Air Force Embracing New Tech to Solve Pilot Shortage

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

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Facing an ongoing pilot shortage, the Air Force has been working to bolster the training of its undergraduate pilots and take advantage of new technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence. 

Key to that effort has been the service’s Pilot Training Next initiative, which is how Air Force Education and Training Command is reimagining how it instructs pilots and includes new technology that can be tailored for individual students.

Nestled under the initiative is Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5. The effort is taking place at both Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, and Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma. UPT 2.5 is meant to adapt and assess the effectiveness of some concepts gleaned from the Pilot Training Next program and employ them on a broader scale, said Col. Robert Moschella, 12th Operations Group commander at San Antonio-Randolph. 

“The intent is to transform the pilot training enterprise,” he told National Defense in an email. “UPT 2.5 will take proven PTN concepts and adapt them in a scalable model to the pilot training pipeline.”

In July, then Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein said the service had a shortage of 2,000 pilots out of a needed 25,000.

“We’ve carried that shortage over the past couple of years,” he said during an event hosted by the Brookings Institution.

Current Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown — who took the helm in August — said the service is embracing virtual training as it embarks on the UPT 2.5 effort which should help alleviate the shortage.

“Virtual learning is an opportunity to produce pilots in less time by providing student-centered learning with integrative, immersive technology,” he told reporters during a media call in August at San Antonio-Randolph. “We anticipate that we will be able to produce better pilots, not just faster, but better and cheaper, too.”

Through the initiative, students receive more formal instruction time, including additional simulator hours, as compared to traditional flight training programs where almost all of the instruction time is gathered in the air flying actual aircraft, he noted. 

During a visit to the base, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett tried on the same virtual reality goggles that students use for flight simulators and spoke with those going through the program. She noted that the students were much further ahead in their education than pilots had been in the past.

One of the challenges for the Air Force will be scaling UPT 2.5’s technology across the service, she said. 

“How do they scale this and at the same time … [conduct] student-led training where we move at the pace of the students’ ability to absorb and focus on the areas that they need to work on, and make sure they’re retaining … what they’re being taught versus kind of rote memory, which is kind of the way we did it in the past?” she asked. 

The service is moving forward and embracing the new technologies that can streamline training, Brown noted.

“I talked to a lieutenant yesterday. They’ve been in here for two weeks, and they’ve got VR goggles and are basically flying around in visual flight reference pattern and seeing all of the ground references,” he said. “When they finally get in the airplane, they’ve already got that.”

An iPad can record their work in the simulator and software can provide feedback, he noted. Instructors can use the system to point out the particular areas the student needs to work on.

UPT 2.5 also allows for students to train at their own pace, he noted.

“When I went to pilot training, if you were … [doing] much better, you got shut down because … you got too far ahead of the rest of the class,” he said. However, now “if you have somebody that has … got good aptitude, they’re able to keep going and not slow them down, and we can probably get them done a bit faster.” 

Brown, speaking during the Air Force Association’s annual conference in September, noted that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has helped the service retain some pilots due to the uncertainty in the commercial aviation industry. However, the service is continuing to monitor the pilot shortage and address it by implementing programs such as UPT 2.5.

“We’re taking steps in the right direction,” he said.

UPT 2.5 completion timelines are driven by individual performance, said Col. Erick Turasz, 71st Operations Group commander at Vance Air Force Base. That means that high performing students can set their own pace, which allows the Air Force to accelerate them and get them to the operational Air Force sooner.

“This has the potential to create additional capacity in the system,” he said. “The data is still being evaluated to determine if the shorter timeline will influence the pilot shortage.”
Lt. Col. Ron Knight, 559th Flying Training Squadron commander at San Antonio-Randolph, said UPT 2.5 incorporates and synchronizes a cloud-based learning experience that includes immersive technology and new learning methods to achieve student proficiency.

“Early access to curriculum and increased student-centered simulator and instructor interactions are designed to enable additional training opportunities for more complex training missions and/or advanced training competencies,” he added.

 Turasz said the overarching goal is to improve the way the service executes training through focused instructional methods, a more flexible non-linear syllabus and the adoption of technology to produce high quality pilots in the most efficient manner possible.

“UPT 2.5 uses new technology like virtual training devices to replicate operational environments,” he said. “It focuses on challenging student pilots and leveraging student-based learning to develop skills in a more complex environment over a shorter period of time.”

Knight noted that immersive technology offers students better visualizations of tasks associated with military flying such as flying in formation, ground references and emergency procedures. 

“It offers the opportunity to practice the associated tasks, increasing the cognitive repetitions in a more realistic environment,” he said.

Col. Tim Danielson, 71st Flying Training Wing commander at Vance, said the Air Force is researching ways to introduce new technologies into its training curriculum. 

“For example, the combination of virtual augmented devices and trainers, in combination with communications from real air traffic controllers, permits students to get quality training repetitions that allows them to make mistakes on the ground with considerable less risk and saves valuable flight time for more challenging training,” he said.

Additionally, virtual reality provides students with a more realistic “chair-flying” experience, he said. While VR is not a replacement for live training, it makes such flights more productive and leads to higher quality graduates, he added. 

Turasz noted that UPT 2.5 rewards difficulty in the training course, which the service anticipates will result in a higher quality of pilot with foundational airmanship skills.

“Maneuvers are weighted by difficulty, so students will be incentivized to challenge themselves,” he said.

The combination of a student-based training curriculum and more challenging training flights means that the Air Force is “winging pilots directly out of T-6s rather than waiting after T-1s and T-38s,” he added.

“We expect this foundational airmanship may be able to produce higher-quality pilots in a shorter period of time as well as pilots who are better prepared to adapt to challenges experienced in complex, dynamic and contested environments alongside our joint partners,” he said.

Vance Air Force Base recently started its fifth UPT 2.5 class in T-6s and officials have noticed improvements in student preparedness by the time they reach the flight line, which enables instructors to challenge students sooner in the program, Turasz noted.

“With our first class, which has now all completed their initial solo flights, the class averaged reaching the solo nearly 10 flights sooner than a traditional class, highlighting the benefits of early technological impacts of accelerating the learning curve,” he said.

In total, there have been five classes under UPT 2.5 with a total of 135 students at Vance, Turasz said.

The first UPT 2.5 class, which started in July, is approaching the mid-point of the syllabus with promising results, and is projected to graduate in late February, he said. Vance will soon be exclusively executing the UPT 2.5 syllabus, and officials expect 450 students to enter the pipeline over the course of the year.

Twenty-two students are currently enrolled in UPT 2.5 at San Antonio-Randolph, and 33 more are awaiting training start dates, Knight said. 

As the Air Force moves forward with its new training curriculum, it is adjusting to challenges posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A large portion of the academics has transitioned to Zoom, Knight said. Briefings are conducted similar to pilot instructor training with mask wearing and social distancing to the maximum extent possible.

The pandemic has forced the Air Force to accelerate transitions to virtual learning environments and think differently about how the service conducts training, Danielson said.

“We found that in some cases in the virtual environment, students felt more empowered to ask challenging questions, using a moderator to bring questions forward at the appropriate time and increasing students’ understanding of the material,” he said. “The pandemic highlighted the value of our digital and virtual academics.”

The Air Force is working closely with industry on its pilot training effort. 

CAE recently received a contract from the Defense Innovation Unit in support of UPT 2.5 for the installation and integration of a cloud-based learning management system, or LMS, said Phil Perey, director of technology for CAE’s defense business. 

The effort is about integrating commercial technologies that already exist “that can be brought into the fold and allow the Air Force to really rethink delivery of pilot training,” he said.

LMS serves as a hub for students’ data and progression, with trainees and instructors able to log into a single location and see an individual’s entire progression throughout the undergraduate program, Perey said. 

“What we’re doing here is we are taking the government’s curriculum … and staging and indexing it through some newer interfaces,” he said. The system can “better describe and log how a student performed.” 

It shows how much time a student spent on a specific question and what their specific proficiency level was, he noted. 

“It’s more than just saying, ‘Oh, I passed it and I got 82 percent,’” he said. “No, you spent a lot of time on question 12 and you really aced all these other questions.”

CAE is also delivering a content management system for the Air Force’s curriculum with remote learning capabilities.

That’s “very much something that ... a lot of customers are interested in with regards to the whole context of COVID,” he said. The platform has “more one-on-one coaching, live chat forums, and many, many classes.”

The platform offers students and instructors an adaptive learning environment through artificial intelligence and machine learning, he added. It can track an individual student and assess areas that are challenging them.

“The system comes up with a series of recommendations that the instructor has at a glance,” Perey said.

The instructor can then offer that particular student remedial training, if necessary, he added.

Moving forward, the Air Force is already thinking about what UPT 3.0 will entail.

“We seek to build a training system that continually evolves and adapts to meet the needs of our Air Force while harnessing the latest available technology,” said Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, 19th Air Force commander. “As such, 3.0 isn’t the goal; 3.0 will be one more evolutionary step and improvement in our system.”

Lt. Col. Steve Briones, 19th Air Force A5 deputy director for innovation and technology, said the service needs to continually strive to incorporate emerging technology into its training programs where it makes sense. 

“Over the past three years, we have learned a lot about immersive technology and cloud services and how they fit into flying training,” he said. “Going forward we need industry to transform right alongside us and include cost effective digital twin solutions for all of our training platforms and crew positions.”

Seamless access to training tools and content are valuable to students and instructors, he added. 

“As we take the next evolutionary step to UPT 3.0 and beyond, we will incorporate mobile and extended reality across a spectrum of devices,” he said. “Additionally, we must leverage AI, machine learning and biometrics to adaptively deliver content and training recommendations based on student performance.”

Industry should be thinking beyond the traditional end-to-end training systems and leverage small business to develop truly innovative open architecture software solutions, he added. 

Topics: Air Power

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