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New Air Force Pilot Training Study to Include Enlisted Airmen

Students in a Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training class learn what it’s like to breath oxygen for an extended period of time in an altitude chamber. (U.S. Air Force/ Staff Sgt. Austin M. May)
Students in a Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training class learn what it’s like to breath oxygen for an extended period of time in an altitude chamber. (U.S. Air Force/ Staff Sgt. Austin M. May)

The Air Force will begin a new pilot training study that aims to upgrade and enhance how future airmen prepare for combat in the cockpit.

But in a new twist, the study will gather perspectives from enlisted airmen.

Air Education and Training Command said the study, called the pilot training next initiative, will explore how pilots can learn and train faster "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, according to a release.

The pilot training next class, slated to begin in February, will consist of both enlisted airmen and officers.

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"The enlisted members were specifically chosen because they have not attended college," the release said.

"In order to be successful, AETC officials are seeking students from different learning backgrounds. The enlisted airmen eligible for the program will be selected from a pool of basic training airmen who have recently completed basic training," it said.

Lt. Col. Robert Vicars, pilot training next initiative director, said leveraging both enlisted and officer perspectives, plus advancements in technology, will help create a dynamic and effective training environment that can be applied to future learning initiatives.

"We want to select the top-caliber students and give them the tools, objectives and teachers so they can help structure a quality learning environment," he said in the release.

Vicars added, "Selecting enlisted members to fill the non-college student role is not intended to develop enlisted aviators.

"In this selection model, we can pool the data to determine what qualities, habits of mind and patterns of thought equal success in the flying training environment. We are then able to filter that data to develop simulators, apps and testing tools to pull in the very best talent," he said.

AETC's release follows media reports that the Air Force is considering using enlisted pilots in the future, which could lead to enlisted airmen training in and flying the T-6 Texan jet.

Echoing Vicars, Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen said that is not the intention -- yet.

"The Air Force is not considering expanding enlisted pilot opportunities into manned aircraft at this time," Yepsen said in an email to Military.com on Friday.

She added, "We are looking to see how we can use technology to help our airmen learn deeper and faster."

But enlisted airmen do add value to the larger pilot enterprise, Vicars said.

"Our enlisted airmen are an important part of this program and will help us evaluate the learning methods across ranks, education background and learning styles," he said.

All 20 students in the program -- 15 officer, five enlisted -- could advance, Vicars added.

"If we do this right, and the students learn all the functional competency sets, as well as key and critical learning objectives and skills, then we would expect to be able to pin wings on them," he said.

"Part of the challenge is to demonstrate that knowledge and those skillsets have been created," Vicars said. "Using the software we are integrating, we will be able to prove and demonstrate that learning more objectively than what is available right now -- even in legacy pilot training."

The Air Force chose officers who are 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, the release said.

The class, to be held at the Reserve Center at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, will be the first major pilot training review in nearly 50 years.

It comes as the Air Force suffers from a growing pilot shortage. Last month, the service said its pilot shortage has climbed to about 2,000 airmen even as officials work to keep them in cockpits.

"The fighter pilot shortage continues to be our greatest problem," Yepsen said. "We are nearly 1,300 fighter pilots short across the total force," or active duty, Air National Guard and Reserve.

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

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