Episode 41: Solving a Looming Pilot Shortage… with Virtual Reality

The aviation industry is facing an existential crisis. Pilots are aging out of the profession far faster than replacements can be recruited and trained. Left unchecked, this could lead to fewer flights, grounded planes, and disappointed travelers. On this episode, Ed Bagden, Associate Director, Flight Operations and Safety, Leadership in Flight Training (LIFT) Academy, explains how virtual reality, data mining, and machine learning can all be put into play to solve the pilot shortage.
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Listen In To Learn:

  • How data-driven instruction can accelerate learning
  • How virtual reality can promote diversity in a recruitment process
  • How “vertically integrated training” can solve labor shortages

The Looming Crisis in the Aviation Industry

Pilots must retire at 65 by federal mandate, and there aren’t enough new pilots coming in to balance the aging population. The existing model for pilot training is part of the problem: It’s costly and time-consuming for potential recruits, with barriers of entry that tend to narrow the applicant pool and discourage diversity.

Ed Bagden and his team are looking to combat the problem by creating a new model for pilot training. LIFT Academy uses virtual reality to help diverse candidates visualize themselves in the captain’s chair. Then applicants have access to subsidized, tech-enabled training with a guaranteed career path. On this episode, Ed explains how virtual reality, data mining, and machine learning can all be put into play to solve the pilot shortage.

Featured Luminary: Ed Bagden, Associate Director, Flight Operations and Safety, Leadership in Flight Training (LIFT) Academy

Ed Bagden is a former airline Captain and flight operations leader who is challenging the paradigm of professional pilot training. As a tech enthusiast, Ed has brought emerging technologies including virtual reality to the aviation training space to provide enhanced immersion and interactivity to ground-based training environments.

Ed oversees a growing fleet of single and multi-engine training aircraft as well as the instructors and students who fly them. LIFT Academy is constantly expanding data collection and analysis from a myriad of sources including the avionics on-board the aircraft, computer-based pilot aptitude testing, and electronic training records to help Ed and other leaders make the smartest decisions when identifying the best candidates for the pilot profession and training them most efficiently.

“I want to make meaningful data-driven observations on pilot performance in the aircraft and classroom to inspire successful outcomes in training and enhance flight safety.”

Ed Bagden, Associate Director, Flight Operations and Safety, Leadership in Flight Training (LIFT) Academy

Luminaries Hosts

  • Mark Schaefer Author, Consultant, College Educator. Mark is a leading authority on marketing strategy, consultant, blogger, podcaster, and the author of six best-selling books, including "KNOWN." He has two advanced degrees and studied under Peter Drucker in graduate school. Some of his clients include Microsoft, GE, Johnson & Johnson and the US Air Force
  • Douglas Karr Technologist, Author, Speaker. Pre-Internet, Douglas started his career as a Naval electrician before going to work for the newspaper industry. His ability to translate business needs into technology during the advent of the Internet paved the way for his digital career. Douglas owns an Indianapolis agency, runs a MarTech publication, is a book author, and speaks internationally on digital marketing, technology, and media.

WOMAN: Luminaries, talking to the brightest minds in tech.

MICHAEL DELL: We are technologists, and we share an awesome responsibility. The next three decades will hold even more progress coming more quickly than ever before. A new age of miracles is literally just around the corner.

WOMAN: Your hosts are Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr.

MARK SCHAEFER: Welcome one and all to another episode of Luminaries where we talk to the brightest minds in tech. This is Mark Schaefer, your cohost with Douglas Karr sitting beside me here. We’re getting to do a live show today. Doug, what’s going on?

DOUGLAS KARR: We’re going to launch this podcast.

MARK SCHAEFER: We’re going to launch it, yes. A little play on words there. I mean, we’re going to talk today certainly about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, air travel. I’m a consultant and a speaker, and I literally couldn’t have a career without being on a plane. So I mean, thank goodness for that. But you know, as I was preparing for our show today, I learned that there’s really a storm coming.

There’s a storm on the horizon in the industry. There’s forecasts calling for a drastic shortage of pilots. That was new to me.

DOUGLAS KARR: It was new to me, too. I was shocked by the numbers.

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. So today we’re going to actually talk to someone who’s doing something about it. Our guest today is Ed Bagden, and he is leading a revolution in pilot training. He’s the Associate Director of Flight Operations and Safety at LIFT Academy, and he’s using technology to help the industry overcome this problem. I suppose you can say, they’re taking pilot training to new heights, Doug.

DOUGLAS KARR: Oh, no. Are we going to do this the whole podcast?

MARK SCHAEFER: Well, you know, I don’t know. It could go either way. But you know– the thing is, you know, people accuse me of doing dad jokes. I just think it’s a joke. Call it what it is. Welcome to the show, Ed.

ED BAGDEN: Hey, thanks so much. I’m really happy to be here.

MARK SCHAEFER: We actually have someone sitting here with us that’s not me and Doug. Yeah, so very, very, very interesting topic. As I was preparing for the show, the notes that were provided to me said that you’re challenging the paradigm of professional pilot training, and I’ve got to think, there’s a lot of people that don’t want to touch that, that they don’t want to change the paradigm of pilot training, that this is actually rather something sacred. So tell us a little bit, Ed about how LIFT l using technology to change the game in pilot training.

ED BAGDEN: Sure, so I love what you just said there where it’s, obviously, you don’t want to change something that’s worked so well. We’re at unprecedented levels of safety right now when it comes to air travel, airline operations, especially in the United States. It’s really remarkable, but we look at things.

I think a great example of it is when we talk about, like, learning flows and procedures checklists, when we’re training pilots, the way we do that typically is by sitting in front of a poster of a cockpit, a picture of the cockpit and reaching out and touching imaginary knobs–


ED BAGDEN: –and switches. Yeah, that’s the way we do it. And because we’re so hesitant to embrace new technologies and kind of challenge that paradigm, it just– it hasn’t changed. I mean, that’s the way we’ve done it for the last 50 years. And we don’t want to, obviously, take away from the things that drive safety in our industry, but we do want to embrace new technologies. Virtual reality is something we’ve used already to share the magic of flight with people, and we can probably talk about that. I think there’s a question on here to talk about our LIFT Lab.

But things like that are really things that we’re interested in, because we think that we can actually enhance the training experience and make flying even safer.

DOUGLAS KARR: Incredible. First, I’m going to start out, because I get to do this. You’re from Indianapolis. We have our first Indianapolis guest. So welcome. For people that don’t know on the show, I’m from Indianapolis as well.

MARK SCHAEFER: The Circle City.

DOUGLAS KARR: The Circle City, yeah, absolutely. Beautiful town. Ed, I didn’t realize this, but LIFT is actually owned by Republic Airlines. So can you talk about the relationship with the companies and how it developed?

ED BAGDEN: Yeah, of course, so Republic is where I actually started working. I was hired as a pilot at Republic in 2012. Before I came to LIFT, I was an airline captain and manager of flight operations at the airline. I worked with a lot of our manuals, our procedures, our safety programs, and then had the opportunity to join LIFT, which is just something that is, again, absolutely groundbreaking in the industry.

Republic, we’re looking at industry-wide, nearly 800,000 pilots over the next 10 years globally. And at our airline, we’re going to have a really large demand for pilots. So we didn’t want to just rely on our typical sources for our pilot candidates. We’ve got great university partners. We’ve got great flight schools we work with. But looking at what’s coming, we can’t just count on that to meet our needs. So we decided to vertically integrate our pilot supply.

Right now, we fly about 200 Embraer jets at Republic, right around 1,000 flights a day. And we only expect that to grow. So in order to meet that demand, we figured the best way to do it was to make our own pilots, to make our own pilot school, and to train people using the same policies and procedures that we use at Republic to fly the big jets, we use in our small training aircraft. It’s really great.

MARK SCHAEFER: You mentioned this gap in the number of pilots that’s going to be needed to fly all these flights in the future. When I looked at these statistics, I was like, what?


MARK SCHAEFER: It’s just off the radar screen for a lot of people. So what’s behind this? Is it too many flights or not enough pilots or a combination of both? But I mean, this is really you’re facing a crisis here.

ED BAGDEN: It is an absolute crisis, existential crisis, too.

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah, for an airline. Right.

ED BAGDEN: Yeah. So this is something we’ve talked about behind the cockpit door for years. The mandatory retirement age for pilots is 65. That’s from the government, the federal government. So at 65, you can no longer fly an airliner. And you travel a lot, both of you. If you look up front a lot of times, you’re kind of seeing people that are going to be rapidly approaching that age. So we’ve got this huge age out issue.

And like I said, we’ve talked about this for years, as pilots, what are we going to do? It was originally 60 years old. About six years ago, they extended it to 65 to kind of put a Band-Aid on it. What’s the comprehensive fix? Honestly, I’m really excited and proud to work for an organization that decided to address this issue head on and actually create their own fix for it.

DOUGLAS KARR: I’m curious. Is it a recruitment issue? Is it the length of time that it takes to train people issue? Is it all those pieces?

ED BAGDEN: I think it’s a lot of things. One of the biggest barriers to entry into aviation is cost. Becoming a pilot is very expensive. And one of the things we’ve done is tried to reduce that barrier to entry. So Republic is subsidizing a portion of the cost of training for LIFT students, which is excellent.

The other thing that’s really cool about what we do is we do aptitude testing on the front end. So when someone applies for our program, they come to LIFT, they meet with us. We show them the facility, the aircraft, talk to them about what we do. But we sit them down on the computer and do a multi-panel aptitude test. We test things like hand eye coordination, arithmetic, spatial orientation, all these different competencies that have proven to lead to successful outcomes in pilot training.

We also do a one-on-one interview, because when a student comes to LIFT, upon successful completion of our program, they’re hired as a first officer at our airline. So we want to make sure we’re getting the right people in on the front end. And that’s something that no pilot school has ever done in the United States is testing applicants on the front end. Typically–

MARK SCHAEFER: Really? That’s shocking.

ED BAGDEN: It is. Typically, the biggest criteria for entry into a flight school is do you have the money to pay for it. That’s not our approach.

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah, yeah. So now, do you see an opportunity that you could be a service beyond Republic Airways? Is that kind of on the horizon that you could be training pilots just globally?

ED BAGDEN: It’s an interesting question. Right now, our major focus is serving the needs of Republic. We at full scale plan to train over 300 pilots a year. And honestly, that won’t even meet the needs of the airline over the next 10 years. So–

MARK SCHAEFER: Your airline.



ED BAGDEN: Of Republic. So even at full scale, what we’re looking at right now, we still would have room to grow to service the needs of our own organization.

DOUGLAS KARR: And technology, of course, plays a huge role in this. And I’m curious to learn more about how you’re utilizing technology, virtual reality, and then, you know, how you’re partnering between the airlines, researchers, universities. It’s quite comprehensive, the program that you’ve put together.

ED BAGDEN: It is, yeah. I kind of want to touch on something that’s really fun that we do it LIFT.

DOUGLAS KARR: Let’s do it.

ED BAGDEN: Which is the LIFT Lab. It’s a truck, a Ford Transit truck that we build a custom body on. In the back that it has Ford Dell precision towers, VR headsets. And we take this thing all over the place. We take it the high schools, middle schools, STEM fairs. We take it to fun events around Indianapolis, Indiana, and actually, across the country. And what you do is you go, you sit down, and for five minutes you have a LIFT instructor talking to you teaching you about how to fly an airplane basically. And after getting that brief intro from the instructor, you grab the controls, the joystick, the throttles, and you actually fly the airplane to a landing.


ED BAGDEN: And it’s really cool. So traditionally, if we look at how this normally works is a person interested in flight goes to the local airport. You pay 50 or $100. You get to take a 20, 30-minute flight in an airplane. Well, we’re now able to take that experience to entirely new audiences, which is incredible and share the magic of flight.

VR, obviously an incredible technology. I’ve been really interested in it personally, which is why I thought it would be such a great thing to use with LIFT. And it just– the true magic of flight, you can now bring to 500,000 kids in a day, where typically, with an airplane, maybe you could do five in a day.


ED BAGDEN: It’s really exciting.

MARK SCHAEFER: So getting back to the– are you developing a technology yourself? Are you developing a core competency in developing virtual reality, or is this coming from somewhere else?

ED BAGDEN: So the software we use is developed by third party. It’s called FlyInside. They originally started making a plug-in for Microsoft Flight Simulator and ended up making their own simulator. And we’ve worked with them to develop this bespoke experience. I’m excited to work with an organization like that and maybe FlyInside and maybe someone else, but to actually do real training.

So this is a fun experience. This is getting people excited about flying, which is really important. But I’m excited to do real training, where we get away from that poster I talked about earlier, where you sit down and reach out and touch imaginary knobs and switches, and actually do something interactive with VR, where a student can sit down in the cockpit, run through procedures, and if a step is missed, or an error’s made, be coached by the software. The value brought by that is immense, and that those are the kind of things we really want to embrace going forward.

MARK SCHAEFER: So you mentioned in the truck you’ve got these Dell towers. And so are you partnering with Dell in some way on this as well to kind of bring this to life?

ED BAGDEN: Absolutely. Yeah, we actually have a version of our LIFT Lab, our flight experience here at DTW, which is really cool and–

MARK SCHAEFER: Dell Technology World.

ED BAGDEN: Correct. Dell Technology–

MARK SCHAEFER: DTW, not Dallas Fort Worth.


ED BAGDEN: Right. So Dell Technologies World.


ED BAGDEN: Absolutely. And we’ve got it here, and we had an open last night. We’ll have it opened the whole week, and people seem to really be enjoying it. But yeah, we partner with Dell in a lot of different ways. So our organization, both LIFT Academy and Republic Airways, both a longstanding partnership with Dell, and they support us with both our day to day technology needs, notebooks, towers, all of that, as well as kind of looking forward, things like big data.

When we’re doing flight training, we capture every parameter off that aircraft on every flight we do. That’s 50 aircraft flying 12 to 14 hours a day. We want to take that data off the aircraft. We want to take the data we collect from our instructors on each flight they go on and start to make some really interesting observations. We want to use things like machine learning to help identify, again, on the front end who are our best candidates for this program.

MARK SCHAEFER: Interesting. Seems like you could almost begin to optimize processes, too, right?

ED BAGDEN: Oh absolutely.

MARK SCHAEFER: I mean, you can kind of collect all this data and standardize best practices and incorporate that into the training.

ED BAGDEN: Sure. We’ve got each flight lesson broken out by maneuver, by task. When you look at scheduling 300 students in 50 aircraft with 100 instructors, that’s not a human task. That’s a task for our organization that we think could be certain we optimize through the use of automation, machine learning, things like that.

MARK SCHAEFER: But even just the act of flying the aircraft, you could almost, like, optimize techniques. You know, you turned a little too fast here. You could almost like plot that against– as you’re collecting the data, plotting that against an optimal flight path or something like that.

ED BAGDEN: Absolutely, like a digital debrief, right.

MARK SCHAEFER: Or how they used the fuel consumption or something like that.

ED BAGDEN: Sure. When you’re in the heat of the moment as a student, you’re out there flying a maneuver we call steep turns or slow flight or stalls, you’re focused on what you’re doing, and an hour or two later, when you’re sitting in a debriefing room, you’re not going to remember the minutia of the maneuver, but if you’re able to pull that data up, what you’re talking about–

MARK SCHAEFER: Interesting, yeah. So you could see a little spike.


MARK SCHAEFER: And not even be aware of it in the heat of the moment.

ED BAGDEN: Exactly.

MARK SCHAEFER: That’s so interesting.

ED BAGDEN: Yeah, it is.


DOUGLAS KARR: It’s incredible. I did encourage everybody, too, to go to the LIFT Academy site and check it out.

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah, it’s a good site.

DOUGLAS KARR: Yeah, I mean after you take a look at it, you want to become a pilot. I’m not sure that I’m in the target audience. I don’t have that many years left.

ED BAGDEN: You should stop by next time–

DOUGLAS KARR: That’s happening, period. You know, I am curious, though, about the journey. So you talked a little bit about some of the prerequisite testing that you do with students. Can you kind of walk us through the timeline of what it takes to take someone from a fresh start that–

MARK SCHAEFER: Visiting your website.

DOUGLAS KARR: Yeah, visiting the website, all the way through to getting that job offer from Republic?

ED BAGDEN: Sure. So the job offer is basically inherent with acceptance into the program.


MARK SCHAEFER: That’s awesome.

ED BAGDEN: So it’s a guaranteed career pathway program.


MARK SCHAEFER: That’s very attractive.

ED BAGDEN: So what we’re looking at is, obviously, visit the website, apply online. Based on your application, if invited to an interview, you’ll come join us at the facility. You’ll take the computer-based aptitude test. You’ll sit down one-on-one with one of our recruiters for an interview there, because not only do you need to have the technical competencies to be successful, but you need to be a good fit for our organization, good cultural fit, because with acceptance comes your job as a pilot at Republic.

So we look at the training footprint. It’s about 12 months, two months for private, two months for instrument, five months for commercial. And we buffer some time in there for Indianapolis winters.


ED BAGDEN: So 12 months start to finish.

DOUGLAS KARR: And potholes for everybody listening.

ED BAGDEN: Don’t get me started.



MARK SCHAEFER: Love you, Indy.

ED BAGDEN: Yeah, 12 months as a student, and then another 18 months as an instructor at LIFT. So during your time as an instructor, you’re teaching people how to fly, building those core competencies and your experience to reach the minimums for hire at the airline. After about 18 months as an instructor, you’ll flow straight into a new hire class at Republic and become a first officer.


MARK SCHAEFER: Interesting.

ED BAGDEN: It’s really great. One of our core goals is to enhance diversity in the industry. Unfortunately, most pilots look like me or an older version of me.

MARK SCHAEFER: Now, we’re on a podcast, so people can’t actually see you.

DOUGLAS KARR: Kind of like Brad Pitt.



Brad Pitt, but look better looking.

DOUGLAS KARR: But better looking.

ED BAGDEN: Spot on. Love that. That’s great. Yeah, I mean, we want to enhance diversity with gender and race and everything else. And a big part of that, I think, is again, lowering some of the barriers to entry. I think it’s finding the right people for the job, not just the people that can pay for it. And it’s getting a LIFT Lab out there and allowing people– we take it to, like I said, high schools, middle schools. We take it to urban schools and allow people to sit down, fly an airplane, and picture themself sitting in the captain seat, somebody who maybe never said, I see myself as an airline pilot, because, again, most airline pilots, it’s white males. That’s the reality of it.

MARK SCHAEFER: One of the things that’s so apparent, and, again, I have the benefit of sitting across the table from you, is that you just have so much enthusiasm and passion for this. So Ed, if we were sitting down together two, three years from now, and you said, Mark, wow, it’s been such a great ride, what would have happened? What sort of is going to make an impact on this world for you?

I mean, there’s some obvious things, but I mean, this is clearly– you are very, very passionate about this. So what’s driving you? What’s the dream that could happen in the next three to five years?

ED BAGDEN: Sure. So I mean, the true mark of success for us at LIFT Academy is when one of our pilots goes through training, spends their time as an instructor, and then heads to the airline. I think, for me, what’s going to be the most satisfying is when I’m jumping on a plane with my fiancee or my wife at that point, three years out, and we’re going to Miami, or we’re going to Denver. And I look up front, and I see the captain or first officer, and it’s a LIFT Academy graduate. It’s someone I saw a walk in the door that had never flown an airplane, and now they’re wearing the uniform, they’ve got the bars on their sleeve. Say, ladies and gentlemen, from the flight deck.

DOUGLAS KARR: That’s awesome.

ED BAGDEN: Yeah, that’s going to be the truth sign of success for us.

MARK SCHAEFER: That’ll be really–

ED BAGDEN: Just seeing people realize that dream. Yeah, it’s going to be great.

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. Are there any limits on age to start?


MARK SCHAEFER: I mean, can I do this? I’m not 65.

ED BAGDEN: You gotta come take the aptitude test first.

MARK SCHAEFER: All right, well, then forget it.


ED BAGDEN: When we think about the left program, as Republic does subsidize the cost of training, we expect everybody who comes to the program to be with us at Republic for five years. So as long as they can meet that five-year commitment, they’re welcome to join us in the program. We’re excited to have them.

MARK SCHAEFER: That’s cool. One of the fun things learning about you is Doug and I’ve been doing this show for two years, and it’s just amazing that the leaders that we have on this show. It’s not ever what they started out doing. I mean, they’ve had these really quirky career paths. We had one woman on here that was a jeweler. She was a jeweler. She made gold jewelry. We had another person who curated an art museum. We had an expert in virtual reality who was a ballerina. She only got into tech because she broke her leg, and that just changed her life.

And you were with a band, and I looked it up on YouTube. You kind of even had a minor hit, I think, right?


Look, everyone’s going to want to know. The band’s called Quick Step John, so go find it. I mean, it’s just so fun. But I mean, I keep seeing this connection between technology and the arts.

DOUGLAS KARR: Absolutely.

MARK SCHAEFER: Over and over again. I mean, does that resonate with you? Does that come alive for you?

ED BAGDEN: Yeah, it does. I mean, you know, when I played in the band, and I had long hair and all that, which I try to hide from my current airline pilots.

MARK SCHAEFER: It’s on YouTube.


It’s on YouTube. What did you play?

ED BAGDEN: I played keys and a little bit of sax.


ED BAGDEN: It was a lot of fun. Playing in a band nowadays is a very technological endeavor. I mean, we did all of our recording. Everything we did was on our PCs. But working in technology, what is technology about nowadays? It’s about creativity and innovation. And so that really, I think, does align and resonate with art, right?

MARK SCHAEFER: My son was a tour musician, and he started his own tech company now.

ED BAGDEN: Oh, fantastic. That’s great.

MARK SCHAEFER: So Ed, just a delight having you on the show. Thank you so much. It’s been– wow, just educational and inspirational, and we wish you all the best because I need you for my career.


I spent half my life on an airplane, and we need you to succeed. So Ed Bagden, Associate Director of Flight Operations and Safety at LIFT Academy. Thank you so much. Hope you’ll come back and join us again someday.

ED BAGDEN: I would love to.

MARK SCHAEFER: It’s been a pleasure.

ED BAGDEN: It’s been a pleasure joining you today.

MARK SCHAEFER: We want to we want to see you succeed. So everyone, thanks so much for joining us. We never take you for granted. Thanks for listening to our show and sending us so many nice comments. If you think about it, if you are predisposed to leaving us a review on iTunes or your favorite platform of choice, we’d love that as well. This is Mark Schaefer and on behalf Doug Karr, we’ll see you next time on Luminaries.

WOMAN: Luminaries, talking to the brightest minds in tech, a podcast series from Dell Technologies.