The Air Force's Virtual Reality Fighter Training Is Working Best for 5th-Gen Pilots

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Pilot Training Next students train on a virtual reality flight simulator.
Pilot Training Next students train on a virtual reality flight simulator at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Austin, Texas, June 21, 2018 (U.S. Air Force/Sean M. Worrell)

The Air Force is finding that experimental virtual reality fighter pilot training is working best for students who want to fly the service's most advanced stealth platforms -- though leaders are not exactly sure why.

Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, 19th Air Force commander within Air Education and Training Command, said that as the service collects feedback from units accepting graduates from the Pilot Training Next program, which uses virtual and augmented reality technology to train on fundamental aviation skills, it appears students who fly the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters are leading in the field.

"For whatever reason, [students] tend to do better in F-35 and F-22-type courses comparatively [to] how they've done in the fourth-generation fighters," Wills said during a roundtable discussion with reporters Tuesday.

Wills could not explain this finding, but noted that fourth-generation fighter students -- those who fly F-15 Eagles or F-16 Fighting Falcons -- sometimes see a six-to-seven month break in training as they await acceptance into their formal training unit, or FTU. The FTU is where pilots are assigned to their official aircraft following undergraduate pilot training, or UPT.

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The Air Force has seen benefits from having pilots learn basics through cutting-edge virtual reality technology, Wills said. But the service is still trying to find the best way to track how students are progressing overall, he said.

"We're working through some of those challenges to get the hardcore data," Wills said.

In 2018, the service introduced a first-of-its-kind Pilot Training Next (PTN) experiment at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, to test students' abilities within an augmented reality space meant to resemble an in-flight experience.

PTN has graduated 41 pilots to date with its three classes.

While the experiment uses simulators to teach aircraft familiarization, the focus has really been on individual students and ensuring they progress at the right pace. Student pilots have traditionally begun their training with heavy academics and regimented simulator time, but PTN plunges them directly into augmented reality and simulator training, allowing them to learn and self-correct as they participate in realistic flight scenarios before they get into the T-6 Texan II trainer aircraft used for instrument familiarization, and low-level and formation flying.

Reiterating previous comments made by AETC officials, Wills said pilot performance and washout rate in PTN closely resembles a conventional undergraduate pilot training class of 30 individuals. PTN classes, by comparison, have been smaller ,with roughly 15 to 20 airmen at the start of each class.

"Broadly speaking, folks have met the standard and moved on," he said. Wills added that the PTN instructors are in touch with field and operations commanders to get updates on these students anecdotally, but no concrete performance data has been compiled yet.

Wills said outdated systems -- scoresheets that vary from unit to unit and score pilot criteria in different ways -- are often manual or handwritten files, making it difficult to compile and centralize performance data.

"One of the big initiatives in AETC we're trying to move towards is this thing called an Airman Learning Record," he said. The Airman Learning Record, a cloud-based online record that allows students to track their training progression from any mobile device, was introduced as a concept in 2017, and began beta testing in 2018. Wills did not say when the tool would be fully established.

In July, the service introduced a new program, dubbed Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5, which builds off the PTN effort.

After seven months, 10 pilots graduated from the program from Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph last week.

"With respect to UPT 2.5. It's just too early to tell what we've seen so far," Wills said of data tracking.

Primary training for UPT 2.5 begins in the T-6 aircraft, but then transitions to virtual reality, simulator and tablet learning mechanisms.

"We've introduced about 100 extra hours of immersive training devices, the VR simulators," Wills said Tuesday.

Wills previously told Military.com the program will focus more heavily on revamping training for the mobility and special operations communities in order to help the service phase out the T-1 Jayhawk at Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) locations between fiscal 2023 and 2025. SUPT teaches flying, airmanship, instrument knowledge, rules and regulations.

The simulator-heavy experiment now halves the length of the current T-1 course to roughly 12 weeks within the training program, accelerating a pilot's path to graduation.

The Air Force also just completed another new program, "Accelerated Path to Wings," that is shorter than traditional training but does rely more on the T-1 than UPT 2.5.

Students learn general aviation foundation skills in the classroom and then head straight into the Jayhawk, finishing in roughly seven months time instead of the traditional 12 months.

Seven airmen graduated from the program on March 12.

While the Air Force is progressing with these programs, it's also looking to outsource training to private industry to boost yearly pilot output as it races to produce 1,500 pilots a year. The Air Force fell short of that production goal -- first set in 2018 -- in fiscal 2020, producing 1,263 pilots.

Wills knows these programs represent a major shift in training.

He has seen some reluctance, he said, to replace real-world flight hours with simulation.

"A lot of the changes that we are making are very controversial," he said. "I won't sugarcoat it, there are a lot of folks in the pilot force that don't like it.

"Anytime you change something that you were doing in an airplane, and you put it in a simulator, it's not going to be popular."

Over the next few months, Wills and his team will visit every active-duty flying wing and many of the Guard and Reserve units to talk about the pilot training transformation.

"We've got our work cut out for us with respect to moving forward and educating the force on what we're up to, to get that buy-in," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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