‘The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts’

C. S. Lewis

This article is a very personal view of the world of the Helicopter Synthetic Flight Instructor and is not written with any authority from those I have worked for in this role. I’m not involved in the challenges of trying to run an Approved Training Organisation (ATO) so perhaps my views are driven by the principles of a dedicated teacher rather than with any profit motive. In my opinion the need for compliance with the relevant regulatory structure drives the modern agenda and gives it its sense of direction. This is, I believe, unhelpful as it draws attention and resources away from the fundamental need to deliver competence.

Please exercise caution if you attempt to attribute any of the experiences I have detailed to any one particular ATO. My simulator experiences extend as far back as the early 1980’s and embrace courses undertaken in Norway, UK, USA and Italy but also draw on data gained through audits that I have been involved with first-hand or second hand via other audit team members.

My philosophy is that once the licensing system in any jurisdiction has delivered a licence into the hands of one of its citizens then that individual becomes, at the moment of issue, a professional pilot. As a professional he or she should be accorded the same level of respect we give to professionals such as doctors and lawyers.

Of course we need a mechanism for maintaining standards within the industry but it is clear that the current, rather simple binary system, based on PASS or FAIL, is not delivering the required level of competence. Those with Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes (KSA) at the lower end of the desired spectrum need support to help them raise their performance so as to be at least close to the median level of KSA indicators.

The availability of Flight Simulation Training Devices (FSTD’s), offer the prospect of a better way and Evidence Based Training (EBT) offers a more acceptable mechanism to deliver it.

There are too many people in our industry who believe that any kind of flight instructor is simply a ‘pilot’ who is re-identified by a change of job description and called by his new title ‘instructor’. At the base level a Type Rating Instructor (arguably the most numerous of the instructor population) is effectively a pilot on the Monday of his course and a teacher on Friday afternoon when he completes his ‘Teaching & Learning Core Course’. The other elements of his training will add little to his KSA and as a result the sim instructor’s skill package will be woefully inadequate.

If we progress towards the benefits delivered by EBT then we would need to raise the skill levels of our sim instructor workforce to enable the system to work as intended. I live in hope.

Who, do you think, could be persuaded to leave the comfort of a pilot’s seat in a modern helicopter cockpit and take up a job where you are employed on a permanent basis to work inside a flight simulator at all hours of the day or night? A place frequently called, in a disparaging way, ‘the black hole’ or ‘the box’. The answer is that you would be pleasantly surprised. If teaching is your calling then a flight school equipped with the latest Flight Simulation Training Devices will provide you with a place at the cutting edge of the helicopter training business and deliver a rewarding and challenging career.

When the Sim Instructor closes the door to the Flight Simulator those inside prepare for a trip to somewhere special. The point of departure and the destination will be chosen to enable the instructor to deliver the required training session, the crew, with the magic that is technology, will be transported from the reality of an anonymous building to an airport far away. They may encounter winds, clouds, turbulence, rain, thunder and lightning and have to deal with a selection from the vast number of malfunctions and emergencies available. The crew will be totally at the mercy of the man or woman that sits at the Instructor Operating Station – The Synthetic Flight Instructor.

If you are reading this then maybe you are considering the possibility of becoming an SFI, or maybe you are already an SFI and want to know if you and I share some common experiences. It can, after all, be a difficult and lonely existence because, like most teachers, we work alone. Maybe sharing my experiences will enable colleagues to realise that they are not in fact alone with their struggles to deliver success to the pilots, young and old, placed in their care.

I came to my current job as an experienced Flight Instructor with a background that includes what we call today, TRI and TRE, but even so I found I have to work hard to achieve the desired results. This is because I currently work at a factory school and the students come for type ratings and recurrent training from all over the world. Most, unfortunately, do not have the levels of KSA we would expect to see in a commercial helicopter pilot.

I have found that there are too many in the aviation world that are prepared to revere the flight simulator but have little or no idea what it does or how it does it. Of course the simulator alone does nothing, it’s the man or woman that teaches within it that makes the difference. I wish those who send their people to the simulator and write the cheques understood that. They seem at times to believe the simulator is a magic box, that you simply place your pilots inside, set the timer to two hours (like a micro-wave) then – ching! You take them out ‘cured’ with all shortcomings eradicated and good to go for another year. Another section of aviation management seems to treat the simulator visit like a trip to the clinic to have the annual ‘inoculation’. They don’t seem to realise what a huge opportunity for improvement is being wasted. A simple audit programme using experienced SFI’s would establish whether or not they are getting value for money or achieving their objectives. I rarely come across such auditors.

There is only one way to bring about advancement, improvement, change or whatever you are looking for in that respect and that is to have an SFI that is able to deliver your needs effectively, efficiently and with enough good humour to ensure your pilots leave the simulator with their confidence enhanced, their faith in the training system reinforced, their motivation buoyant and with a smile on their face. Crews should finish their training session as more confident, better skilled and more knowledgeable pilots than when they arrived. To that end, it is important that only those individuals who possess a good understanding of the learning process and how to positively influence human behaviour are considered for instructor positions.

Regrettably there are weaknesses in the system that control the pilot training environment, that when combined, cause difficulties for both the instructor and the student. We have a system that relies on an accurate definition of the entry skills and knowledge for any regulated course. We then define the instructor skills based on these entry standards. If, as is frequently the case, the students arrive with skills and knowledge deficient in some respect then the instructor (in this case the SFI) is found to be wanting. The skills he in fact needs are those of an experienced FI but the unfortunate SFI has not been given those skills.

Thus the SFI begins the struggle to acquire skills the hard way – on the job, and without the benefit of a tutor. If he is very lucky he may have the services of a mentor.

Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in some jurisdictions it is not necessary for a TRI to do anything more than learn how to operate the simulator. He is not then given the benefit of a training course that will give him the specialised skill-set required to teach pilots from his operating station. It comes as a real shock for the TRI, used to having a set of flight controls and being able to demonstrate manoeuvres when required, when he moves into the simulator world and finds that he has no flight controls and the only tools at his disposal are his voice and his powers of observation.

If you want to achieve a happy outcome to your simulator lesson then you should understand a few things about life as an SFI and equally what it is like to be the student on the receiving end of your teaching.