The Air Force Wants to Overhaul Pilot Training. But It Has to Win Over the Skeptics First

An Air Force instructor pilot briefs Gen. Harrigian on virtual reality simulator capabilities.
Lt. Col. Brandon Zuercher (right), instructor pilot, briefs Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, United States Air Forces Europe and United States Air Forces Africa commander, on the virtual reality simulator capabilities during a visit to Detachment 24 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, June 24, 2019. Det. 24 will absorb the third and future iterations of Pilot Training Next, Air Education and Training Command’s initiative to redesign the pilot training environment and integrate various technologies to produce pilots in a learning-focused manner. (Sean M. Worrell/U.S. Air Force)

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is one of the most advanced stealth fighter jets in the world, boasting digital avionics and cutting-edge technologies that give pilots more situational awareness above the battlespace.

But the student pilots who will someday fly these premier planes are being trained on decades-old instruments and techniques -- and that has to change, according to top officials at Air Education and Training Command.

"Our training system hasn't fundamentally changed, probably in six decades, when we talk about pilot training," Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, 19th Air Force commander, told in an interview last week. "Certainly, we don't want to throw out the things that work, but the question is, in the 21st century, is it right that our primary training techniques still revolve around putting a poster on a wall and pretending we're flying an airplane?"

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The outdated approach is one of many reasons the unit -- in charge of training more than 30,000 U.S. and allied service members in various skills, including future Air Force pilots -- has embarked on a new task of bringing virtual reality technology and simulation to more airmen, and soon.

Dubbed "Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5," the program at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, will aim to advance the first-of-its-kind Pilot Training Next (PTN) experiment, which the service began in 2018 to test students' abilities within an augmented space meant to resemble an in-flight experience.

The Air Force anticipates investing $20 million per year to develop the digital backbone training model over the next three to four years. The model may include enhanced applied sciences, such as increased biometric readings taken during flight, the commander said.

"This is more of an evolution than revolution," Wills said. "The fact of the matter is, this applies to almost every way that we do training in the Air Force. So if there is a revolution in this anywhere, it's probably on the digital side, not so much on the mechanical side."

By spring 2021, he expects AETC to have enough graduates to produce "objective data with respect to how the system's working." And by that summer, Wills will present Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, the head of AETC, his final recommendation on whether the Air Force can establish UPT 2.5 at other major operating bases.

Putting the Focus on the Pilot

Ever since the Air Force started on this quest, Wills said, critics have been dubious of the command's plans to increase reliance on virtual technologies in place of hands-on experience.

"People have an assumption that we're asserting that [we're building] twice as good a pilot in half the time; that was never the plan," he said. "The plan was to build just as good a pilot in about half the time, and that experiment has been largely successful."

PTN has graduated 27 pilots to date, with another 14 slated to graduate soon, for a total of 41 for the three classes, AETC said.

The first PTN group included 20 airmen -- 15 officers and five enlisted. Enlisted airmen were included in that group so the Air Force could better understand whether college experience made a difference in training; afterward, they returned to their previously assigned career fields following the program, officials said. In total, 13 airmen graduated from the first PTN class.

In the second PTN group of 20 students, 14 graduated, with one moving to extended training and graduating a month after his peers. Five did not complete the program, said AETC spokeswoman Capt. Lauren Woods. The third iteration, which began in January, will have 14 graduates out of 16 students, she said.

Wills said that while the experiment includes using virtual and augmented reality simulation to teach aircraft familiarization and provide an in-flight experience, the focus has really been on the student, and ensuring he or she progresses at the right pace.

That's something UPT 2.5 builds on.

"The research has shown that about 80% of the time, the learner will learn faster if you ... put the tools in their hands, and you really 'unchain' the learner," he said. "And clearly, at a time when we'd like to increase production, the ability to learn equivalent skills faster is certainly an interesting case."

Woods added that though UPT 2.5 is an offshoot of PTN, the two programs slightly differ.

“PTN was an experimental program with a lot of different factors [officials] were testing,” she said in an email. “Thus, the importance of UPT 2.5, which as Gen. Wills indicated, will give a larger set of data to work with and make more accurate assessments.”

Pilots also begin their lessons faster. Instead of waiting to collect textbooks on the first day of training, students can now log online to access their curriculum -- months ahead of their first classroom experience. In some instances, the students can also take their virtual reality simulators to their living quarters to practice, or access the 24-hour learning center.

"We need to strike a careful balance between actual flying time and simulated flying time. There's no question that there's no substitute of having actual experience in the cockpit," said Wills.

Pilots are graded based on performance, the same way they would be if they were up in the air. So far, pilots are performing on par with their traditionally trained peers, Wills said.

"We should be utilizing synthetic environments and digital environments to the maximum extent we can ... to test people in ways that can't always be done in the air," he said.

He added, "There's also no question that one of the main driving factors in this is the need to get after pilot production."

Boosting Ranks

The Air Force ended last fiscal year 2,100 pilots short of the 21,000 it needed to meet mission requirements in support of the National Defense Strategy, officials said in March. In February, the service said it would fall short in its goal of producing 1,480 new pilots across the force by the end of fiscal 2020.

While the UPT and PTN experiments aren't meant as a recruiting tool, they could be catalysts for bringing in potential airmen who already have digital or video-gaming skills, and want to put them to the test in real aviation.

"From the perspective of, are we trying to recruit and attract young people who are drawn to a cutting-edge Air Force that uses the tools and tech that kids are used to? Absolutely, we're connected to that effort, and so, how do we train them and turn them into the premier aviators that we want them to be?" Wills said.

It's no secret the Air Force faces pressure to train new pilots fast. Even with steady progress over the last few years and with some pilots extending their stay in service due to the coronavirus pandemic, "that doesn't solve the problem of who's going to leave the Air Force 14 or 15 years from now," he said.

The Air Force is under the gun to fix its yearslong pilot shortage -- a problem facing all aviation units -- and to clear backlogs within some of its training pipelines. But in a force that typically resists change, innovation comes with pushback.

"Pilots are very attached to the way we do business, so when you change it, there's this automatic reflex to say, 'You must be wrong if you're changing it,'" Wills said, explaining that he's heard criticism that shortening the class might make it less challenging.

"But we don't have that luxury."

AETC launched UPT 2.5 at Randolph on July 15. Wills previously told the program will initially apply to the mobility community and will help the service phase out the T-1 Jayhawk at Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training locations between fiscal 2023 and 2025. SUPT teaches basic fundamentals of flying, airmanship, instrument knowledge, rules and regulations.

Following weeks of training in the T-6 Texan II, air mobility students assigned to Randolph will not fly the T-1 aircraft during their advanced training, and instead, will complete a simulator-only Air Mobility fundamentals course headed by a PTN instructor. Meanwhile, those at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, who are slated for mobility; special operations; and command-and-control intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms will use a modified T-1 training syllabus. Wills said Vance was chosen as another location to begin UPT 2.5 because leadership "was ready to take the leap" a year ahead of schedule.

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.

A typical undergraduate pilot training class has roughly 30 pilots per class, Woods said. The class then shrinks as students move onto either the T-1 or T-38 Talon trainer. By comparison, there are currently 11 students in the UPT 2.5 program at Randolph, and 26 at Vance, she said.

"I don't believe that the transition to UPT 2.5 carries with it inherent safety risk; what it does carry with it is a responsibility for us to make sure that we're still maintaining the same standard with the graduates that we push out," Wills said.

Simulators to Enhance, not Replace

The latest revision to the AETC program follows Air Force efforts over the last two years to overhaul the pilot training curriculum and build in greater use of simulators and technology.

Despite the age of the training fleet, which includes T-38s that date to the 1960s; T-1s that have been around since the '90s; and problem-plagued T-6s, the move to incorporate more ground training has nothing to do with the condition of airframes, Wills said.

"Bringing on the successor to the T-38 is important," he said, referencing the T-7 Redhawk. In September 2018, the service awarded Boeing Co. a $9.2 billion contract to build its next aircraft for training pilots, in a program known as T-X. In 2019, the Air Force rebranded the T-X as the T-7A Redhawk, named in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen. The first T-7A is expected to be delivered in 2023.

"But it's no question that we're maintaining [the T-38] exceptionally well and that we're committed to maintaining a safe fleet of airplanes [until that happens]," Wills said. "If I didn't think the fleet was safe, we wouldn't be flying."

Over time, the Air Force will gather more data on how pilots fare in the new simulation-heavy program. When they come together at their formal training unit (FTU) -- where pilots are assigned to their official aircraft following graduation -- "we'll be able to compare where they finish in their class, and we'll have a really good idea how it will stack up," he said.

"We don't have the luxury of taking [pilot training] at a really, really slow pace. There's no question that there's some risk involved in what we're doing, but I would argue that the risk is primarily programmatic," Wills said.

"The difference between how we live and how we train is measured in trust. And if that gap continues to widen, we'll have a hard time attracting and retaining the kind of talent we need to protect America."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: Air Force to Cut Use of Jayhawk Trainer, Rely More on Simulators

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