July 2020

Pilot training academies such as Skyborne has been created to meet the global demand for commercial airline pilots. Despite impact of COVID-19 on operators, the need for the next generation of pilots remains. Skyborne quickly modified its classroom syllabus to online learning which is proving highly effective during the lockdown.


Following the impact of lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, how long did it take to set up your online pilot training given that Skyborne is very technology-orientated training school already?

As it became increasingly clear the UK would enter lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our thoughts at Skyborne followed two key strands. First, how to ensure the safety of our trainees, staff and their families. Second, how to maintain continuity of education for our students so they weren’t left without direction or support.

Within one week in March, our team took our pilot training online. We set up a web portal called the Skyborne Virtual Airline Training Platform (VATP) so cadets could continue to receive their ATPL ground school lessons from home. This portal uses video conferencing, along with document and screen sharing capabilities to create a virtual classroom that students and flight instructors can check in to every day at an agreed time.

After submitting the platform to the UK Civil Aviation Authority, we received approval within 24 hours, with confirmation that all teaching would count towards the 750 hours of theoretical knowledge training our EASA Integrated and Modular ATPL students need to complete.

What were the challenges during the early weeks?

Moving to virtual classrooms for pilot training was a definite shift. It was perhaps a little harder at first for our instructors than for our younger cadets, who have grown up online in a digital space. Furthermore, people react differently when they are studying remotely – you can’t always read body language and it can be harder to engage or ask questions. However, day by day, we adjusted together.

One of the biggest changes we implemented in the early phases of the lockdown was to split up our teaching into more bitesize blocks, interspersed with breakout sessions and Q & A time. This helped boost concentration and keep conversation flowing for each topic. The pace of teaching is faster with online learning and we found that by keeping content manageable, our instructors and cadets engaged with each other more. Every week, we gather feedback from across the board and adapt the next week’s lessons accordingly.

Did you need to introduce any new software to ensure teaching and training methods were maintained in order to maintain grading standards etc.?

At Skyborne, we use Bristol Ground School training software for our ATPL programmes and this includes regular progress tests. While physically distanced from our trainees, these tests mean we can continually monitor and review their grades, highlighting any areas where they need a bit more time or support.

We then use Google Classrooms to supplement group lessons with valuable 1-to-1 time. If a cadet wanted to run through in more detail a Meteorology class covering cloud formation, for example, they could talk through a worksheet on this topic on a video call with their instructor. This session would test their level of understanding and knowledge, ensuring they were on track to maintain their grades and progress throughout the course.

With the lack of actual hands-on flying, how is this being addressed along with simulator time? What’s the plan for when the lockdown is lifted?

The aviation industry has been severely impacted by COVID-19, with long-term economic implications. Our instructors and management have been constantly monitoring the situation and adapting our training in line with government and local health authority advice. When lockdown and social distancing policies meant flying had to be put on hold, we focused on ATPL ground schoolwork, developing the skills and knowledge of our trainees ready for when core flight training could resume.

We also launched the Skyborne Skills Continuation Training commitment, providing all our EASA Integrated or Modular ATPL graduates from April 2020 with 12 months of free support after they finished their studies. This includes ongoing simulator training and revalidation of their Instrument Rating (IR) if they are not placed with an airline during this period. Ahead of airline selection, our graduates will also receive assessment preparation training to ready them for the interview process.

Despite the current industry challenges, I believe there are real reasons for optimism. The next generation of airline pilots will be the most resilient and adaptable cohort we’ve seen in decades. They will have experienced the joy of travel, and seen how aviation brings families, friends and loved ones together. They will have lived through drastic change and uncertainty but kept going. Most of all, they will be passionate and determined, helping shape the future of aviation for decades to come.

What’s been the feedback from the trainees, and will elements of what you have learnt during this process be continued in some way or form in the future?  

When I began my career 20 years ago, receiving ground school teaching from home would have been almost unthinkable. But innovation has always been at the heart of the aviation industry, and technology has fuelled rapid change.

I’ve been so impressed by the way our cadets adapted to remote learning. With their ground school syllabus already downloaded to their Skyborne-issued iPads, they turned their bedrooms, sofas and garages into offices, keeping up the routine and discipline we had already seen from them in person.

This has been the first big life event many of our trainees have experienced, with many born after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or being too young to remember the 2008 global financial crisis. It’s been encouraging to see how they’ve made a real effort to support each other throughout the lockdown, setting up group WhatsApp chats to help their classmates with particular topics, and team Zoom calls to keep morale high with quizzes and film nights.

Virtual learning won’t ever replace the value of face-to-face contact, particularly in pilot training, where you are developing the student’s character and work ethic as well as their practical skills and knowledge. But this experience has taught us a lot about how we can enhance our offering through technology, and we will be taking elements from our Skyborne virtual classrooms further to enrich the pilot studies of our future intakes.