CAE’s Colabattisto on Becoming a Training Systems Integrator, Market Trends, Pilot Shortfall

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Gene Colabattisto, the group president of CAE’s defense and security division, discusses the company’s transformation from a simulator firm to a training systems integrator with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the 2019 Paris Air Show where our coverage was sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS.

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian here at the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget, the historic airfield just outside the French capital where our coverage is sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS.

We’re here at the CAE Chalet to talk to Gene Colabatistto who is the Group President for CAE’s defense business.  Gene, always a pleasure to get a chance to talk to you.

Gene Colabatistto:  Good morning. Good to see you here.

Mr. Muradian:  Talk to us a little bit, a couple of years ago you guys started on this journey to sort of transform yourselves from a simulator company to actually a training systems integrator writ large.  Bring us up to speed on how you guys have been making that transformation.

Mr. Colabatistto:  I think the biggest news is we started to refer to ourselves as a training system integrator, and today we really are one.  We’ve been able to show competencies in live, virtual and constructive training, and today we very adequately integrate those into holistic solutions. That’s a big change from when we simply delivered one piece, the simulator, or serviced only those pieces we provided.  So we really are an integrator today, and certainly we approach the customer’s challenges holistically and look to provide a systems level solution.

Mr. Muradian:  Give us an example of how you guys are doing that for the customer.  Pick any one of your programs and how you’re doing it, because actually you guys have a global client base that goes well beyond the United States.

Mr. Colabatistto:  The greatest example I could give is one where we really had complete design authority, and that was the U.S. Army’s Fixed Wing Training Center in Dothan, Alabama. We started with a clean sheet design and literally with a green field to dig our way into provided facilities, aircraft, the simulators, courseware, the instructors, and even spent a lot of time with the customer to understand efficiencies that could be gained by managing the way the student pilots conducted their day.

One short anecdote is that we put WiFi on the student buses that they spent more than 30 minutes on to and from the airfield every day, giving them and their iPads time to connect and study while they were on the bus.  It seems trivial, but buying an hour back in a student’s day was actually quite an innovation.

Mr. Muradian:  Tell us more broadly about technology, how you guys are applying it.  Because if you look at it, everything from haptic technology, the whole field of virtual constructive has been changing itself as it changes training.  Talk to us about the state of the art you guys are bringing into the equation.

Mr. Colabatistto:  It is changing rapidly.  As we look to involve more commercial technologies, that starts to drive the cycle with which we have to work within.

We look at the technology framework for a training system as having three parts. A digital learning environment; an integrated live, virtual, constructive training environment; and a secure network environment.  Our technology investments and what we’re including in our technology suite corresponds to those three segments.

One that we’re excited about is a program called CAE Rise.  This program allows us to take data in real time from a training session and match it against a big data set so we can compare s student’s performance with a lager population, and even the ideal of how to conduct a maneuver or some type of training event.  That system then uses that big data set and some data analytics and a little bit of artificial intelligence to provide real time cues to both the student pilot and the instructor pilot, making it much more efficient and quite honestly, much more consistent against a population of both students and instructors.

Mr. Muradian:  You and I, you were a former Marine, a highly experienced civil pilot, and we’ve talked about this before, about how maybe the military should change how it thinks about training its pilots.  Right now there’s a massive military pilot shortage.  It’s only getting worse as there is a generation shift – well, it’s two-fold, right?  Growth in commercial aviation but then also an aging out of that population.  So the lure of flying for airlines with much more predictable schedules and also a lot more money is something that’s irresistible.

In the commercial world you’ll fly 1500 hours in a simulator.  The first time you’re actually flying a real airplane is with passengers in the back of it.  Talk to us about where this debate is going.  I know you engage all the time with the military services on this. Where’s this discussion going about how to change how the United States and its allies train pilots and try to retain them, or at least maintain fidelity.  Talk to us about the whole space.

Mr. Colabatistto:  You brought up and pointed out a couple of different dimensions, and I think that’s the first point.  This is a systemic issue that needs to be worked and it, again, needs a holistic solution.

First of all, you can’t look at just the civil pilot population or just the military pilot population because there is a tremendous amount of interplay moving between those two populations.  Whether it’s at the entry level, young men and women making career decisions, to a more experienced pilot moving between those populations.

I would say part of the solution, but maybe part of the complexity, is pilots also fly in the Reserves one day and fly in a civilian airline another.  That complexity may also be an opportunity for us.

We play in that space by trying to make it more effective and more efficient, and in some cases actually start to fill a role that the governments fill themselves.  It’s really taken a long time for governments to feel comfortable with a company like CAE or others to provide in-flight instruction in the cockpit.  We’ve been in the classroom and we have certainly been in the simulator with students for many, many years.  But today we’re doing more and more live flight training.

So I think part of the point is that we’re not going to solve this simply as fixing or improving recruiting, improving training, or improving retention. It all has to fit together.

Some of the interesting lessons that I see in civil aviation and in the military that will help is presenting aviation as a career, not just as an interesting educational opportunity.  I think we have the same challenge in STEM education.  I think over the last 10 or 15 years we’ve seen a national movement to improve STEM education around the United States and really around the world to produce the next generation of engineers.

I look at aviation the same way.  We have to get young people interested in aviation.  We have to give them real career opportunities.  And we have to create a training pipeline that will take that raw talent and do force generation for the military to produce the right type of pilots in the right numbers.  So systemic.

We’re going to continue to apply technology to make it more efficient and effective and more engaging.  I think that is one of the attributes of career options today that is very important. We no longer can run an attrition-based system that only ends up with the best and brightest, but we have to take that raw talent and develop them into capable and productive military members and pilots.  And we’re going to make it more efficient with technology.  It’s engaging, but we think quite honestly, we think we can produce better pilots and we can produce them a little more quickly and we think less expensively.

Mr. Muradian:  Gene Colabatistto, who is the Group President of CAE’s defense business.  Sir, thanks very much.  A real pleasure.

Mr. Colabatistto:  It is a pleasure.

Mr. Muradian:  And you know, there have been numerous efforts to try to – just one walk-off question, right?  There have been numerous efforts to try to engage young people into aviation careers. Every couple of years there’s a dire warning that comes out from the industry, hey, we’re going to need these many pilots and these many ground support folks.  Any sense that there is sort of that sense of urgency to create some form of a national program on this?

Mr. Colabatistto:  That’s actually a great thought and a great question.  I use the STEM education idea.  We’ve actually presented, promoted and are an advocate of a National Aviation Initiative much like the National STEM Initiative.  It starts with companies and the military and the government to promote aviation as a very viable career opportunity, but it’s also a very important part of the nation’s economy and nation’s economies around the world.  So it’s really vital to that.

What I find is that young folks at the high school and even at the early stages at the university level, don’t think much about aviation as a career option, and a little bit of familiarity and a little bit of excitement will go a long way. So we at CAE look at ourselves as a thought leader, and I would challenge other companies and our government partners around the world to think of themselves first as thought leaders.

Mr. Muradian:  Gene, absolutely fantastic point.  Thanks very much.  Best of luck on that because I think the nation’s economic health depends on it. So thanks very much.

Mr. Colabatistto:  Thank you. Good to see you again.

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