WisBusiness: Company preps pilots for tough weather conditions
By Danielle Brown
MADISON – On July 16, 1999 John F. Kennedy Jr., as well as his wife and sister-in-law, died after the plane Kennedy was flying crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Most experts agree that hazy weather conditions and decreased visibility caused problems beyond Kennedy’s skill level as a pilot.
The crash is a high-profile study of what happens when pilots are not equipped with the proper training to take on undesirable weather. Typically, weather simulation during training is an afterthought, with more emphasis being placed on mechanical failures and other challenges.
The Pilot Training System has set out to close the gap on pilot training simulations. Developed by Chris Johnson, a doctoral student at the UW-Madison, the Pilot Training System uses a historical weather database to create unique training scenarios for pilots. The program is designed to plug in to existing simulators and be sold to flight schools and flight simulation manufacturers.
“This represents a change in thinking,” Johnson said. “It was always mechanical first, now weather is the first priority.”
The Pilot Training System not only focuses on weather-related challenges, but it also simulates the pre-flight experience, which contains a weather briefing, something that is not included in current training programs.
Another issue Johnson addressed with his new system was the issue of academic integrity. Commercial airlines spend millions of dollars developing one training scenario for their new pilots and because of the cost only develop a handful of scenarios their pilots might pass before being allowed to fly.
“Because there are only a few canned scenarios the pilots tell each other about them,” Johnson said. “There are blogs on the Internet explaining what happens in each scenario.”
“Another problem is that most often pilots train in good weather, but once they get their license they can fly in any weather,” Johnson explained.
Johnson began working on this project five years ago at the University of Illinois when the Federal Aviation Administration awarded his advisor, Doug Wiegmann, a grant to address the problem of pilots flying in inclement conditions beyond their skill level. Johnson had been working with Wiegmann since receiving his master’s degree at the University of Illinois. After two years the University of Illinois shut down its aviation program so Wiegmann and Johnson brought their research and funding to the UW-Madison. Johnson enrolled in the PhD program in January 2010 and will graduate later this year. During the transition from Illinois to Wisconsin, Johnson also taught flight school in Chicago.
The move north for Johnson, his advisor and his research funding is another sign of the growing aviation industry in Wisconsin. Kestrel Aircraft Corp. recently announced movement of its headquarters and production facility to Superior, and the $245.6 million of Wisconsin aerospace exports indicate that aviation is one of Wisconsin’s growing industries.
After receiving his degree, Johnson hopes to focus his time on developing his business as well as post doctoral work. He has already received assistance from several resources on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus including the Entrepreneur Resource Center, the Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic and he received an Entrepreneurship Training Program grant from the Small Business Development Center that helped him make the transition from research to business.
Johnson hopes his training system will solve many of the problems in current pilot training systems and maybe even save lives.
“It is important to develop a high fidelity, scenario-based training system that is founded on innovation,” Johnson said.
-- Brown is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.