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Aircraft simulator at heart of United Airlines
training efforts

United Airlines upgrades its onboard training program
with unique a/v systems and Sharp LCD projectors.

The idea of multi-media instruction is talked about in many corporations. But staff at the United Airlines Training Center take the concept very seriously. The Center, located in Elk Grove, Illinois, is where the airline trains all of its new flight attendants.

In a seven-week introductory class, staff use almost every type of instructional media, but they don't stop there.

"It's a very, very intense program, " says Doug Tulp, Senior Staff Rep for Instructional Design for United's Onboard Service Training Division. "Hours are long, and we have a nice mix of computer-based, video and classroom training. But for us, that's not enough. We need a place for students not only to learn the material in a classroom environment, but to practice what they learn and be tested. "

For this reason, the centerpiece of the facility is a fully operational mockup of a Boeing 747 passenger cabin. This cabin trainer and its video system help provide hands-on instruction in a way that few corporate training programs can come close to.

United uses this cabin trainer primarily for instruction in food preparation and presentation, passenger safety equipment demos and customer interaction.

Two older simulators, now being upgraded with similar video systems, are also used in these curricular areas, with several more at nearby O'Hare Airport used for instruction in emergency procedures.


A unique learning experience

The new cabin trainer is unique for the airline in two ways. First, it is complete in every detail, offering trainees a fully operational galley, aircraft video and audio systems, and first class, business class and economy class sections. Second, its elaborate video system allows instructors to show demonstrations taking place on board the simulator to large groups in an adjoining classroom.

United Airlines updates their 747 training simulator with Sharp LCD projectors A typical session using the cabin trainer includes 10 to 30 students. It begins in the classroom with a short lecture, viewing of a videotape, and discussion. Then the class will move into the simulator. Most often the instructor will demonstrate the topic at hand, whether that's preparing a meal, showing passengers the use of safety equipment or role playing customer interactions. Then the students practice the skills learned.

One problem that United has long faced is the limited space for student observers in an airline galley or aisle. To offer as realistic an experience as possible, United instructors have wanted to do the demonstrations and practice sessions in their cabin trainers, but have not, until now, been able to allow a whole class to watch them at once. They also have long understood the value of self- and class-critiques of practice sessions. Now they can pick up the various sessions with color cameras mounted in each of the cabin's zones and send them to a switcher, VCR and large-screen monitor at the instructor's station. Students can watch the sessions live from the classroom, and instructors can play back the videos for student review or their own evaluation.

Evaluation is important in itself. United students must pass a series of tests before they are allowed to leave the program and start on the job. Center staff evaluate and videotape each student, one-on-one, in the cabin trainer, recording their ability to perform and to react professionally in a number of situations.


The installation and the audio/visual system

United Airlines has used cabin simulators for training for many years. The alternative, says Tulp, is to use real aircraft, which is very expensive, or to forgo hands-on training, "which was never an option. " Real aircraft, though once commonly used in training, became almost impossible to schedule in the '80s and '90s, as aircraft utilization increased dramatically.

The Center's staff began planning the construction of the 747 cabin trainer in 1995, because they saw an increased need for training new flight attendants for service on international flights, which use these large planes. They took the opportunity, at this time, to address a number of deficiencies in the trainers they were already using, including the need for the video system.

The challenges involved in building the a/v system included fitting it unobtrusively into the on-board environment, providing for the convenience of the instructors and students, and offering the flexibility to work in the various conditions that would be used to simulate a real aircraft at work.

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One interesting detail of the video system is the use of a Sharp LCD projector in the first class section. A real airliner would include a three-tube projector specially built to withstand the G- forces and vibration encountered in flight. The cost of such projectors is very high, and the special construction is not needed for the cabin trainer. United found they were able to get very good pictures and interface to the airliner VCRs with the lower- cost Sharp, while staying close to the look and feel of the on-board projectors.

The image quality coming from the LCD projector allows instructors to use it in two ways. While the primary purpose is instruction on the operation of the on-board video system, it also proves convenient for classes working inside the simulator. "We can use it for demonstrations and to play videos for a class that might be sitting in the cabin trainer, " says Tulp. "There's no need to move them back into the classroom. "

The instructor's station, at the front of the classroom, has added a lot of flexibility to the system. A Kramer switcher and a triple monitor make it very easy to select the proper feed for the monitor or VCR. It also provides a handy place for gathering notes and instructional materials.

The cameras, too, have proved very flexible. "Rick at United Visual suggested we go with surveillance cameras, " comments Tulp. "They gave us color and also a very clear picture under low light conditions. We needed something like that if we wanted to shoot, say, customer interaction during a night flight. The goal in all of this is to give us the flexibility to train in the different environments actually encountered on board the aircraft. "

That flexibility is critical to the success of the training program. Tulp says the new cabin trainer works wonderfully...The keys are its realism, its hands on component, and the ability it gives us to evaluate, review and coach our students. It really comes down to the ability to simulate the actual work environment and teach our cabin crews to perform in that environment.