Podcast: Back To School

Aviation maintenance training was forced to embrace digital learning during the pandemic. As the industry recovers and restrictions loosen on travel and group settings, will remote learning remain popular? Will the industry embrace investment into new technologies for training? Which focus areas will be crucial for technician training and reskilling as fleets change post-pandemic? 

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Rush transcript:

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Welcome to Aviation Week's MRO podcast. I'm Lindsay Bjerregaard, MRO editor for the Americas. Over the last year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic forced aviation maintenance technician training to adapt quickly to new circumstances. Schools had to quickly implement technologies for online learning and testing, as the world was in lockdown. With many Part 147 schools beginning their fall semester soon, today's podcast will examine what technician training will look like in the future, and whether these new learning methods will continue. Joining me today are Robert Grochowski, CEO of ALL4JETS, and Crystal Maguire, executive director of the Aviation Technician Education Council, or ATEC. Thank you both for joining me.

                                    So Robert, I know that ALL4JETS has its own maintenance training organization. How did you use technology during the pandemic to continue training students around the world?

Robert Grochows...:      When the pandemic starts, all of the training organizations switch, of course, for the distance training, it was obvious. Using many different communicators, even like Teams, Zoom and the others, it was able to still continue the training. Of course, it was necessary to receive the approval from the local CAA to provide such a training, because the organization need to prove that we are having the proper software, we train the students, we trained our instructor how to do that. But in my opinion, it's not enough. So, as a company, we switch, most probably, five years ago for the system which is allowing for us, as well, the online examination. And we introduced a special software, which is totally managing all activities in a training center, starting from the digital folders for the instructors, the approvals and authorizations. We are keeping the folders with the training materials. We are able to manage all of the questions in a digital format. We are able to generate the exams in a digital format. And, as well, the students are able to join for the exam through the laptop computer, in, let's say, online examination methods.

                                    Before the pandemic we was doing, and we was using this system during the stationary exam, which means that the student was in the class, but they were not using the papers, they were using the laptop computers, connected through the internet to our server, and answering for the questions. During the pandemic time, these stationary exams, of course, was not possible. It was prohibited to put in one class, for example, the twenty students together. So we apply for the Polish CAA, for the exemptions from the EASA approval, from the EASA regulation, as regarding the distance examinations, and we put a lot of the energy and the effort to create the new procedures, new software, which allows for us, as well, the distance examinations.

                                    So to be honest, I think that we was the only one organization in the whole EASA world which was approved for the distance examination as well. Unfortunately, this approval finished last month. Now we are applying to the CAA for the extension, and maybe even for the regulation change, because we have a lot of experience proving that this kind of distance examination is providing even better safety and quality for all of the students, examiner, and is giving much more flexibility for everybody and reducing the costs. So basically, this the sum of the effects of the COVID pandemic, as regarding the ALL4JETS trainings.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Wonderful. Thank you, Robert. And Crystal, I know that ATEC works closely with many Part 147 schools in the US, so based on what you've heard from members, how would you say that the transition to remote learning went in the US and do you expect that method to stick around post COVID?

Crystal Maguire:           Yeah. Thanks, Lindsay. Thanks for having me. Well, I'll say it was forced upon us, because like Robert said, there wasn't a whole lot of online learning in this sphere, which is understandable, it's a very hands-on career choice and our students want to be in the classroom. So coming into the pandemic, there are 181-ish Part 147 schools in the US, and I believe around five of them had some sort of online delivery of content. So very, very small percentage. After the pandemic came around, we grappled with the agency much like Robert did with EASA. The agency was really quick to come, like it was with a lot of air agency certificate holders, to come to their inspector workforce and provide some relief, as far as the inspector workforce’s ability to approve temporary authorization for distance learning delivery, so we had a lot of schools that took advantage of that.

                                    I was actually pulling some old numbers. It looks like, back in September, we had around 60% of schools that had some sort of approval to deliver content online, likely temporary. That has ticked up a little bit, we're closer to 70% now, so huge, major shift. And by and large, they were hybrid. What they were trying to do, if allowed, mostly by their state and local authorities, is they would do, like Robert said, all of the assessment, all of the lecture would be online, and then they would bring their students in for in-person lab work. So that was the recipe that worked for schools that could get students into the classroom in small groups, that seemed to work.

                                    And talk about some silver linings, when you ask about whether the schools will maintain some of it, I would say... We surveyed, right, "Are you going to get temporary authorization to provide content online?" And 20% of the schools said, "No way. We're not doing it." So I expect that you'll have some schools that will maintain the status quo after we get everybody back in the classroom, but there has been a lot of innovation, as Robert, I'm sure, could attest to, in a very short amount of time.

Robert Grochows...:      Yeah.

Crystal Maguire:           Even the trade association, through its nonprofit, is working on virtual reality simulations that would provide instruction for skills that the students need in the general part of the curriculum. So if there are things that we can teach online, and we're starting to find out, right, what those things are, maybe it's weight and balance, maybe it's fluid lines and fittings, basic electricity, right, some of those things we can simulate online and provide, again, another resource, another tool. And the schools are really, I would say, adaptive to that, and eager to adopt those types of technologies, because they're seeing a lot of benefit, right?

                                    Not only are they able to get through pandemic related challenges, but they're also able to reach students that they wouldn't otherwise reach, geographic barriers and such. So to answer your question, I think it was a rough transition, given how many schools were doing any type of online training, but now that they were forced into it, we're going over a year now, I think a lot of the things... Because we've invested a lot too, right? We've invested in a lot of tools and resources, and I think that's something that a majority of the schools will keep doing.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Speaking of the new technologies, and I know you mentioned virtual reality and that sort of thing. Robert, I'm curious, is that something that ALL4JETS has also started to look into, in terms of implementing new technologies, even for students who might be in the classroom?

Robert Grochows...:      Okay. Basically, we introduced the new technology, as regarding the virtual reality. To be honest, it was the subject which was interesting us. Many years ago I participated in some different presentation of the virtual reality, prepared by some different organization, and I discovered that a lot of the effort is put to create the virtual model of the aircraft. But to be honest, I'm working still as an instructor and as a qualified mechanic on aircraft, and I discovered that we don't really need to, for example, simulate the feelings, like the power feeling or force feeling, when I'm keeping or having the wrench in my hands, so for that reason, we created the panoramic photos.

                                    These photos are supporting the instructors during the practical and theoretical training. So we created these panoramic photos for the several aircraft types, and we are able to provide, or share, during the theoretical or practical training, the panoramic models of the aircraft, the electronic compartments. We are now creating, as well, the simulators of some of the aircraft systems that, as well, the students can play, for example, with some of the switches, some of the keys inside the cockpit, so that will allow much more, better flexibility.

                                    And what we are recognizing, that our students, which, when they are doing the type training, in 80%, they are the mechanics which are doing the second or the third aircraft type, they are not the guys which are doing the first aircraft type training. Which means that, if we are having the mechanic who has the experience, and he was working on at least one aircraft type, it's very important to provide for him the information about the component locations. Because, how the systems works, he basically knows, because the aircraft systems are very similar between the airplanes. For example, the landing gear system, the electrical system, the navigation system, they are now so complex, on many different aircraft types, that there is some differences, small differences, but it's not something completely new for the person who is having the one aircraft type in the license.

                                    So we are putting a lot of the power to support these people, showing for them where the components are located. For that reason, these panoramic photos are completely enough. We can create the high resolution pictures for them, we can create the virtual environment. So we can, let's say, rotate the head inside the compartment, we can make a Zoom and we can open some of the element to show them what is inside, for example, the avionics box, or how to, let's say, make some of the simple operations, so this is the kind of, let's say, virtual simulator we are now using in ALL4JETS.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         That's fantastic, Robert. Thank you. Obviously, there's a lot of new technology available to do different types of training for aircraft mechanics, and aside from that, we're also having way more new types of aircraft. So, Crystal, I know, here in the US, that Congress has directed the FAA to update its Part 147 regulations, to modernize the curriculum being taught to A&P students, so could you maybe talk about how that's going to impact technician training moving forward, in terms of new opportunities for students to use technology during their training and that sort of thing?

Crystal Maguire:           Some of the challenges that Robert had mentioned, with EASA and trying to get approvals, I mean, we experienced the same thing here. Even though the FAA was quick to let its inspector workforce know, "Be easy on these schools, and make sure that they have what they need in order to get up and running online," you still have a regulation to deal with and inspector guidance. So, a lot of challenges. In fact, when we surveyed our folks, the schools said one of the number one barriers to getting content up and running online was the regulator, right? And that's not something that we want to hear, because we were already in a tough situation. Folks are trying to innovate to get their content up and running, we're trying to remove the barriers there to allow the schools to do what they need to do.

                                    Parallel, right, nothing to do with COVID, there was a big advocacy effort by the trade association, and our association partners, to reform Part 147. I've been working with the agency on that for a long time. It's been in rulemaking for, I think, five years now, off the top of my head five years. Eventually, Congress got involved and we got a direct rule in the American Recovery Act, in December, that basically tells the FAA to remove the current Part 147, replace it with language that we, as a community, drafted. So with regard to distance learning and innovation, it will open the doors for schools. It's a performance-based rule, it's going to rely on the Airman Certification Standards as the standard by which a student is expected, what they should know, say and do, in order to get certificated. The FAA will still test those students to ensure that they have the skill and knowledge needed to hold a mechanic certificate.

                                    Otherwise, the agency won't have a lot of say in the educational components at a school, including the manner in which the content is delivered. So a school can deliver the content in person, can deliver the content online, whatever way that the school deems, under its approved, accredited system. Nearly all of these schools are accredited through a Department of Education quality system, through their accreditor. So we think it will really open the doors. We're not going to have the schools having to be going to their local office to ask for approval to deliver a lecture that they could deliver in a classroom, delivering it online. Under the new rule, and performance-based, like I said, the FAA will still come in the school and look at things like materials and equipment, instructor qualifications, the types of things that are specific and important to ensure aviation safety, which is the role of the Federal Aviation Administration, and leave the educational components, such as the manner of delivery, in the hands of the overseer at the Department of Education.

                                    That rule was supposed to be promulgated, as directed by Congress, in March of this year, 2021. Now we're in August, so that date has come and gone, but according to the last Department of Transportation regulatory agenda, that direct rule was scheduled to be published in November. So I'm really excited about the reforms, not to mention curriculum mandates, subject area, subject mandates, seat time mandates that are in the current rule, that will not be in the new rule. So distance learning is certainly one piece of a whole lot of different opportunities that are going to be available to the school. So part of when the schools come to us and say, "Should we apply for permanent distance learning authorization?" Absolutely, you should, it's going to be easier to get now than it may have before, because you've been doing this for a little while. But I know a lot of schools are also waiting around for that rule to come by, because once the new rule is promulgated, they won't have to have that same approval on their operation specifications that they do now.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Great. Thanks, Crystal. Aside from implementing new technologies when it comes to modernizing the curriculum, I'm curious what both of you think is going to be crucial long term for updating the actual subject matter. Whether it's skills for new types of aircraft, or different areas that are gaining traction in aviation maintenance, what do you think future technicians are going to need to focus on with their learning skills here, as we move forward with modernizing the curriculum? And maybe, Robert, you can start.

Robert Grochows...:      Okay. So, the new technology which is coming with the new aircraft, I will divide into two elements. The one is the new structure, because we are recognizing a lot of the composite is coming as a basic structure for the new aircraft, so we need new skills as regarding to play with this technology. And the second, new avionics system. We can recognize this progress everywhere, even in your cars. Yes, the new systems are coming, the liquid crystal displays instead of the analog indicators, the new ways of the communication between the systems. So it means that we need to learn the mechanics, the two new elements, how to work with the new materials, new structures of the airplane, and how to play with the new avionics system.

                                    This is the completely two different elements of the learning, because the structures need a lot of the practical training and assessment. And to be honest, I see that this is the place when the mechanics will be doing the specialization. Because I don't believe that any mechanic who will be the type trained, for example, for the 787, it will be the mechanic who will be able to do by himself, without any support with the specialist from the composite structure to do, let's say, the structural repair. For sure, this person need to have very detailed, carefully training to do the composites repair. So we can provide, during our trainings, the general knowledge about that, but it's still not enough. To be a good structural repair mechanics, they need to have very good specialization.

                                    The second element, the new avionics system, and playing with the new avionics technology, is a little easier, because it's possible to simulate a lot of the systems using the applications. We are cooperating, for example, with some local IT companies, providing for them the logic, how the system should behave. We are developing, let's say, the simulator of such systems, and we are able to train the avionics guys in our training center. Basically, these guys which are able to work with this avionics system later on, we are recognizing that they don't need any specific training. Usually, they are good prepared to directly work with the real aircraft.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Thank you, Robert. Crystal, was there anything you wanted to add, in terms of what skills future technicians are going to need to learn?

Crystal Maguire:           Our curriculums, as we know in the US, are sorely outdated, and we've been, rightly so, blaming really outdated regulation. Soon we'll have a new rule, we won't have these outdated curriculum requirements. So I think that the educational community is excited for the challenge, and up to the task, but we'll have a lot of work to do to get our classes in order, such that the students coming out of them know a little bit more than they do today about the day to day. The curriculums will be based, like I mentioned before, on the Airman Certification Standards, which are still not where they need to be, as far as aligning with actual needs, especially in commercial aviation for new mechanics, but it will get there. And the schools will have the ability, the flexibility to adopt new training cycles, and those sorts of things, to get students up and running. We'll see how it goes. I think it'll take a little while, but I'm really excited for the opportunity for the schools to be able to expand their programs beyond what they did before, with the old regulation.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Thanks, Crystal. I think that's a good place to wrap things up, so thank you to both of you for sharing your insights with us today. Listeners, if you have any comments, feel free to contact us at [email protected]. You can download and subscribe to Aviation Week's MRO Podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. Thank you for listening and joining us.


Lindsay Bjerregaard

Lindsay Bjerregaard is managing editor for Aviation Week’s MRO portfolio. Her coverage focuses on MRO technology, workforce, and product and service news for AviationWeek.com, Aviation Week Marketplace and Inside MRO.