A student pilot trains on a virtual reality flight simulator as part of the Pilot Training Next (PTN) program at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. The PTN program is part of Air Education and Training Command’s initiative to “re-imagine” how learning is delivered to Airmen. Sarayuth Pinthong/USAF
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Strategy & Policy

Sept. 1, 2020

The Training Renaissance

An Air Force technical training revolution is in full swing, driven both by manpower shortages—in particular, pilots—and a new wave of effective teaching technologies leveraging virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, and processing power. Almost every aspect of USAF training will change over the course of this decade.

These technologies “are not coming—they’re here,” 19th Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Craig D. Wills said in a July interview. He described changes underway for training pilots, maintainers, and RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) operators, as well as survival training.

While cost savings could be a benefit, in the long run, the aim, Wills said, is to help Air Force technical schools produce higher-quality graduates, and to get them through training faster while delivering more ready Airmen to front-line units. In some cases, he said, the new methods can cut training time in half, with no loss to graduates’ technical capability.

Pilot Training Next 

The flagship program is Pilot Training Next, one of a series of so-called “Next” initiatives, Wills said, including Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) 2.5—a halfway point between the old methods and those of the future. Using laptops, tablets, online courses, purpose-built video gaming rigs, traditional instruction, and “TED Talk”-style presentations, the aim is to provide “student-centric learning” that connects with every student, regarding of learning style. Since today’s Air Force recruits grew up with these varied approaches and technologies, they are already comfortable using them, Wills said. 

“Pilot Training Next is about to finish its third class,” Wills continued.

 “The first two classes have finished at their Formal Training Units and they’re out at their ops units. All the indications are “Pilot Training Next has done a pretty good job,” he said, adding that the program isn’t meant to “graduate super men and super women” but “quality graduates in less time.”

The physical cornerstone of UPT 2.5 is a repurposed video gaming rig called an Immersive Training Device, or ITD. At a cost of just $10,000 to $15,000, it’s a fraction of the millions invested in a full-up simulator, but it’s performed well so far in experimental runs with small classes. Including a seat, video screens, virtual reality goggles, control stick, throttle, and rudder pedals.  It’s a futuristic version of what pilots used to call “chair flying”—practicing procedures and switch­ology using a broom handle and a couple of bricks. Installed both in common areas and students’ dorm rooms, pilot trainees use the ITDs to practice everything from basic procedures to sophisticated maneuvers in the T-6 Texan II, USAF’s primary flight training aircraft. The devices will eventually be available to students 24 hours a day. 

Previously, students may have needed several real-world sorties to master a particular skill, Wills said. But now, after perhaps a dozen practice runs in the ITD, they often are able to fly the maneuver in the real airplane on the first try.

Students also have access to course materials at all times. If they are struggling with any aspect of the course, they can retake the presentation on that technique. This is cross-referenced to the ITD, which can immediately put them in the flying situation they’re having trouble with, so they can practice until they are proficient. This “seamless access” to content recognizes that “each of us learns a little differently,” Wills said, allowing individualized instruction to produce a more effective outcome.

If students are doing well in a particular phase and don’t need all the rides planned for learning certain skills, they can skip the redundant sorties, Wills stated. That saves time and resources.

The big break from previous methods is that students now are not expected to all move at the same speed, Wills noted. “We can let some students go faster, and some  … go a little left or a little right before they take two or three steps forward.” 

 Among instructors, Wills added, younger ones are taking to the system more readily than old hands. “Innovation flights” at AETC’s pilot training schools are gathering data on the new technology and offering suggestions on new applications. The first formal UPT 2.5 class started July 15 with 11 students at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, and 28 at Vance Air Force Base, Okla.

Four Tracks

The T-6 Texan II phase of instruction has been lengthened slightly to between 90 and 100 hours of flying time, at which point pilots get their wings. After that, they progress to the category of aircraft they’ve been selected to fly. Those going to fighters will move on to the six- to seven-month Fighter Fundamentals course in the T-38 Talon. Bomber-bound pilots attend the four-month Bomber Fundamentals course, also in the T-38. 

 Mobility pilots take a three-month course now taught in the T-1 Jayhawk, but which “will be simulator-only, using some of these Immersive Training Devices and advanced VR,” Wills said. The 30-year-old T-1 is nearing the end of its life expectancy and “there are no plans” to replace it. 

 Because AETC doesn’t have all the ITDs it needs yet, some mobility-bound students will “fly a modified T-1 syllabus, which will also be heavy on simulators,” he said. There will be about 11 students per class. 

Students going to other kinds of platforms will go directly from UPT to the Flying Training Unit for their aircraft.

 While the UPT training devices emulate the T-6, the ones for mobility students will emulate the T-1 at first, while fighter-bomber tracked students get an ITD patterned on the T-38.

Those at Vance will, for a while, continue with the T-1, but with increased simulator time. The program will have “about 100 hours of additional immersive content,” Wills noted. 

The planned divestiture of the T-1 between 2023 and 2025 is the “elephant in the room,” according to Wills. To keep it flying, the T-1 would need new engines and a service-life extension. “We think we can produce an equivalent graduate in less time and still maintain the high standards of the U.S. Air Force” without it, he said. 

 AETC is partnered with Air Combat Command in developing a new fighter training system, called Reforge, which will coincide with the arrival of the T-27A Red Hawk, using similar technologies (see “Reforging Fighter Pilot Training,” p. 44).  

“A year from now, we’ll be in a much better position” to definitively say what the future of undergraduate pilot training will look like, Wills said. The challenge now is to scale the experiment to produce 1,500 to 1,600 new, fixed-wing pilots per year. “They all need to be consistent and reliable,” he said.

Greater reliance on simulators should also save flying hours on the T-1, extending its life. Wills hopes to use that extra life for the “Accelerated Path to Wings,” or XPW, a program aimed at civilian-rated USAF officers or cadets who want to become Air Force pilots. The concept has already been tested with civilian-rated “high-time Guardsmen and Reservists … and to no one’s surprise, they did great,” Wills said. Inspired by a civilian T-6 test pilot who joined the Air Force but still had to complete the T-6 syllabus, XPW is an abbreviated, accelerated version of UPT that lets candidates skip some sorties intended to teach skills the candidate already has. 

Wills declined to speculate on how many additional pilots XPW could yield per year, but said “there’s pretty big potential there.”

Another initiative, called “Civil Pilot Path to Wings,” seeks to make it possible for big-wing airliner or freighter pilots to rapidly get through a streamlined commissioning track. They would have to meet all standards and come in as second lieutenants, Wills said. 

A small number of T-1s will be retained at Pensacola, Fla., where USAF and Navy jointly train combat system operators. The Navy, which also flies the T-6, is fully on board, having “adopted—wholesale—our UPT 2.5 and Pilot Training Next plans,” Wills said. “They call it project Avenger, and they are going down the same road we are.” 

As a sign of the maturity of Pilot Training Next, it used to be an initiative reporting directly to the commander of AETC, but on Jan. 1, came under 19th Air Force, making it “operational.”

The experimental classes for UPT 2.5—about 15 students each—have had success similar to those in the traditional program. Some finished at the top, some in the middle, some at the bottom, and some washed out, Wills pointed out. Given that the same results were achieved in less time, “we’re pretty pleased; we continue to look at the data as it comes in.” 

Helicopters and RPA Pilots

AETC is in the early stages of shifting helicopter-bound pilots out of the T-6 entirely. Over the summer, it launched courseware and contracts to use contractor-provided helicopters instead. As before, students will complete their training at the Army’s rotary wing school at Fort Rucker, Ala. Several small experimental classes were successful doing it this way, and the program is being expanded.

First called “Project DaVinci” (after Leonardo’s drawings of a helicopter-like machine), the program is now known as Helicopter Training Next (HTN), and Wills says it will free up “60 to 80 slots per year in T-6s,” which will in turn increase throughput for fixed-wing pilots.

“It looks to us like a complete win, across the board,” Wills said. The same techniques used in UPT 2.5 will be applied to HTN, which will now take “nine to 11 months, instead of 17 or 18 months.” The resulting helo pilots will be just as good. The first official HTN course is slated to begin this month. 

Remotely Piloted Aircraft operators used a simulation-intensive program from the start, and that has increased in recent months, Wills said.

RPA pilots go through RPA Flying Training in Pueblo, Colo., getting 40 hours of instruction in the DA-20 Katana light aircraft. That program was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wills said, but he planned to resume it in late August. “We have relied more on simulation and immersive training in the last couple of months,” Wills said, exemplifying how the Air Force used teaching technology to “fly through” the pandemic.


Wills also pointed to the recent reconfiguration of Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training, which is being cut from 26 to five, 12 or 19 days, depending on the flying platform. 

Wills said the curriculum grew unnecessarily over the years, requiring too much in-person training that could be provided with online academics. Bomber and fighter pilots will get the long course, while mobility aircrews will get the mid-range and other aircrew the short course. These changes, too, were accelerated by the COVID pandemic. 

It “just doesn’t make sense” to take aircrew away from their jobs for that long, Wills said. The major commands will choose which SERE courses their aircrews attend.

As with pilot training itself, the course could be restructured to put similar things together, use advanced tools, and require students to accomplish more training on their own time and pace. Shortening the course will also allow more SERE instructors to get out in the field to conduct theater-specific refreshers.

In time, quantum computing and better AI will lead to more substantial changes in technical training, Wills said. But he hesitates to call it a revolution. 

“We’re just updating our learning methodologies,” he said.