On the first floor of the College of Aviation, near the set of doors facing the construction site for the new Student Union, is a small office that holds one of the most unique departments at Embry-Riddle. This department is called Special VFR Productions, and they are helping to revolutionize the way Embry-Riddle students learn how to fly.
Special VFR Productions produces videos and other graphic content for the Flight Department, as well as the Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are used to teach students and the public. These videos bring together live footage and computer animation to more effectively teach students how aircraft work and how to fly them.
Special VFR Productions also produces the Flightline News, a news broadcast that features news from the Flight Department. These programs can be found at https://www.youtube.com/user/ERAUSpecialVFR.
Special VFR Productions was formed out of need. In the late 2000s, flight instructors noticed that Embry-Riddle flight students were looking up instructional videos produced by a flight school in North Dakota. At that time, the Embry-Riddle Flight Department had not produced any digital content and still relied heavily on paper flight manuals and textbooks.
Mark Avellino, an Embry-Riddle graduate and flight instructor, brought forward this information to the Chairman of the Flight Department and suggested they make their own video.
“We go back and look at it, and it is pretty primitive… But it was better than anything we had,” said Avellino, recalling the first instructional video that Special VFR Productions created. “[UND] did those videos years ago… 10 years ago.”
The Chairman of the Flight Department approved the video, and Special VFR Productions kept creating content. Eventually, Special VFR Productions decided they needed a full-time 3D animator, since, according to Avellino, “If you can use 3D animation, especially in aviation, it improves your ability to get across information to students… You can take an engine and kind of explode it, see all the individual parts, see how they fit together and how they work.”
“Our first big project was Aviation 101,” said Avellino. Aviation 101 is an MOOC, the first that Special VFR Productions created. It is not rigorous enough to replace the pilot ground school but does provide a good starting point for people who want to learn more. “The intent was to stimulate interest in aviation, so we put it out on the internet for free. It’s still up there.”
According to Avellino, aviation students at Embry-Riddle will probably recognize some of the Aviation 101 content, since many teachers in the College of Aviation use the videos in their classes as supplementary teaching materials.
“[The videos] complement what they are doing in the classroom because, if you have ever tried to draw something on the board and explain how it works, it is not going to be that effective, unless you are an incredible artist.”
“To show a video of a 3D flight instrument, which you can take apart and look at the insides and see how it works, it makes it so much easier for the students.”
Special VFR Productions is currently working on a program called PACE, or Pre-Activity Computer Exercises. “The intent is that the students go through these assignments; they watch the videos and do the quiz at the end.”
These quizzes must be answered 100 percent correctly before the student can advance, so students can take the quiz, and watch the associated video, as many times as necessary. “The intent is to get the students to understand the material… We just want them to learn the information.”
“Then [the students] show up for their activity, whether it is a flight or a simulator activity, and they are going to be a lot more knowledgeable and prepared for the activity than they would be otherwise if all they had done was read a book.
Special VFR Productions has “quite a bit of camera equipment. We had to figure out how to use it in a plane, which was quite a challenge.” The small size of the airplane cockpits and the mobile nature of the machine itself made it difficult to operate cameras effectively.
The reason why Special VFR Productions put the cameras in the cockpit was, “to show the student what they are going to do when they get in that airplane for their flight. They can see the exact procedures they are going to have to execute, what it is going to look like in the airplane.”
Other information in the videos include tips on how to better perform a maneuver or telling them to what standards they will be held.
“We have had a lot of positive feedback; a lot of students [think] this is great. The flight instructors love it too because it lets them skip over some of the fundamental basics stuff because [the students] show up, and they already know it.”
Aviation 101 and the other products of Special VFR productions help students to “get through their courses quicker, cheaper, and with a better understanding of what they have learned.”
“We looked – we looked hard,” replied Mark Avellino, when asked if Special VFR Productions had any corresponding departments at other flight schools. Though the University of North Dakota did do some videos in the 2000s, there are no known competitors for flight instructional videos that Special VFR Productions creates. “Embry-Riddle is the only flight school out there with a film production studio.”
This one-of-a-kind Department is helping Embry-Riddle maintain its unparalleled position among flight schools by producing some of the highest quality flight instruction videos and MOOCs in the world, and also helping students learn to fly in an easier and less expensive way than they would without them.