There is an old saying in the Education field, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” For many years that line has held true. Despite this adage, it would be argued by me that, “The only stupid question is the one never asked …until it is too late.” And that is just not right.
In the (hopefully) final days of the COVID-19 scare, ideas have been presented in the aviation industry that aviation schools should move to decrease stand-alone (instructor classroom) instruction and replace/increase virtual instruction (VI), where students attend class through personal computers and the internet. It is floated as a ‘back-up’ plan, just in case, COVID continues to hang around, like a viral version of Jar-Jar Binks. COVID is the mystical magical virus that will suddenly disappear around Thanksgiving 2020, where someone at the table is bound to say, “Hey, do you remember a couple of weeks ago when we had to wear masks and maintain social distancing? Strange, huh?” Yeah, strange.
Back-up plans never seem to go away. Not emergency plans, like how to survive a Chicxulub asteroid strike, but back-up plans. Some back-up plans are good, e.g. buying a generator because of New Hampshire ice storms, while other back-up plans are not. They evolve into the norm, what we must do if we, as a society, are expected to survive the … (insert emotionally packed, crazy reason here). And that is the shame of it, that aviation, as one of the most noble industries the past century produced, might abandon common sense Training/Instructing just because we are afraid … no, conditioned, to fear being in the same room with more than three people.
My wife teaches 7th and 8th grade students. This past March the middle and high schools shut their brick-and-mortar doors; teachers taught virtually. There was a learning curve for high school age students as VI was introduced. The big negatives for VI were not the teachers’ instruction obstacles; they were student discipline. Parents, suddenly stuck in the same house with their little angels, surrendered to every whine and temper tantrum. The Department of Education, in its questionable wisdom, decided no student could fail. 7th through 12th grade students did not test because VI teaching upset their tender sensibilities. Video game proficiency replaced class work. And they all graduated to the next grade.
Colleges did not have better luck; thousands of students were restricted to the dorms for the closing months of the semester. Summer enrollment dropped. Classroom instruction adapted to the VI concept, which lacked the quality of classroom instruction. The problem was that high school and college students lost the structure that school schedules offered. Did some of these high school and college students engage in the civil unrest that has rocked our country since May? Could be. Would major cities have burned if students were in school? It is likely that students who studied … say, American History, would not have attacked Memorials like the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts for being … racist (???).
College age youth, fresh from high school, attend Trade Schools, e.g. aircraft maintenance (A&P) schools. Per Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 147.21 General Curriculum Requirements states that to acquire an Airframe (A) certificate requires 750 hours of Airframe-specific classroom instruction; a Powerplant (P) certificate requires 750 hours of Powerplant-specific classroom instruction. Both or either require 400 hours of General classroom instruction. Each A&P technician today had received 1900 hours of certification classroom instruction. Would A&P schools lobby the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ease up on the required face-to-face classroom attendance hours in favor of VI, to prevent exposure to COVID-20, -21, -22 …?
For the time being, tech schools are not – cannot – eliminate the brick and mortar school. Why? Because there are still required hands-on labs. But, how far off are virtual labs? The technology exists to sit on a Florida beach while living in the Arctic, how long before we substitute real engine rebuilding with virtual versions in the lab. What would be the benefit of that?
In truth, brick and mortar buildings are disappearing. Companies like Circuit City have surrendered their classic building showroom for the cost-savings, e.g. rent, employee benefits, warehousing space, etc. for the dot-com. No doubt brick-and-mortar represents a heavy cost for the retail industry, but aviation is not a retail format. No links to click or search engines to use. One must turn a wrench or fly by instruments. Why? Because learning comes from INTERACTION; there is no substitute for it. One must get their hands dirty in order to learn. Virtual is too easy and it is not right.
Back in the early 1990s, my airline invested heavily in initial computer-based training (CBT) – an early version of VI – for its hundreds of pilots and mechanics. The airline converted a large room; one side of the room had dozens of computer monitors for pilots to train, the other side had dozens of monitors for mechanics and a small hall separated both kingdoms. If a monitor was inactive for fifteen minutes, a company logo screen saver bounced across the monitor. Many nights after work, I stood in the hallway, glancing left and right, seeing dozens of sleeping employees, as the company logo lazily bounced across the monitors. Despite happening decades ago, strict CBT was ineffective; it lacked INTERACTION.
The classroom instructions I took since the Eighties as an aircraft mechanic, as a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, as an FAA inspector, they were effective, not only because of the Instructors’ experiences, but because of the discussions that took place between students about the lesson material. Even as an A&P instructor, as an instructor at the FAA Academy or the NTSB Academy, learning was enhanced because students and instructors learned by speaking about their experiences, by interacting, by exchanging ideas and solutions.
Question: How would it be decided we should get back to pre-COVID stand-alone school instruction? Who decides? Would the trade schools push to go back? The problem is that once a regulation exemption is granted, how do we put the toothpaste back in the tube? Look what fun we are having with state Governors refusing to return to any semblance of pre-COVID-19 economies. Or maybe we would trust the hundreds of conflicting health experts who cannot remember what they said from Monday to Wednesday.
I have taught stand-alone classes; I have seen the conversion from stand-alone to VI. My opinion is it would not work, especially with high school graduates; they lack the discipline to learn in a VI trade school environment. Furthermore, they would not know how to transfer from a VI environment to the workforce; their work ethic would be irreparable. Students would be confined in four wall sterile environments, scattered across many miles, distracted by their cellphones and social media. Instructors would answer questions via texts with no controls, no discipline. Any Interaction would become non-existent.
Could regulation exemptions be abused? Sure, non-exempted regulations are abused all the time. The FAA exists to oversee certificate holders, e.g. technical schools, to assure regulations – the laws – are followed. Over a decade ago an A&P school was shut down, its owners imprisoned. Why? Because they were graduating unqualified technicians with A&P certificates. Aside from other issues, many of the new A&Ps could not speak, read or write English. Title 14 CFR 65.71(a)(2), Eligibility Requirements: General, has stated (since 1962), “To be eligible for a mechanic certificate [A and/or P] and associated ratings, a person must — be able to read, write, speak and understand the English language, or in the case of an applicant … certificate endorsed ‘Valid only outside the United States.’” This is the law. English is our primary language. By abusing the regulation, the guilty school made our industry unsafe.
Unfortunately, for a certificate holder to save money, the temptation to break the law can be a driving force. How much easier would it be to work around the system if the FAA approves VI on a permanent basis? Who would be flying our airliners? Who would be maintaining them? Would the flying public trust aviation again?
VI would be the easy thing to do. But would it be the right thing to do? We would end up with a generation of pilots and mechanics socially incapable of working with others, making undisciplined decisions without making the required effort. We would have a workforce with a high school mentality; we would have nothing. And that is just not right.
“Nothing is easy. But who wants nothing?” President Donald Trump