The U.S. Air Force in recent weeks announced plans to ramp up its pilot training to produce 1,500 pilots a year by fiscal 2022. Now, Air Education and Training Command (AETC) has divulged preliminary blueprints on how it anticipates accomplishing the task.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said before a Senate Armed Services readiness and management support subcommittee hearing Oct. 10 that the service will increase its current 1,160 pilot training slots to 1,311 in fiscal 2019, aiming for 1,500 every year shortly thereafter.
The moves come as the service faces a shortage of roughly 2,000 pilots overall.
"AETC has been tasked to produce about 1,500 pilots per year … That number includes active-duty Air Force, Air Force Reserves, Air National Guard and international students," command spokeswoman Marilyn Holliday told Military.com this week.
- Air Force to Let Fighter Pilots, Crew Stay at Preferred Bases
- Student Pilots Given Unlimited Simulator Time in New Air Force Experiment
- Amid Pilot Shortage, Air Force Tests Out Fly-Only Career Track
While the undertaking is in its initial stages, the command will use programs such as the experimental Pilot Training Next -- paired with Pilot Instructor Training Next -- to improve how teachers and incoming students work together.
AETC is also updating its Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) curriculum to streamline how quickly the Air Force can produce new pilots, Holliday said.
"The final touches to the new Undergraduate Pilot Training syllabi were adjudicated and are now in the initial stages of execution," she said.
Revising pilot training
The curriculum's redesign gives squadron commanders the ability to refine training to better meet the needs of individual students, AETC said in a recent release.
Previously, students went back and forth between simulators and the flight line. The new syllabus moves "11 simulators that had been previously spread out over a three- to four-month time frame, into a single block of training prior to the first flight in the aircraft," Holliday said.
It's also a blended learning model, she said, that incorporates several best practices from "advanced military flight training and civilian flight training."
Students will cut their training time from 54 to 49 weeks once the changes are fully implemented.
"We are still in the early phase of executing the syllabus redesign, but initial performance from students indicates increased pilot performance," Holliday said.
Students will advance at their own pace. Previously, they had to wait until the entire class completed stages or assignments before moving on to the next. AETC will now allow for individual students to complete courses faster or slower as needed, officials said.
Holliday said this will not alter the official course length, but the time a given student spends in the course could change. The first UPT students to use the adjusted curriculum will graduate in spring 2019, she said.
Pilot Training Next
Thirteen students graduated from the first, experimental Pilot Training Next (PTN) class in August after six months of learning to fly in virtual-reality simulators. The program ran 24 weeks and "included 184 academic hours, with approximately 70 to 80 flight hours in the T-6 Texan II, as well as approximately 80 to 90 hours of formal flight training in the simulator," Holliday said. Students also trained on their own time in the simulators.
"We want to learn as fast as possible," said 2nd Lt. Christofer Ahn, a student pilot, in an interview before graduating. "Being able to use the simulators is a huge step in allowing us to accelerate through our training."
The service recently announced there will be a second class to test Pilot Training Next before the results are briefed to Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, who will decide whether the program will be incorporated into formal pilot training. The second class will begin training in January.
Holliday said that lessons learned from PTN have already been incorporated into traditional Undergraduate Pilot Training, as well as Pilot Instructor Training.
Instructors are also refining the ways they connect with students through innovation and simulation training. With a program called Pilot Instructor Next, they are looking for ways to develop what AETC calls the "Mach-21" airman, or the next generation of 21st century pilots.
Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, the AETC commander, coined the term to describe what the Air Force wants in its new pilots.
"This is an airman who can learn faster than their competition, can adapt when things are not working, and they can innovate faster than any opposition to create an advantage as a kind of lethality that allows our nation to defend its freedoms," he said in May after taking the helm of AETC.
In a news release, he expanded on his vision.
"A Mach-21 Air Force essentially is comprised of airmen who learn faster, adapt faster and strategically out-think the enemy, because they are moving at Mach-21 speed," he said.
To produce such high-quality and sought-after pilots, instructors need to up their game.
"Through Pilot Instructor Training Next, AETC flying squadrons have been equipped with virtual-reality simulators and 360-degree video headsets to integrate into syllabi," Holliday said. "Since implemented, there have been measurable benefits from the addition of technology, and 10 instructor pilots are slated to graduate from the PIT Next program each month."
The program applies to members of the 560th Flying Training Squadron and the 99th Flying Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.
Its biggest advantage, AETC says, is the ability to test students in high-stress environments in the safe space of a simulator.
"Virtually, instructors can put students in any situation to determine if they would recognize the danger and whether or not they take the right course of action," Holliday said. "Students also have the opportunity to take home mobile-video headsets, which connect to the pilot's smartphone and allow for on-command and on-demand training, which has also been helpful."
She added, "Incorporating this level of technology and deep-repetition learning allows these students to see the flight environment so many more times than they would have in the past."
Aircrew Crisis Task Force
AETC is also coordinating with the Aircrew Crisis Task Force -- set up in 2016 by the Pentagon -- building on its "holistic plan to ensure the Air Force's pilot requirements are met through retention of currently trained pilots as well as through the production pipeline."
At the Oct. 10 hearing, Wilson said the Air Force is placing an emphasis on addressing the national aircrew shortage by focusing on pilot quality of service and quality-of-life issues.
The task force has looked at ways of giving fighter pilots and aircrew the ability to stay in rotations longer at select commands and bases in an effort to create stability for airmen affected by the service's growing pilot shortage.
It has also included increasing financial incentives such as bonuses and providing more control over assignments and career paths, Wilson said.
"We continue to work with the Aircrew Crisis Task Force to ensure our pilot production planning encompasses an airman from commissioning through training and then to their operational flying units," Holliday said.