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At a time of growing international threats, the Air Force is readying pilots for the unexpected

Capt. Dylan Rabbitt walks student pilots through a training scenario using VR simulators.
Carson Frame / Texas Public Radio
Air Force Capt. Dylan Rabbitt guides student pilots through a training scenario using VR simulators at Laughlin Air Force Base.

The Air Force is revamping the way it trains pilots so they can better respond to unexpected situations. The changes come at a time the U.S. faces challenges to its air superiority from countries like China and Russia. 

At Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, the scream of training aircraft overhead is constant. But students in the latest iteration of undergraduate pilot training don’t seem to notice.

On most days, they gather in a cramped room they call “the bullpen.” Rows of virtual reality simulators divide the space, while people in flight suits pack the aisles. Most of the stations are made from enhanced Windows PCs and other components like monitors, joysticks and throttles.

Students wear VR headsets and practice maneuvers while instructors like Capt. Dylan Rabbitt give them directions.

“So as soon as you're at that intersection, you're going to turn to the right and you're going to fly up those power lines straight to the runway. That's where you make your initial radio call,” he told a trainee in the pre-flight stage of training.

The simulators are often linked together — like a multiplayer video game — so students can practice entering busy air traffic.

“So we can put eight students in here with one instructor and watch them simulate a traffic pattern and see the conflicts happening. They [students] learn through experience rather than trying to read and pick something up from a book on how to deal with those particular situations,” said Maj. Trevor Johnson, chief of pilot training transformation with the 47th Operations Group. “It's enabling them with those rudiments of task management, decision making, risk management, situational awareness, that will inherently transition to more complex missions later.”

Undergraduate pilot trainees and instructors navigate virtual reality scenarios at the "bullpen" at Laughlin Air Force Base.
Carson Frame / Texas Public Radio
Undergraduate pilot trainees and instructors navigate virtual reality scenarios at the "bullpen" at Laughlin Air Force Base.

Learning from experience — and solving problems on the fly — are skills the Air Force believes are key to fighting future wars. The Pentagon now sees greater threats from countries like China and Russia, which may be able to interfere with U.S. military communications and cyber networks.

“Our potential adversaries understand the capabilities we bring. So we need to enable our students to deal with environments, even from this very early stage, where things just don't go according to plan,” he explained.

For 20 years, the Air Force operated with air dominance over Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. fighters, bombers, tankers, and surveillance planes usually moved freely in the skies — and forces on the ground benefited from their support.

Johnson said when he went through pilot training and into the operational Air Force a decade ago, the flying environment was more predictable.

“I didn't have something from, say, an adversary’s point of view that was impacting my ability to operate.”

But because the unexpected is becoming more expected, the Air Force wants pilots to be ready.

Trainee Catherine Ginn hopes to fly a fighter bomber one day. She and her cohort have taken part in many emergency exercises in blackout conditions or without communications. Whether or not those conditions are caused by a technically-advanced adversary, the problem-solving skills still come in handy.

“If you don't have radios, then you're kind of out of luck until you're close to the airport and they can see you,” said Ginn. “So then you can maybe rock your wings or wait for a light gun — something like that. Inside the cockpit, you have visual signals that you can use as far as communicating what you want, where you want to go, what you want to do.”

Student pilots Joseph Buxton and Catherine Ginn say the new undergraduate pilot training curriculum allows them the autonomy to design their own flight plans and revisit skills they may be struggling with.
Carson Frame / Texas Public Radio
Student pilots Joseph Buxton and Catherine Ginn say the new undergraduate pilot training curriculum allows them the autonomy to design their own flight plans and revisit skills they may be struggling with.

The new iteration of pilot training tries to shift students away from rote responses and toward real-world understanding. But it’s not just teaching young pilots to be more autonomous in the cockpit. The course format is designed to give students more flexibility in how they learn.

“You kind of have to know what you're struggling with and challenge yourself to be a better pilot,” he said. “Good example: yesterday I went out and was flying my training objectives, working on patterns and landings. But I still planned to go out to our area and do some fun aerobatics.”

“We plan our flights,” Ginn added. “There are certain requirements and objectives at different points in the syllabus. But if it's like basic aircraft control or something that's incorporated across the board, we always have the space to go work on that.”

The Air Force has rolled out the curriculum for all incoming undergraduate pilot trainees. The service is also exploring ways to modernize its communication systems and information networks to stop adversaries from disrupting its operations.

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

Carson Frame can be reached carson@tpr.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame