Aviation Safety:

Research Supports Limited Use of Personal Computer Aviation Training Devices for Pilots

RCED-99-143: Published: Jul 12, 1999. Publicly Released: Jul 19, 1999.

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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
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Office of Public Affairs
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) decision to allow the use of personal computer-based aviation training devices (PCATD), focusing on: (1) the process and information FAA used in deciding to approve the use of personal computer devices for 10 hours of instrument training; and (2) what is known about the training effectiveness of these devices and their long-term impact on a pilot's ability to fly safely.

GAO noted that: (1) FAA's decision to allow the use of computer-based devices for instrument flight training took over 6 years to be made final and was based on two major research studies, FAA's professional judgment, and input from aviation industry representatives; (2) because the two studies did not address the appropriate number of hours of training on these devices, FAA's decision to allow 10 hours was based on its professional judgment and industry input; (3) FAA had earlier relied on its professional judgments rather than empirical studies, to support its approval of up to 20 credit hours for the devices now known as flight training devices; (4) a University of Illinois research study is planned to assess the appropriate number of credit hours for the use of these devices in an instrument training course; (5) the two major research studies generally support the use of computer-based devices for training; (6) despite some methodological limitations, these are the most complete controlled studies to date on the training effectiveness of computer-based devices; (7) one study shows that the use of computer-based devices may modestly reduce the training time spent in an airplane, while the other shows that the training effects of computer-based devices and previously approved flight training devices may not differ greatly; (8) other studies GAO reviewed also generally supported the use of computer-based devices in training; (9) similarly, the majority of the experts GAO interviewed saw some training value from the use of the devices and did not believe that they were likely to reduce aviation safety; (10) although most experts did not speculate on the appropriate number of credit hours that should be granted for the devices, several disagreed with FAA's decision to allow any credit hours; (11) GAO found no empirical evidence, however, on the long-term safety impact of the devices, their potential safety benefits, or the long-term safety impact or benefits of the approved flight training devices; and (12) moreover, FAA does not collect the data needed to conduct future research on a possible link between the use of the devices and pilots' long-term safety records.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A new Form 8719-1 was published in April 2000. The form calls for pilots to distinguish between training hours completed in PCATDs and in Aviation Training Devices.

    Recommendation: As a first step toward determining whether computer-based devices pose safety risks to general aviation in relation to other training methods, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to collect information from pilot applications for instrument ratings on how many hours students trained on PCATDs and flight training devices. This information can be used by FAA and others to study the relationship between the use of training devices and safety. FAA's revision to its rating application form allows the additional information to be obtained at minimal cost.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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