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A review of ab initio pilot training

Philip R. Wallace
Royal Australian Air Force

The management of individual student learning is critical in courses such as Pilot training where expenses are high and resources scarce. To optimise this management function training processes must be founded on learning principles which promote sound learning in preparation of costly exercises. The possibility of utilising automated management systems, such as Computer Managed Instruction (CMI), should then be thoroughly studied in an effort to allow content specialists to concentrate on those tasks for which they have been primarily trained.

The Royal Australian Air Force undertakes to train approximately 136 applicants for Pilot course each year. The course of training comprises 210 hours of flying per student spread over 55 weeks and culminating in the awarding of Wings. The pass rate of this training, from the early courses in the 1920s up until today, has remained at around 50-55%; this figure is not grossly different to most other modem Air Forces. In an effort to improve this pass rate and accommodate the introduction of a new training aircraft, the Pilatus PC/9A, a review of Australian and overseas training methods has recently been carried out and a Pilot Training Design Team established to design and develop a revised course of training.

The initial review and subsequent design work has dealt in depth with one particularly crucial topic which I intend to discuss in this paper: how best to manage the learning of individual students. While the following discussion is founded on studies into Pilot training the issues are relevant to many training/education situations in industry today.

The management of individual student learning

Arguably the most important, but often overlooked, resource in training is the student. Training courses, such as Pilot training, which are extremely expensive and require the involvement of highly trained and scarce staff warrant ongoing investigations into how to better manage individual student reaming. These studies should be based on sound learning theories.

Designing for efficient learning

Efficient learning can be readily designed by the utilisation of modern learning theories. The RAAF places particular emphasis on the use of hierarchies of behavioural objectives and the "Systems Approach"; this enables flow charts of learning to be planned and supporting structures designed. The nub of the matter is that supporting structures are not easy to implement.

An instance where the implementation of modem learning theories has been very successful is that of Pilot training in the Royal Swedish Air Force (RSwAF). During the early 1970s the RSwAF were subject to pass rates in Pilot training of around 50%. At this time a decision was made to conduct a long term staff education program on modern learning theories with emphasis on McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y. Pass rates did not change dramatically in the first few years, however now the RSwAF is believed to have the highest pass rate of any modern military Pilot course, around 95%. Although there are many contributing factors which should be taken into account (eg. improved selection techniques), the Swedes themselves attribute much of the credit to the fact that students are now treated as individuals and their learning problems and needs are managed accordingly.

In Pilot training conducted by countries with a different culture to that of Sweden, the use of flying instructors to guide each students preparatory learning is not considered practicable, nor is the training of other personnel to do this task. Traditional programmed instruction has been attempted, notably by the RAF (UK), but this approach has failed to cope with the problem and consequently fallen into disfavour. Hence, the common method is one of students managing their own learning and often only seeking help in a crisis. The best chance of solving this problem at the present time appears to lie with the application of automated systems: Computer Based Training (CBT), in particular Computer Managed Instruction (CMI).

Potential use of CBT

There exists considerable potential within CBT to address the problems of managing the learning of individual students. However, the complexity of the necessary CMI for Pilot training is daunting and warrants a cautious and thorough investigation.; Fig 1 illustrates the complex network of instructional activities derived through task analysis as prerequisite to the first three training flights on course: GF 1-3. The approach which has been adopted for a study into the potential use of automation in Pilot training can be briefly described as follows:
  1. definition of the desired training process ie. flow charts of instructional events, etc.;

  2. listing of all management tasks required to enact the desired training process within the local training environment;

  3. definition of the spectrum of generic training management systems available, from a fully non- automated system to one in which there is automated integration of all training activities and resources;

  4. the application of the spectrum of systems to the list of management tasks; and

  5. selection of the optimum training management system.
An example of a system at the automated end of the spectrum of management systems is TIS (Training Integration System) currently underdevelopment by McDonnell Douglas Corp. for the US Navy. TIS will be used to manage almost all aspects of ab initio Pilot training on the T45 Goshawk intermediate stage jet trainer. TIS is a relational database with a predictive capability enabling it to manage student activities and supporting logistics eg. aircraft serviceability rates. TIS will be supported by AIS-II the McDonnell Douglas CBT System which the RAAF also uses in support of F/A- 18 training.

The applicability of CBT to aid the management of individual training depends largely on local constraints, therefore success in one situation does not imply success in another. Despite this, the development of TIS for the US Navy Pilot training program, and its recent purchase by Kuwait, suggests that CBT has a stake in the future development of expensive and complex training courses.


The management of individual student learning is a critical element of training systems and especially important where costs are high and resources scarce. Optimising the performance of this function requires analysis of local constraints/requirements and the application of sound learning theories.

Examples can be found which show that automation is not essential to the successful management of learning, however the potential benefits of using CBT as a tool of instructional staff should be acknowledged and related investigations conducted with an open mind.

Figure 1: Course map for GF 1-3

Figure 1


  1. Air exercises are those training activities carried out by Qualified Flying Instructors and involving 'hands on' flying skills.

  2. Preparation assistance is an instructional method aimed at providing guidance and revision material to students preparing for Air Exercises. The content is based entirely on the learning requirements of the relevant Air Exercises. Since not all students will be at the same point of training this method lends itself to individualised techniques.

  3. Mass Briefs use a traditional format classroom theory lesson. These sessions are designed to bring students to a comprehension/application level.

  4. These subjects are aimed at establishing prerequisite knowledge and skills for Air Exercises. In general, these skills are consolidated and extended during Mass Briefs.

Author: Philip Wallace BSc (RAAF Academy), Grad Dip EdTech is a Squadron Leader in the Education Category of the Royal Australian Air Force. He has worked in the field of Pilot training for the last five years. This time has included participation in a 12 month review of RAAF Pilot training involving visits to the US Navy, the RAF (UK), and the RSwAF (Sweden). Phil is currently a member of the Pilot Training Design Team which is working on the design and development of a revised ab initio Pilot course for the RAAF.

Please cite as: Wallace, P. (1988). A review of ab initio pilot training. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 37-39. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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