cities and
neighborhoods petition to close the local, non-towered, general aviation airport. Fewer
airports mean fewer opportunities for pilots and less margin for safety. And so it
Pilots quit flying for a variety of reasons. They may not have the time, the money, or
the energy to fly. In any case, general aviation isn't fulfilling their needs. By
rebuilding the training curriculum so earning a pilot certificate is easier and cheaper,
AGATE flight training would attract and keep student pilot prospects that previously would
have been scared away.
The AGATE flight training workgroup Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Ohio State
University, Florida Institute of Technology, Advanced Creations, Cessna, and Jeppesen
is drafting a curriculum that would unify training. The concept is to have student pilots
earn a combined private pilot certificate and instrument rating.
The workgroup's first task is completing a one-step training curriculum that will take
a new student through the instrument rating. The combined course will be shorter than the
present separate training programs, and it should cost about 25 percent less. Next, the
workgroup will draft single-lever power control and multi-function, glass-cockpit display
training modules, both to be completed by 2000. Then the team will write free-flight and
icing modules. The FAA is now developing free-flight, which essentially dismantles the
current airway system and permits flexible routing and cruising altitudes.
The workgroup will have a variety of tools available to it. Computer-based instruction
(CBI), Personal Computer-based Aviation Training Devices (PCATDs), free-standing Flight
Training Devices (FTDs), and new airplanes with new systems will all be instrumental in
those training programs. The magic mix is still under development.
"The AGATE emphasis is on cost, not on time, " says Steve Hampton of ERAU.
"Time in an airplane is expensive. Time in a PCATD is very inexpensive. Five hours in
a PCATD versus one hour in an airplane is cost-effective."
CD-ROM ground school courses will bring the best of all worlds to student pilots
video-, textbook-, and classroom-based study guides. Portable and convenient, the
computer-based learning programs allow students to study at their leisure. "We'll
take advantage of multimedia for training that can be driven by the student," Nelson
At EAA Oshkosh 97, both Cessna and Jeppesen introduced computer-based instructional
programs. "CBI brings flight training to people in a very comfortable way that's not
been available before," says Cessna's Jan McIntire. "CBI gives students
convenience and flexibility. It makes flight training that much more accessible. A pilot
can carry a notebook computer with a CD-ROM drive instead of stacks of books, and he can
study on an airliner or in a hotel room. It'll also teach younger people in a way they are
familiar and comfortable with. It's entertaining, it incorporates the best educational
techniques, and it doesn't allow students to continue until they've mastered each
Cessna's CBI private pilot course will be available this spring through Cessna Pilot
Centers. Jeppesen's CD-ROM is already part of their student pilot kit.
CBI will allow certificated pilots to participate in recurrent training also. Safety
seminars and continuing education courses could be written for CD-ROM. Home study would
actually result in proficiency that meant something, Nelson says.
CBI, though, is not general aviation's magic bullet. It's a popular training method
and other industries have put it to use with encouraging results but CBI offers no
guarantee that it will work for general aviation. SimuFlite, the corporate pilot training
company in Dallas, tried to use CBI in its programs, but it failed and the company stopped
using it, Hampton says.
"Developing CBI is expensive and time consuming," Hampton says. "To make
it educationally sound isn't an easy task. It has to be attractive to hold your attention
for 20 or 30 hours, and there has to be interaction. But even then, some students won't
like CBI. We still have to design curricula for all learning styles."
Reliance on computers for training CBI, PCATDs, and high-tech cockpits may make
aviation seem too much like a game, critics say. "People understand that and are
working hard to make that clear," Cessna's Nelson says. "You don't get a Game
Over' message in the real world. You have to make the entire program a little more robust
than a video game."
That obstacle, and others, has to be overcome. "We have to be sure we don't talk
down to professionals," Hampton says. "With doctors, lawyers, and other highly
educated individuals taking flight training the market GA Team 2000 has targeted
instructors and educational systems have to treat them like competent, intelligent
But attention to customers isn't solely a technological problem.
Diamond Aircraft Industries opened the doors of its first Diamond Flight Center in
Ontario, Canada, on December 1, 1997. The manufacturer owns the school but a contractor
will provide flight training services to customers. Diamond spent more than $750,000 to
build the 12,500-square-foot facility, which includes a flight school, up-scale
restaurant, and bar.
Diamond's school will be a test center for Diamond curricula, marketing efforts, and
customer-service efforts. The main reason for the program, Diamond says, is to offer its
Katana DA20 operators a wealth of business knowledge to help them run a more profitable
operation. "The goal was to test and implement different procedures how we market,
new ways to implement our flight training device, new programs, new procedures, and new
syllabi," says Diamond's Jeff Owen. "It'll allow us to test different things to
study our market to see what makes them come and what makes them come back."
A week after the Diamond school opened, a group of flight school managers converged on
Independence, Kansas, to attend the first-ever, new-and-improved Cessna Pilot Center
refresher seminar. Cessna restructured its Cessna Pilot Center training program to
emphasize customer service, marketing, sales, and solid business practices among its
member flight schools. Those schools that don't measure up will be cut from the program.
"Everybody knows what the fundamentals of business are marketing and customer
service but it's how you apply those fundamentals," Owen says. "The really
good schools out there aren't doing anything everyone else couldn't do. The secret is
doing people-oriented things."
The flight school of the future will probably resemble a corporate office park or a
modern, high-end fixed-based operator rather than a contemporary flight school, with its
traditional "rumpus-room" decor. Neon and windows will replace wood paneling and
It will be a different marketplace out there.
It will have to be. Otherwise, potential flight training customers will continue to
spend their money elsewhere on personal watercraft, golf, or other leisure activities.
If that happens, AGATE, GA Team 2000, GAP, and every other industry-revitalization program
will have lost the race before they leave the blocks.
The training industry has acknowledged this fact. Cessna will disassociate with CPCs
that don't comply with contracts and will sign up rising-star flight schools. Diamond will
train its DFC managers in flight school operations. GA Team 2000's Infrastructure
Committee will examine how to rebuild the base of flight schools. The National Air
Transportation Association offers its second season of Flight School Managers seminars
this year. Flight Training's four-year-old sister publication Flight School Business
offers how-to, back-to-basics information on flight school management. Between industry
input and consumer demands, the next few years will bring big changes to flight schools.
Aviation historians will look back on GPS satellite navigation as a turning point in
general aviation. Manufacturers have sold more than 150,000 aviation units. That's a drop
in the bucket compared to the more than three million purchased for other purposes, but
the FAA expects to make GPS the sole means of navigation within the next 15 years.
A GPS-only airspace system will change how we fly, when we fly, and how we get there.
Already, AGATE members are drafting curricula that will teach pilots to fly in the
coming free-flight, nearly all-weather National Airspace System. Already AOPA is pushing
for the FAA to design more GPS-only instrument approaches the majority of today's GPS
approaches are overlays of existing non-precision instrument approaches. That's only a
short-term solution, the association says, and GPS-only approaches will be vital to early
phases of Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) implementation, which will provide a GPS
signal accurate enough for precision instrument approaches.
The FAA expects to have a full WAAS network up and running by 2002, in spite of early
organizational and contractual problems. The FAA plans to phase out ground-based navaids,
such as VORs and non-directional beacons (NDBs), in 2005 (with a few exceptions, such as a
few on-airport navaids at selected locations, which will be phased out completely by
In a "virtual highway in the sky," pilots will use sophisticated situation
indicators in one package that provide the same three-dimensional information as a
horizontal situation indicator (HSI) and attitude indicator together do, NASA's Holmes
says. Just follow the bouncing white ball.
A free-flight system will require different avionics multi-function displays, such
as the one in the SR20, that display communication, navigation, and satellite (CNS)
information; VDL datalink radios; and new aircraft situation indicators.
The result will be Category I instrument approaches 200-foot ceiling and
one-half-mile visibility minimums around the United States, which translates into near
all-weather flying for most instrument-rated pilots. The system will give them
three-dimensional guidance on precision approaches at more than 5,000 public-use airports
now served only by non-precision instrument approach procedures with higher minimums.
That's important to safety.
In studies of big-airplane accidents, most controlled flight into terrain (CFIT)
accidents occur when the pilots deviate vertically from the glideslope, not laterally,
says the Flight Safety Foundation. Furthermore, big airlines are five-times more likely to
crash on non-precision approaches than on precision approaches, FSF says.
FAA critics and Congress question whether the FAA can implement a free-flight WAAS
system in the time frame the agency has set. The FAA says it can, and points to the 1996
Atlanta Olympics. There VHF datalink radios gave graphic weather information, traffic
information, flight planning and clearances, and textual automatic terminal information
service (ATIS) and Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) information to 92 aircraft using Olympic
airspace. They also point to a GPS-based approach at Minneapolis International Airport
that allows airline pilots to fly an ILS-like precision approach.
AGATE's new technology means nothing if it doesn't make flying safer.
Airlines and corporate operators fly jet aircraft with glass cockpits and sophisticated
avionics that reduce the complexity of flying big, expensive aircraft. The results in
spite of best intentions to use technology to make flying easier and safer aren't
"With more than 4,000 hours in advanced cockpits, I've found that these supposedly
fail safe' systems can occasionally set us up and then let us down in a big
way," wrote one pilot to NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System.
"We missed the crossing altitude by 1,000 feet," another pilot wrote to ASRS.
"The captain was busy trying to program the flight management computer. Being new in
an automated cockpit, I find that pilots are spending too much time playing with the
computer at critical times, rather than flying the aircraft. No one looks outside for
And another pilot wrote "We descended 400 feet below the 10,000-foot crossing
altitude. How did this happen? I suppose the wizardry of the glass cockpit and two
newcomers who were not aggressive enough intervening when the computer did other than what
So if high-time airline pilots have difficulties with new, high-tech, glass-cockpit
aircraft, what will the new general aviation pilot experience? What about the American
Airlines crash in Cali, Colombia, in which the pilots flew off course and selected an
incorrect waypoint on their flight management computer?
"An AGATE airplane will be more sophisticated in terms of displays," Hampton
says. "It won't have an auto-throttle like a big jet, but it will have a simplified
power-management system. The pilot still has to understand how the systems operate, but
that's a cognitive function it's a management function. You'll need basic skills to be
able to manage the system."
That function is what the AGATE curriculum team has to train pilots to perform. "I
think we can do things a lot simpler than we do it now," Hampton says. "But we
have to build a solid foundation of airmanship skills. Technology is changing, and we have
to be careful to not let the technology get out of control. AGATE allows us to take
advantage of those changes and see what is good and what is bad. It's better that it
happen this way than for the FAA to tell us we have to change."
Each new system will require new training, and an AGATE aircraft and a Piper J-3 Cub
will share only distant general aviation lineage just like a Gulfstream V and Beech 18.
"But we're trying not to make two classes of pilots AGATE and non-AGATE,"
In reality, though, the pilot-aircraft interfaces will be very different, and the class
division may happen.
Which is unfortunate, because I also remember the first time I flew an open-cockpit
biplane a big, beautiful, blue and yellow beast with only a handful of steam-gauge
instruments. In a steep bank, I looked over the side of the open cockpit to see nothing
but 3,000 feet of air below me and wings all around me. It was magical. It was
exhilarating. It was pure, unadulterated flying, high above the cross-hatched fields of
Midwestern farms, and it was the first time I felt like a pilot.