The flight school of the future – using an iPhone for training

6 min read

Editor’s note: This guest post is from Patrick Carter, President of NFlight Technologies, a company that offers a variety of aviation-specific accessories for GoPro cameras and the iPhone. In addition, Patrick is also an ATP, mechanic and an experienced aerobatic instructor. In this article, he offers a new way to use smartphones for more effective flight training.


Is there a better way?

It seems like the word aviation is synonymous with technology, but in a lot of areas we are stuck in the past. There is no question that our air traffic control and regulations are behind the times, and flight instructing is no exception. As an instructor I continually ask myself, “how do we change this; how do we teach students more effectively?” With the rising price of fuel and the threat of user fees there is no question that if something is not done we will see our pilot population become non-existent in the very near future.

The good news is there is something that can be done, something that has proven to be very effective and requires very little investment in time or money. If you fly with a smartphone such as Apple’s iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy SIII, it may soon become the most valuable tool in your flight bag. In the last few years these devices have gained popularity as video cameras.

The difference in a smartphone and a dedicated camera is that you also have a computer in the palm of your hand. With a dedicated camera such as a GoPro or Contour the workload of the instructor is drastically increased because an extra set of batteries must be charged, memory cards managed, and the footage must be transferred to another device for editing, sharing, and archiving. The smart phones have streamlined this work-flow allowing everything to happen on one device.

Interested? Here is how its done.

Required Equipment

  • iPhone (if you don’t have a smartphone, join the bandwagon)
  • NFlightcam Kit for iPhone (allows you to record audio and remove prop distortion; $129.99 – more info here)
  • iMovie app for iPhone (costs a whopping $4.99 – download it here)
  • WiFi (you do have WiFi, right?)
  • Apple TV (only $99 – more info here)
  • HDTV (you probably have this already)
  • Total Additional Investment: $233.98
NFlightcam Kit for iPhone

The NFlightcam Kit for iPhone includes a lens filter to reduce prop distortion and an aviation headset plug.

If you follow this process it will not add any time to your workflow with your student and it will greatly increase the value of the instruction you provide to your students. I see this more as habit just like checking the fuel caps or oil instead of an additional task. Just like any habit after three weeks you will wonder how you existed with out it.

Step 1 – Record

Fly with your student as you always do. As you provide instruction, capture it on video in small snippets (ideally 30 seconds or less). I’ve found I can break a one hour instructional session into about twenty 30-second snippets. Do not try to record everything–if you say something 5 times, only record it once. The idea is to create a synopsis of the lesson for the debrief, not a monologue about the right rudder.

When I started instructing 10 years ago, an older and wiser instructor taught me to carry a notepad and jot down items that needed discussion in the debrief. I simply replaced the habit of jotting these items down with capturing them on my iPhone. If I am introducing a new concept, I capture that also. This is the demonstrate/perform method in action. We are just allowing the student to watch the demonstration on demand as many times as they want without incurring any additional cost.

Step 2 – Review

I perform the edit and debrief simultaneously by incorporating an Apple TV. Editing basically consists of watching raw clips and cutting out the irrelevant sections. Since we only captured small snippets we eliminated most of the culling up front and review is all that is left. By mirroring the screen of the iPhone to the Apple TV, the student can watch on the big screen.

Open iMovie and start a new project.

imovie 1 small

You can reiterate or offer additional explanation on any subject as needed just as you would when you are reviewing notes during a debrief. However, when you ask the student if they remember the airplane veering to the right on takeoff and they give you a puzzled look you can hit “play” and remove the puzzled look. At this point remove any unwanted or irrelevant footage by simple tapping and squeezing.

imovie 2 small

iMovie places a yellow bar at the bottom of all of the footage that has been used in the timeline so it is easy to keep track of what has been reviewed. Select the next snippet and repeat the review and clipping process until each snippet has been reviewed and added to the timeline.

If you want to add information that is not in the audio track you can easily add text to the clip.

imovie 3 small

After a few times I was able to edit and debrief with little or no time added to my workflow. However, every student that I tested this method with stated that it improved his or her ability to retain the information presented exponentially.

Step 3 – Share

In my opinion the greatest value of videoing the flight lessons is the creation of an on-demand archie available for the student and the world if they choose to share it publicly. You have several choices here based on your personal preferences and those of your student. Some students will not be comfortable with their flight lessons being available for anyone on the internet to view; luckily both YouTube and Vimeo provide private viewing options.

Share screen on iMovie

The iPhone makes it easy to share videos with students.

Some instructors have indicated to me that they are not comfortable with their instruction being available online. Remember, you are the one editing and posting the information, if you don’t want something public don’t include it in the edit that you post–it is that simple.

We’ll just assume everyone is familiar with YouTube; Vimeo is basically the same thing but provides a few more options if you pay for their Pro Version ($199/year). From the perspective of a flight instructor, Vimeo Pro provides features such as password protected videos of unlimited length whereas YouTube only allows you to set the video to private or public and limits it to 15 minutes. You can work around this by creating each student a free YouTube channel, but you will have to remember the username and password for each account. My suggestion is to start with the free YouTube accounts and then upgrade to a Vimeo Pro account when the increased demand and revenue justifies it. The end value to your student is the same.

Sharing the video from iMovie to Vimeo or YouTube is easy–just make sure you have a decent WiFi connection or you will obliterate your data plan.

I have been fortunate enough to receive flight training from high dollar providers such as Flight Safety and SimuFlite where video debrief has been the standard for years, but it is reflected in the price. I am willing to wager that the ability of the iPhone can surpass that of the sophisticated systems used by these high dollar providers, allowing us to deliver the same or better value to our students at a price that everyone can afford.

See the entire line of NFlightcam accessories here.