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Embry-Riddle trims student start-to-solo time by 30 percent

Aviation English Coordinator Andrew Schneider demonstrates the use of the virtual Air Traffic Control Lab at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Daytona Beach campus in Florida. (Photo courtesy of Embry-Riddle/Ginger Pinholster.)

Embry-Riddle announced on January 21 that its new VR private pilot training program has yielded impressive results. Fifty-eight students enrolled in the program reduced their time to solo by more than 30 percent, compared to students who had not gone through the VR training course.

The curriculum, known as PILOT, or Pre-flight Immersion Laboratory for Operations Training program, was launched in the fall of 2021 and works to “increase capacity by increasing efficiency,” said Alan Stolzer, dean of the College of Aviation at ERAU Daytona Beach. Incoming private pilot students will spend the first four weeks of the program learning preflight, checklist, and flight school procedures in a VR environment. Here, they can practice a variety of tasks ranging from identifying a possible problem during preflight to landing the Cessna 172.

The VR training program, which is offered at no additional cost to students, was born out of necessity. ERAU, one of the most prominent aviation universities in the world, has a desperate need to accommodate more students. “We’re strapped really with limited capacity for airspace… airport capacity those types of things. We run into that all the time… as do other folks in flight training,” said Kenneth Byrnes, assistant dean and flight department chairman at ERAU Daytona Beach. Although this problem is not new to Embry-Riddle, Byrnes said “something [had to] change the status quo.”

Byrnes and his team spent the summer reorganizing their expansive curriculum to emphasize their VR training program.

“We took basically every oral and simulator activity and we moved it to the front of the curriculum. Then we augmented the flying aspect of virtual reality because we knew it would be realistic and we knew there’s no weather cancellations. If we can give [the students] a whole indoctrination into everything associated with getting your private pilot’s [certificate] to prepare them for that airplane they can make good use of that airplane,” said Byrnes.

Although the implementation of VR technology is relatively new to ERAU, several universities such as the U.S. Air Force Academy have been utilizing a similar training program for years. Byrnes said the program is “fairly mature,” and “just had to be customized a bit to our curriculum.”

After four weeks of learning and implementation in the PILOT program, Byrnes said students will “fly every day, whereas traditionally they wouldn’t fly that often. We’ve given them all the information they need, all the tools and practice, to start applying new skills in an actual airplane environment before they ever get there.”

Kayla Hughes, a flight instructor at ERAU, has taken notice of the new PILOT program.

“A traditional private student would learn preflight for the first time on the ramp with an instructor in a loud, hot, distracting environment, whereas a new VR student will learn to preflight through a programmed lesson at their own pace in a cool, quiet environment and not at the cost of an instructor or occupying a valuable aircraft resource,” said Hughes. “My first VR student-led their first preflight, and I focused on enhancing the knowledge they already processed. A VR student will experience almost every aspect of flight training prior to flying for the first time.”

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