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How training and simulation giant CAE earned its wings

Global leader in pilot training flies high by remaining rooted in Canada


As vice-president of business operations for CAE, Joe Armstrong can efficiently answer almost any question thrown at him about the Canada based global leader in training for the civil aviation, defence and healthcare markets, but his eyes light up the brightest when he talks about the company’s uniquely Canadian mission.

Founded in 1947 as Canadian Aviation Electronics, CAE provides pilot training and a host of related services such as operational support in more than 40 countries around the world – yet Armstrong is careful to note that the unofficial corporate mantra is “be proud to be Canadian.”

“We’ve become like global ambassadors for Canada in our industry,” says Armstrong. “Ultimately our mission is to help keep people prepared and safe – what could be more Canadian than that?”

These Canadian roots are much more than a feel-good story of nostalgia for Armstrong and CAE, however. The young executive points out how the company’s longstanding partnerships with the federal government and, more specifically, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), continue as corporate cornerstones.

“Our global success is absolutely predicated on Canadian government support and our Defence business being based in Ottawa,” says Armstrong. “Personal relationships are very important for us and you simply can’t cultivate those remotely.”

Launched as a tiny repair and overhaul outfit after the Second World War by RCAF veteran Ken Patrick, CAE began with the simple objective to support Canada and its air force – a mission that in essence remains unchanged today, even though the company now trains more than 220,000 civil and defence crewmembers annually around the world and is a leading player in healthcare training.

“Pilot training was Canada’s most important contribution to both the First and Second World War efforts,” Armstrong points out.

This included initiatives such as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, a massive undertaking that took advantage of Canada’s ample air space.

The joint effort during the Second World War helped operationalize more than 130,000 trained personnel in military units from Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

Although homeland origins remain fundamental to CAE, they certainly do not prevent the firm from thinking and acting globally. As a future-focussed entity, CAE remains mindful that being a worldwide leader in training comes with a responsibility to remain at the forefront of training effectiveness.

One example: “Because today’s younger generation grew up using digital technology, the nature of training is changing,” Armstrong points out, “including the tools you use and how you evaluate success.”

To help stay ahead of that accelerating change, CAE is partnering with the federal government and the province of Quebec in project digital intelligence, a $1-billion research and development investment over the next five years that Armstrong says will address the fundamental question of “what does training mean?”

The project will delve deeply into technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data and augmented reality, and how to apply them to the science of learning. The objective is to revolutionize the training experience for pilots, aircrews and healthcare professionals.

CAE is also working to address the gender imbalance within the pilot profession as well as the defence industry. In 2018, the company launched its CAE Women in Flight scholarship program in collaboration with American Airlines, Aeromexico, AirAsia, CityJet and easyJet. The scholarships cover the entire cost of a cadet pilot training program.

That initiative is another example of how even as CAE remains on the leading edge of training technology and operational support, the most important element will always be the human one.

As Armstrong puts it, “Everything we design, build, and deliver is all about people, and how we can help them be better at what they do.”