Second Lt. Christofer Ahn, a student pilot, said he's never been inside a real cockpit. He began his Air Force career in basic flight screening in Colorado before going straight into the service's new Pilot Training Next program.
Even though Pilot Training Next is an experiment to gauge whether pilots can learn faster and thus expedite the training pipeline, Ahn said the Air Force was generous in the time it gave airmen to grasp the information at their own pace. He explained that, in some instances, the students could take their virtual reality simulators to their living quarters to practice.
"We could come back and work over the weekends," he added. "'In normal pilot training ... there are limits for how long you could be in [the simulator]. We basically got nearly unlimited access. Learning something in the books, it's just the books. Or visualizing something mentally. We could practice ... anytime we want."
Amid an ongoing pilot shortage, the Air Force launched the first-of-its-kind study, testing the ability of students to learn faster and absorb more through cutting-edge technology aids and simulations.
The experiment not only tested the students -- it tested the ways the Air Force can adapt using futuristic technologies at the forefront of its day-to-day training routine. While student pilots typically begin their training with heavy academics and regimented simulator time, the Pilot Training Next program plunged them directly into augmented reality and simulator training, allowing them to learn and self-correct as they went through realistic flight scenarios.
Student pilots graduated the program Friday after six months of learning how to fly in virtual reality simulators alongside fellow pilots and instructors.
While the students had much to take away from the program, Air Force officials also were learning where the service should invest its efforts before taking certain pilot training tools mainstream, officials recently told Military.com.
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"The failures are just as valuable as the successes," said Maj. Scott Van De Water, Pilot Training Next deputy director. Military.com interviewed officials involved in the months-long study in Austin, Texas. "There are a lot of ways that we're finding that the things that we're doing here are inadequate to the ends, and the legacy system is exceptional at doing."
Successes and Failures
As students flew the virtual reality sim, biometric monitors collected data on heart rate, eye movements and other factors that could help the Air Force understand how pilots interpret their tasks.
The virtual reality goggles, Ahn said, seemed to offer more realistic environments as compared to other simulators. "From the very get-go, [it's] helped us accelerate our training [in tandem] with the hands-on feedback that we need to perform in an actual jet," he said. "We want to learn as fast as possible. Being able to use the simulators is a huge step in allowing us to accelerate through our training."
An instructor monitored two students at a time as they went through the daily flight plan.
While Van De Water did not specify the program's failures, he said there were a few issues, from a software component that interrupted the teaching process to educational approaches that "fell flat" with students. It required a feedback forum at least once a week on how leaders could amend the program as they went along.
"I think the big takeaway [is] we inherently had to do some bumper bowling here and find out where the edges are," he said. "If we had it all solved coming straight into this program, there would have been no point in doing the program in the first place."
Under Air Education and Training Command, the study explored how airmen could train "by using existing and emerging technologies that can decrease the time and cost of training," but with the same depth of understanding to produce quality pilots. The experiment included using virtual and augmented reality simulation to teach airmen aircraft specs, and provide an in-flight experience, faster.
The group included 20 airmen -- 15 officers and five enlisted, AETC officials said during the interview. Enlisted airmen were included so the Air Force could better understand how airmen who may not have had prior college-level academics conceptualize their experience, officials said.
One student, Van De Water said, was sent back through the normal undergraduate training process "because what we were doing here wasn't working for him."
"And we take the fact that he was unable to get through this program just as a data point and a feedback mechanism for us," he said.
In all, 13 officer pilots received their wings at graduation Friday, AETC spokeswoman 1st Lt. Geneva Giaimo told Military.com.
"Two officer pilots were stationed back at traditional [Undergraduate Pilot Training] bases to complete training. The enlisted participants went on to their previously assigned career fields," she said in a statement.
Van De Water added, "I highlight the fact that we're failing in order to highlight the fact we are finding the edges of the power of the technologies and the techniques and the methods. But ... this program demonstrated efficiencies are there to be gained."
The Air Force has received approval to run a second PTN class in January, Van De Water said.
Watching Them Learn
The Air Force is beginning to incorporate more technologies as it shifts from a manpower-intensive approach toward more machine learning, officials have said in recent months. It's aiming to create a more efficient, agile and worthy pilot training class by using data analysis and streamlined learning practices.
"Everything we're doing is all about, 'What can we do to innovate better and create better tools for our instructors [and airmen] and ultimately just generate some lessons learned,' " said Capt. John Joern, a T-6 Texan II instructor overseeing students in the study.
"A lot of the biggest, most successful companies are using these big data analytics, and we thought, 'Why can't we do that also?' " he said.
Joern added the program in no way is the precursor to removing or overhauling Undergraduate Pilot Training, the standard pre-flight training before airmen are assigned to a formal training unit.
The Air Force's goal is to push pilots through basic pilot training "more quickly, more accurately and more repeatedly" by leveraging a multitude of factors, he said.
"If we can capture biometrics, if we can capture the way a student reacts, if we can try and capture data from a multitude of sources, and [can] synthesize that into what factors are going to play into a student performing at their absolute best, then we can start to get a better picture of what causes a student to do better, and maybe we can identify some potential ... qualities that belong to pilots and potentially use that to shape the way that we select people to be pilots," Joern said.
The standards the students were required to meet were the same any airmen going through UPT would experience and be graded on. The simulators have basic avionics -- from the joystick, throttle, rudder pedals, screens -- to give students the full feel of being in a cockpit.
The only thing that changed, Joern said, was the process of how he would get a pilot to learn information.
For example, instead of using handheld model planes to simulate what a pilot did, Joern said he'd put a student right back into the simulator with the VR goggles and show him his maneuvers. In the end, it's about being "a good aviator" instead of just being proficient in the aircraft that a pilot would fly, he said.
"We can teach them how to fly in a T-6, but every once in a while I can throw in an F-16 and say, 'Let's try this pattern but let's talk differences,' " Joern said.
The Air Force chose officers slated for the next undergraduate pilot training December 2018 class for the PTN program. After PTN, the officers will head to UPT, and the enlisted members will continue on to their predetermined technical training, officials have said.
Van De Water said the students excelled despite some programmatic hiccups.
"We've seen leaps and bounds increase, especially at the beginning of the program," Joern said. He said it was unexpected that the airmen learned as fast as they did in only a few short weeks.
"They were flying very complicated profiles during their first check ride," Van De Water added, "and in just a fraction of the time on average of the traditional check ride provides."
The deputy director said it took roughly about half the time it would take another pilot going through UPT to arrive at the same complexity of the check ride.
For this reason, both Joern and Van De Water said there were successes in giving airmen more leeway as well as personalized "versus cookie cutter" lessons during the program.
"Those things have shown out to be very valuable," Van De Water said.