Writer David Carr speaks with Flightline about its Canadian-first technology to deliver maintenance training around the world
Remote learning has been Flightline Training Services’ bridge to overcome the Covid-19 downturn for aircraft maintenance type training. Virtual will be how Canada’s approved training organizations (ATOs) such as Flightline will deliver the majority of courses in the future. Still, somebody had to go first.
“March 2020 was devasting for the airline industry,” says Phyl Durdey, chief executive of Toronto, Ontario based Flightline. “We had to cease training courses immediately, which jeopardized our contractual commitments with our customers.” Remote learning not only enabled Flightline to complete its existing course commitments, this opened the door to new and endless opportunities.
Prior to Covid, Flightline was already developing an advanced remote learning tool with its virtual reality platform. “We had to position an instructor to northern Manitoba for 90 minutes in order to certify one student on a practical course,” Durdey recalls. “This situation pressed our team to bring forward a different and unprecedented type of course delivery.”
The pandemic accelerated the remote training process. Where a great number of ATOs had temporarily or permanently ceased all activities, Flightline’s staff were advising its customers that their ATO remained in operation and was offering approved training courses remotely. Industry changing seismic events are nothing new for Durdey, a former Canadian Forces Dash 8 instructor.
He started Flightline in 2001 after losing his position at FlightSafety International in the aftermath of 9/11. Durdey’s years of experience as an instructor showed him the missing link in the marketplace; namely affordability among ATOs and improving flight safety by making type training available to more mechanics.
“I listened to my customers,” he says. “Maintenance training can become a substantial financial burden. We brought the training to the customer’s facility and made it more cost effective for the operators. Based on our tuition structure, we enable our customers to train a greater number of technicians. As a result, the customer has more maintenance staff in the hangar with signing authority on the airplane. This can improve their operation significantly.”
Bandwidth has now replaced on-site course delivery across all borders. On a recent course for an eastern Canada-based customer, technicians were located in multiple locations across North America, while the instructor was teaching from Germany. Reaching this point did not come without challenges. Durdey presented Flightline’s first remote learning course to students at a western-based company in April 2020, talking into the camera in front of a whiteboard. The reviews were mixed. The raw material was there and students learned about the aircraft, but they found the experience impersonal. That’s when Flightline notched it up by introducing Green Screen, the Academy Award winning technology first introduced to Hollywood in the 1940s. Today’s Green Screen, or chroma keying, inserts instructors into recorded video or digitally transferred images for a more comprehensive learning experience.
Flightline is the only maintenance ATO in Canada to enhance its courses with Green Screen technology. The graphics department has already built a virtual fleet of 14 aircraft based at a simulated airport with hangar and engine bay where students can explore the aircraft in a virtual environment. For a recent proposal to a government organization, a virtual reality CL-415 waterbomber was developed. The client was very impressed by the ability to walk around and examine the aircraft.
At the onset of Covid-19, Flightline worked closely with its inspector at Transport Canada to overcome a hurdle associated with remote learning. The regulator did not have any processes governing remote learning for aircraft maintenance. When Transport Canada did publish an Internal Processes Bulletin (IPB), Flightline was approved within 24 hours, as the bulletin was based on the Flightline model. To support the regulator, Flightline produced a 60-page guideline on how to effectively do remote training. “It meant hanging out our dirty laundry to prove what works and what didn’t,” Durdey admits.
“I can’t express how proud I am of our staff and the impressive work they have done,” Durdey says. “We had a good year last year, even with the pandemic, because of the way everybody has stepped up.” As the aviation industry rebounds and Flightline adds more airplanes to the virtual reality fleet, the company is looking forward to even better years ahead.
Flightline offers 237 courses on 40 aircraft. The majority are Transport Canada or European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) approved, including type, familiarization courses and Level 4 in-depth training. With over 45 trainers posted around the world, a location in South Africa and training campus in Nairobi, the ATO serves customers in 65 countries. Remote learning will continue to drive growth, as will Flightline’s attention to detail. Whereas most ATOs typically equip students with an iPad, Flightline provides laptops because the larger screen is better for teaching schematics and easier for students to manipulate. To support remote learning, Flightline added a second monitor so the student can have the training manual on one screen and the instructor on a second.
Prior to Covid-19, almost 100 per cent of Flightline’s training was completed at the operator’s facility. The company estimates it paid more than $300,000 a year on air fares alone. Durdey, who once spent over 32 weeks a year on the road, hasn’t delivered a course at customer’s facility in over 18 months and doesn’t see a need to do so in the future. A stumbling block to going 100 per cent virtual is the last mile; the five per cent of practical training Transport Canada insists must be completed on the airplane before it signs off. Overcoming that final hurdle is inevitable.
“Virtual reality, if it is done properly is an amazing tool because we can show students parts of the aircraft that they would otherwise never see until they’re operational,” Durdey says. “How can that not be more effective training.”