Updated Sept. 6.
The Air Force has been battling a manpower crisis for several years as it continues to lose pilots to the lucrative airline industry. The total force faces a shortfall of about 2,000 pilots — the bulk of them fighters. It’s now exploring ways of modernizing its training pipeline, with the goal of making it faster and less expensive.
Pilot Training Next, an experimental program seated at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Austin, relies heavily on virtual reality and artificial intelligence tools. But it means students spend less time in the cockpit, and more time in front of screens. The first class graduates Aug. 3.
Pilot Training Next’s makeshift classroom houses two rows of flight simulators, for a total of 20. But these simulators are a far cry from the $2 to $3 million dollar ones the Air Force normally uses. Each unit is made from an enhanced Windows PC, as well as a gaming joystick and throttle. All told, they cost about $10,000.
"Everything here is commercial, off-the-shelf,” said Lt. Col. Paul Vicars, director of Pilot Training Next. “I could buy one of these for my son for his seventh birthday.”
For example, each simulator has an HTC Vive headset — a virtual reality platform that sells for about $500. When students look around in 3D space, they see the horizon and a panel of instruments. The simulators are currently programmed to recreate the cockpit conditions of the T-6 Texan trainer aircraft, but they’re being modified for other airframes.
Built into each simulator is an artificially intelligent tutoring program which offers feedback on students’ flying technique in real time, helping them hone aerobatic maneuvers and instrument approaches. It also frees up pilot instructors to focus on teaching more advanced techniques.
“Students can get into the simulator without the assistance of a human instructor and they can practice particular maneuvers,” said Lt. Col. Scott Van De Water, deputy director of Pilot Training Next. “They can get quite good at them, because the virtual instructor gives the right amount of feedback and gradually improves them to the point where they can perform the maneuver more or less perfectly.”
With Pilot Training Next, students have 24/7 access to the simulators, even while in their dorms, allowing them to take more control of their learning and reach training milestones faster.
“This is the generation of people, who are familiar with computers and computer games and all this kind of stuff,” Van De Water said. “All these things come very naturally and it's really exciting to see them grab their own training by the horns.”
Second Lt. Nathan Lewis, 27, said he can attest to the simulators’ effectiveness.
"You get better every day,” he said. “You run a simulation and you're like, 'I didn't even know I knew that,’ which indicates the breadth of what I've really taken in. ... We've been able to take in information quicker, and start processing to build better situational awareness in the plane.”
The experimental simulators also collect biometric data — like eye movement, heart rate, and perspiration — from the pilot trainees in order to monitor their stress levels and cognitive load.
“We're trying to induce good stress — the stress of focused learning,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson during a visit to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. “But we can also tell by that when a pilot is being overloaded.”
The Old Way
A severe pilot shortage has pushed the Air Force to re-examine its training methods and try to broaden its accessions base. The service recently reported a 2,000 pilot shortfall, and its plan to put 1,235 students through undergraduate pilot training in fiscal year 2018 has met with obstacles.
“The problem with training more pilots is that it's extremely expensive,” said Air Force experimentation manager Eric Frahm. “Absent a massive investment to be able to scale up our existing processes, we needed to find a better way.”
Given the high cost of traditional, high-fidelity simulators, the Air Force only has a few — roughly five or six for a base that trains 300 to 400 pilots per year. That means students in undergraduate pilot training have only occasional, highly structured access.
“There's not a lot of time to get that many people through in that compressed of a schedule,” Frahm said. “So the simulators run pretty much all hours of the day and night.”
During their off hours, traditional pilot trainees practice by “chair flying,” where they visualize a sortie while sitting in front of a poster of an airplane cockpit.
Air Force Secretary Wilson said it was time to update that approach and make use of emerging simulation technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
“We haven't really changed our pilot training for at least 20 years,” she said. “Yet technology and our understanding of how adults learn has changed quite a bit.”
Too Much Too Fast?
With the emphasis on virtual reality simulation, Pilot Training Next students spend less time in actual airplanes — just 60 hours versus nearly 200 hours with the old system — and get less face-time with instructors. They’ve also had their overall training period cut nearly in half.
That accelerated pace, coupled with an altogether different approach to instruction, has raised some concerns among Air Force leadership.
“Flying is obviously a very unforgiving environment. What we've found through very hard experience ... is that breaking flying down to very strict procedures is the way to achieve safety and synchronization in a military environment,” Frahm said. “There was concern: Were we throwing out all these lessons that we had learned over 120 years of flying that were too tragically written, too often written in blood.”
But he’s confident that the Pilot Training Next approach is safe, and argues that simulators can replace aircraft experience in certain contexts.
“We have accepted that simulators can replace certain aspects of flying training. Both in and out of the military, there are many events that we have pushed to be inside of a simulator exclusively,” he said. “Because they're either too dangerous to do in the aircraft but are important to learn, or because time and experience has told us that the aircraft is just not cost-efficient.”
Still, Frahm said, the Air Force is proceeding cautiously with the low-cost simulators until it has more data.
“We have a tagline: 'Sim to learn, and fly to confirm.’ ”
The real test will come when students graduate and move to their next level of training. There, they'll spend more time in the cockpit of the planes they'll actually fly in missions.
The Air Force has scheduled a second round of Pilot Training Next, and then plans to decide whether artificial intelligence and virtual reality will play a greater role in pilot training across the force.
Carson Frame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @carson_frame
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
CORRECTION: The surname for 2nd Lt. Nathan Lewis was inadvertently omitted. TPR regrets the error.