Are Future Pilots Ready for the Challenges That Lie Ahead?

“We’re traveling at 240 knots groundspeed over a distance of 12 nautical miles, how long is this going to take?”, I asked my group of student pilots during one of their first navigation courses.

Most of them reach for their calculator and start typing.

After about ten seconds I ask: “Did anyone come to a sensible result?”. Half of the class raises their hand. I point out one student and ask him what he came up with: “30 minutes sir!”. I ask who agrees. 2 other students raise their hand. The rest felt that the way I formulated that question probably meant that 30 minutes wasn’t the correct answer. “So, we are traveling at 240 nautical miles per hour, but it would take us half an hour to cover only 12 miles?”, I asked. Everyone starts re-inserting the data in their sophisticated calculators. “3 minutes, sir, I meant 3 minutes!”. That sounded more like it.

What is the problem here? I remember being eight and wanting nothing else than becoming an airline pilot. “To be a good pilot, you have to be a math genius and your eyesight needs to be perfect”, is what everyone replied as I shared my boyhood dream with them. My eyes were perfect but math was a bit more challenging. I did graduate from high school with math as one of my majors and felt aptly prepared for flight school. The basics were there. I did not need re-explanation about trigonometry, interpolation rules and the rule of three. I was aware of the importance of knowing an order of magnitude before solving a math problem. I quickly found out that you didn’t need to be a Steven Hawking to get through flight school. A solid basic understanding of high school math is enough.

And yet, I find myself in a classroom full of motivated bright, young people between 18 and 25 who are unable to come to a sensible answer to a seemingly simple question. It’s a trend I observed aggravating during my 9 years of instructing. I refuse, however, to sit in silence and grunt about how those new generation students are just plain stupid. They are not. They have great communicative skills, use great tools and apps to assist them in learning and most of them are extremely motivated. They are the people that will find the cockpits that are designed today by Boeing and Airbus very self-explanatory and intuitive. Boeing and Airbus are designing those cockpits especially for this generation.

But I do wonder if this trend is going to cause problems. New technologies have brought a shift of knowledge and skills, rather than an addition to it. And here lies the potential danger: we blindly trust on data that is presented to us by computers. The “mental gross error check” disappears. Our job exists nowadays for a very big part of working with a computer output after a data input. More than ever we need to have a notion of what are “sensible figures”. What we used to look up in tables and graphs has been replaced by an output figure with no context at all. This over-reliance combined with poor mental math skills could cause potentially dangerous situations in crucial phases of flight.

But still, I refuse to blame a full generation. If out of 25 people, 19 are unable to do this seemingly simple mathematics, there’s no point in just blaming them and moan about it in the instructor room. It means that the regulator, flight schools and instructors need to change their approach. High schools that deliver student pilots that score far below average on mathematics can’t be an excuse for flight schools to deliver professional pilots that do not possess the necessary skills. We need to move along with our times and mitigate the risks that they bring.

Flight schools could make the selections stricter but we have to understand that flight schools are commercial organizations that are there in the first place for the money. And there`s nothing wrong with that. EASA has recognized this issue and created “AREA 100: knowledge, skills and attitude”, that focuses, amongst other things on better mental arithmetic, but the proposition that is on the table does not require any official exams on that subject and greatly leaves the course content and the student evaluation in the hands of commercial organizations: the flight schools.

The final responsibility in better preparing pilots for the job will be with the flight schools and its instructors: we will have to pay extra attention to student`s levels of basic mathematics and intervene where necessary. Mandatory preparatory classes for those who fail entry tests, encouragement to do exercises without the help of calculators, math tutoring groups where stronger students help the weaker ones could be small steps in the right direction. Let`s hope that flight schools take their responsibility and create a generation of future pilots that is ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

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