VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. —
Passengers have been getting stranded at airports because of airline staffing issues. Among the issues is a shortage of qualified pilots.
“They need to have the right attitudes and values associated with being able to make good decisions and they have to have a quality experience,” Ken Byrnes said.
Byrnes is chairman of Embry-Riddle’s flight department, overseeing the new pre-flight immersion laboratory that he says helps shape student pilots before they ever step into an airplane.
The university has long been a leader in high-level simulation training but virtual reality simulation adds to that high-quality experience Byrnes is talking about.
“We’re pulling out as much of the initial learning as possible into the simulated environments so they can make the best use when they get to that airplane,” Byrnes said.
Students spend four weeks in this artificial reality, first with a flight instructor in a simulator — an actual Cessna cockpit took off the assembly line wrapped with high fidelity 220-degree visuals. That is as real as it can get.
“The second they get in there, they don’t remember. They think it’s a real airplane,” Byrnes said.
Students learn maneuvers, then head to three virtual reality labs. One teaches pre-flight, the parts and pieces of the plane and a how-to checklist. The air traffic control lab focuses on communication, flight speaking and listening skills.
Then, flight training on a virtual reality simulator where they are flying maneuvers totally immersed.The virtual reality labs save students time. The university saw a 30% drop in the time it took one group of students to complete a first solo flight. It saves students money because tuition doesn’t cover flight lessons in the field.
“They are being introduced in those first 4 weeks to everything they need to know to get certified as an initial pilot,” Byrnes said.
Following the labs, students have a plane dedicated to them. Embry-Riddle has a fleet of nearly 100 airplanes. The point is to fly every day so no one loses the momentum virtual reality built.
“It’s always been right there. That’s where I want to go to aviation,” Nicholas Bowers, a freshman said.
Bowers is a freshman in the flight program, a legacy. His father and grandfather are both graduates. Embry-Riddle has seen enrollment skyrocket in part due to the new immersion lab.
“It really gets you where you want to go, gets you the airlines you want to fly for,” Bowers said.
Byrnes says his young students are already being courted by major airlines. Of the 80,000 commercial pilots flying now, 16 % are between the ages of 60 and 65 and many more are in their mid to late 50s.
The industry needs an infusion, and though pilot pay was far lower a decade ago, you know what they say about supply and demand.
A commercial airline pilot can now make about $90,000 in the first year.
Though the news has focused on pilots, there are shortages throughout the airline industry — technicians, airplanes and mechanics for example. Embry Riddle has an Aviation Maintenance program that also relies on virtual reality to train those students.
“In the simulation, we can expose them to things we would never be able to in the airplane,” Byrnes said. “They’ve seen it, they understand it and they do the right thing when they have to do the right thing.”