The quality of airline pilots' manual flying skillls are now a key issue for the air transport industry. TIM ROBINSON takes a look at Airbus’s radical new A350 flight crew training philosophy.

Inside the A350 XWB FFS. With the A350 conversion course — students will experience the motion simulator at a very early stage.   

It has been widely understood for a time now that flight training for airlines has become increasingly outdated and obsolete. While it still produces competent pilots, there have been concerns that it has not kept pace with either the advances in learning or training in other sectors (See ‘Wake-up call’, AEROSPACE, November 2014). Additionally, there has been a huge change in aircraft technology since the first airline pilot training courses were standardised. In particular, the training dates from a time of multi-crew aircraft (with navigator, engineer and even radio operator), analogue gauges and unreliable engines. Today, two-crew flight decks are the norm, glass cockpits (and fly-by-wire (FBW)) dominate and a pilot may go his (or her) whole working life without experiencing an engine failure — let alone an ‘engine failure on take-off’ — the traditional 'gold standard' of pilot skills trained for in the simulator.

Yet while the training system still produces skilled pilots – recent accidents and incidents have led to questions about the type of pilot being produced. AF447, Colgan Air and Asiana Airlines all highlighted deficiencies in critical areas – leading to concerns that pilots are becoming too reliant on automation and losing vital flying skills. Partly this can be down to industry itself. It might be argued, for example, that the introduction of FBW, FMS and glass cockpits meant that their advantages were over-emphasised to win over older, sceptical captains, and not enough attention was paid to the downsides. Airline standard operating procedures (SOP)s which discouraged manual handling too have had a part to play in this.

However, the industry has been addressing this and progress is being made. MPL is one advance, along with cross-industry initiatives such as the IPTC (International Pilot Training Consortium) of which the RAeS is itself a member.

While the MPL may be the first example of this new training philosophy for introducing ab initio students to the concepts of CRM and multi-crew cockpits, Airbus’s new A350 XWB flight crew training takes this one stage further, updating type rating training.

Thus, as well as aiming to set the industry benchmark for type conversion training, Airbus also saw the introduction of the A350 as an opportunity to adopt new training paradigms, such as evidence-based training (EBT), leverage its massive training experience (2,000+ trainees annually) and evolve the Airbus Pilot Transition Course (APT2) that was introduced in 2004.

Training philosophy


So what goes into this new training philosophy? Airbus says there are three targets — making the training more effective, efficient and ‘fun’. This last aim may seem out-of-place for some but research over past decades has shown how retention of knowledge is improved the more interactive it becomes. In fact, the highest levels of retention (90%) stem from teaching information to someone else. While reading hovers at 10%, and audio-visual learning at 20%, discussion and practice methods give 50% and 75% retention levels respectively. In this instructors are set to move from a one-way briefings or lectures to discussion and ‘facilitating discovery’. Airbus’s new training philosophy thus takes elements from how we learn to operate smartphones/or tablet computers today — not by reading thick manuals, but by interaction and trying it out.

The new course is a major shakeup in both technology and approach. Traditionally, a type conversion would consist of ground school divided into study of manuals, CBT (computer-based training), part task trainers (PTT) with full-flight simulator (FFS) work. Airbus’s course divides into system knowledge and PTTs, then a fixed-base (but high fidelity ) APT+ before the full-motion sim. The course also incorporates as its basis evidence-based training (EBT) and competency-based training (CBT) — new paradigms for airliner pilot training. For CBT, Airbus has identified nine ‘core competencies’ for airline pilots, based on ICAO regulations from 2013. These are knowledge, workload management, situation awareness, communication, manual flight, application of procedures, auto flight, leadership and teamwork and finally problem solving and decision-making. With competency-based training there is no standard pass/fail grading, simply competent/not yet competent.

In short, this latest conversion course, the development of which began in 2010, was to become a radical revamp of Airbus’s flight crew training philosophy. Says Captain Christian Norden, Director A350 Flight Operations and Training Support: “We decided not to make a copy and paste course.” He added: “It would be driven by trainees needs, not by the devices”.

ACE laptop


Airbus ACE laptop-based training tool, features a 'virtual' A350 cockpit and avionics systems to explore in intercative lessons and limited 'free play' mode.  

For those pilots transitioning to the A350, the first encounter with the A350 will be in a 3D ‘virtual’ form in a sophisticated simulation of the aircraft on a laptop — or the ACE (Airbus Cockpit Experience). This laptop training device functions as a PTT, allows trainees to develop system knowledge and procedures as well as standard operating procedures (SOPs). This ‘virtual’ A350 allows students to click cockpit switches, navigate FMS menus with the systems responding and interacting like the real thing.

The ground phase of the conversion course sees the ACE laptop integrated with ‘A350 system knowledge modules’ (SKM) which can be seen as a ‘quick user guide’ to the A350s avionics which break the complex systems (eg ECAM) into manageable chunks with the student learning about the system first before a practical lesson shows its operational uses. In this way, the functions of the aircraft’s complex systems are absorbed quicker, as they student gets to put them into practice. Theory is learned in parallel with simulation. As noted above — putting this knowledge into practice straight away is expected to boost retention rates from around 20% using the ‘linear media’ of traditional computer-based training, to approximately 75% with the new method. It is also quicker — with an emphasis on ‘need to understand’. Compared with 36hrs of traditional CBT, the new SKM modules are less than 20 hours.


Facilitating discovery

The ACE part of the course is also divided into step-by-step lessons (which are interactive and even feature a ‘virtual’ pilot flying/pilot non-flying, who will flick switches and controls on their side of the cockpit) and ‘free play’/exploration type learning. Around 70% of the ACE course is lesson-based, with around 30% ‘limited free play’ with the instructor ‘facilitating discovery’.

This approach has benefits in that when students progress to the next level of training in either the ATP+ or FFS, the instructor need not waste time testing 80% competencies the student is fine with, but the 20% that they need help with.

Another indication of the new approach and training philosophy from Airbus is in grading and evaluation. For example, while the student’s every single mouse movements, key presses or interactions with the software could be easily recorded, tracked and measured to produce statistics of progress — it is not, since the training focus has now moved away from of ‘constant tests’. Instead, it has been found that giving students the space and time to make errors or mistakes in training is more beneficial.

During training, students can also take the ACE laptop home to practise in their free time and Airbus are also considering an affordable licensing option to allow pilots to permanently have the ACE training installed on their laptop — so they could in theory use it anytime in their career for refresher or recurrent training.


The fixed-base APT+ device made by CAE features throttles, sidesticks, rudders and visuals. 

Another improvement in the training tools is the Airbus Pilot Transition (APT+) (or as one Airbus insider noted “it's really a FFS minus”). The fixed- based device, built by CAE, uses large touch screens for the aircraft MFDs, centre console, and even overhead panel. However, it also includes real sidesticks, throttles and pedals — as well as (limited) visuals, allowing it to be ‘flown’ in representative training flights.

Indeed, such now is the improved fidelity of the FTD+ fixed-base system that those undergoing A330 conversion can transition from the A330 to the A350 in just eight days (provided they are current on the A330) and they do not even need to step inside the FFS. For those on the 23-day full type conversion course, time on the APT+ training consists of six days.

Full flight simulator

The FFS at Airbus’s training centre in Toulouse. 

Finally there is the full-flight simulator (FFS) — certificated to Level D compliance. The device, built, by CAE, features the latest in high-fidelity visuals. The motion system, too, is extremely realistic — especially when the aircraft's FBW protections and go arounds are being demonstrated.

While the A350 has much in common with the A380 cockpit — there are subtle improvements built-in to enhance safety and efficiency. For instance, information from the side EFB (electronic flight bag) displays can brought up on the centre console — so that both pilots can see it — highly useful when, for example, airport charts or electronic manuals are being consulted.

Another new feature for the A350 demonstrated in the FFS motion simulator was a new ‘soft’ go around thrust mode which gives sufficient power for the manoeuvre but is less dramatic. This is intended not only to provide a smoother experience for passengers but also to keep the crews mindset that this is a ‘normal’ operation — rather than an abnormal emergency, which can lead to pilots overcontrolling after a go around.

Back to ‘flying school’


Perhaps one of the biggest shake-ups on Airbus’s A350 XWB course, is that the full-flight simulator is introduced early in the course — on only day eight of the 23-day full conversion course. Says Captain Norden: “It puts the pilot in the ‘office’ as soon as possible.” Unofficially nicknamed ‘flying school’ in the begining by Airbus internal trainers, the early exposure to the full-up motion simulator, is aimed at demystifying FBW and showing how, despite the A350s advanced systems, it still obeys the same power and pitch laws as a Cessna. Indeed, it is conceivable that if the student is making progress in understanding the basics in the sim, they could be just told — ‘make a visual approach at that airport down there’. For those highly proficient students, the instructor can also introduce degraded aircraft conditions. In essence, this early session emphasises that the A350 is an aircraft first, computer second, rather than the other way around.

For those pilots without Airbus FBW experience, nine days out of the 23 day course are spent in the FFS, culminating in a skills test on the final day. The FFS also introduces four ‘scenario-based’ training sessions at the end of the course which give students complex, realistic and operational-style flights in the simulator. Overall, the aim of the course is to maximise the student’s time in the FFS for handling and realistic operational-style training.

Common type rating


However, the training course in not a ‘one size fits all’. Under Airbus’s Common Crew Qualification (CCQ) and Common Type Rating (CTR) rules — the length of the course varies depending on whether the trainee is coming from a non-Airbus background (23 days), is already qualified on the A320 family (11 days) or is current on the A330 (eight days). With 70% of A350 customers already operating the A330, this will be extremely useful for airline customers.

This ease of transition between the A350 and the A330/A320 is set to benefit airlines in the form of recurrent training allowing mixed fleet flying (MFF) with A320s and single fleet flying (SFF) with A330s. Swapping crews between types, it has been found, brings extra job satisfaction, avoids staleness and, crucially for the airline, brings huge flexibility in rostering and operations.



The aviation industry is, by nature, extremely conservative — and this sort of shake-up in training (though much-discussed in conferences and seminars) cannot be brought in unilaterally without official approval and certification by regulators. The Operational Evaluation Board process ran from July–September 2014 and involved four evaluators from ESA and the FAA, as well as 16 pilots from the EASA and FAA who tested the courses. The final test was an evaluation of the training course in a real aircraft, with 125 landings and 35hrs flown.

Feedback, says, Airbus has been overwhelmingly positive — with rave reviews from both regulators and customers. Statements like ‘Learning by Discovery: big thumbs up’, ‘It’s brilliant’, ‘Potential of the new learning tools is fantastic’, ‘Also a big thumbs up for the concept of first flying session in the FFS’ indicates that Airbus, is indeed, on the right path. By  December 2014 Airbus had trained 60 A350 pilots for its first customers — with Qatar taking delivery of its first XWB in December.

The way forward

Visuals inside the CAE-built A350 XWB FFS are of an extremely high standard — with moving traffic on roads below. 

But this new training approach will not be just limited to A350 training. Airbus plans to expand ACE to A330 training in 2015 and then across the A320 training family from 2016 — creating a new benchmark in type conversion training that is sure to be studied closely by the rest of the industry.

Another change from Airbus’ training centre, which first opened some 40 years ago, is that the company and its customers are now global. Says Fabrice Hamel, Vice-President Training Services: “20-30 years ago customers were happy to come to us in Toulouse. However, today, airlines have financial constraints and prefer to do their training nearby.” To that end, Airbus is set to expand its already impressive global training network with two new A350 centres set to open in 2015, one in Singapore (in conjunction with Singapore Airlines) and one in Mexico City. Airbus sees a short-term need for four-to-five A350 XWB full-flight simulators.

However, while ‘making learning fun’ may aid retention, efficiency and produce satisfied customers — it is clear that this ‘evidence-based training’ also requires a new mindset and approach from instructors. Much as the introduction of CRM revolutionised the concept of hierarchy and command on the flightdeck, so ‘facilitating discovery’ and non-judgmental training requires a new breed of training instructors — able to bring out the best in students — rather than slavishly seeing every session through a binary pass/fail prism. With this course, the focus is not simply on spotting students mistakes but finding the underlying reasons behind them, to concentrate on the relevant ‘core competencies’.

However, interestingly, talking to insiders, that culture change may be easier than one might think. Society at large has moved on and, as noted earlier, a revamp of airliner training has been well overdue.


Training revolution? The new A350XWB conversion course training will be expanded to other Airbus airliners. (Airbus)

In short, this new training model which features ‘learning by discovery’ is set to become the new benchmark for airliner type conversion — updating training from reading (and attempting to remember) thick manuals to the age of ‘learning by exploring’ technology that is now intuitive for the smartphone/iPad generation. However, critically, the early ‘flying school’ session also goes back to basics to remind pilots transitioning to the A350, that, however big and complex the glass cockpit displays, the aircraft still has wings and engines and will obey the laws of physics. It emphasises that FBW protection systems are an aid, not a replacement, for traditional piloting skills.

The functional training using the ACE laptop software also closely links theory and practice, breaking down complex systems into smaller digestible chunks of knowledge. Using a competency-based training approach means that the programme is based on the development of competencies. Says Fabrice Hamel of the A350 XWB course: “It is a fundamental change in the philosophy of training.”

Thus, while incorporating new tools and innovative learning methods, Airbus’s flight crew training also goes back to basics, reinforcing ‘pure’ flying skills and presenting students with realistic, operational scenarios — with the aim of giving 21st century A350 pilots the ace factor. 

20 February 2015