The Air Force is about to begin its third iteration of the Pilot Training Next (PTN) program, designed to test student aviators' ability to learn faster and absorb more through cutting-edge technology and simulation.
The service said its latest PTN class starts in January and will analyze lessons learned from previous training pipelines to advance and potentially accelerate how pilots practice flight, officials said in a recent news release.
"As we innovate, we must take stock in the lessons we've learned through our first two classes," said Lt. Col. Ryan Riley, commander of Detachment 24, which hosts the training. It is located at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.
"We are finding ways to transform the way we learn in pilot training and, doing so, we are defining our challenges, finding our successes and identifying our failures, so we continue to evolve our training," he added.
Air Education and Training Command (AETC) officials launched the first-of-its-kind study in 2018 amid the service's persistent pilot shortage. The experiment tests not only the students, but ways the Air Force can adapt and use futuristic technologies such as virtual reality in its day-to-day training routine.
While student pilots have traditionally begun their training with heavy academics and regimented simulator time, the Pilot Training Next program plunges them directly into augmented reality and simulator training, allowing them to learn and self-correct as they go through realistic flight scenarios.
The second class began training Jan. 17, 2019, with "10 active-duty Air Force officers, two Air National Guard officers, two U.S. Navy officers, one Royal Air Force officer and five active-duty enlisted airmen," the release said. The first class included 20 students -- 15 officers and five enlisted -- but ultimately ended up graduating 13 officer pilots in August 2018, AETC previously told Military.com.
Enlisted airmen were included so the Air Force could better understand how airmen who may not have had prior college-level academics conceptualize their experience, AETC said.
Officials did not disclose the makeup of the upcoming class.
Providing early access to materials, as well as more side-by-side training with instructors, are two things PTN officials say are critical in order to push students through the basics of pilot training.
For example, students who had early access to "immersive training devices," or ITDs, via a distance-learning program or other relevant means "possessed a much greater working knowledge of ITD functionality, T-6 Texan II basic contact and T-6 basic instruments," the release states. The T-6 is used for instrument familiarization and low-level and formation flying.
"We noticed that students with early access had a rapid ability to ingest data and perform, meaning they can perform faster and improve quicker," said Lt. Col. Robert Knapp, Detachment 24 operations officer.
And while PTN remains student-centric, one-on-one time with instructors is pivotal to flight training development, officials say.
"The instructor-pilot role here is more important now than ever," Riley said. "The individualized approach to training can expedite the learning timeline, and it also creates unique scheduling challenges that our instructor pilots will need to address."
Students also have the ability to train using an artificial intelligence instructor tool known as VIPER, or virtual instructor pilot, according to the release.
"We are graduating students based on competencies -- not time," Riley said. "Technologies like VIPER, immersive training devices and innovative students and instructor-pilots are making it possible."
Officials are still debating the best use of the students' time since each learns at his or her own pace.
Second Lt. Christofer Ahn, a student pilot who graduated with the first class, said that PTN members could take their virtual reality simulators to their living quarters to practice.
"We could come back and work over the weekends," Ahn said in an August 2018 interview. "In normal pilot training ... there are limits for how long you could be in [the simulator]. We basically got nearly unlimited access. Learning something in the books, it's just the books. Or visualizing something mentally. We could practice ... anytime we want."
Officials have since noted that, while 24/7 access to VR technologies has been invaluable and that these elements shouldn't necessarily be taken away, the training schedule may need to be revised since it may not always be realistic to have students train in their living quarters.
"Unlike traditional undergraduate pilot training, which can take up to a full year to complete, PTN students only have six to eight months to learn the content," Knapp said. "This leaves little downtime, so we will need to re-evaluate the need for in-home devices."