Wills: Quality Will Bring Acceptance of New-Method Pilot Graduates

Senior aviators are resistant to the idea of overhauling Air Force pilot training, but the quality of new flyers will sell them on the changes, 19th Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Craig D. Wills said March 23.

“I won’t sugarcoat it, there are a lot of folks in the pilot force that don’t like” the changes being made to undergraduate pilot training, helicopter pilot training, and streamlined ways for certified civilian pilots to take an accelerated path to wings,” Wills told reporters in a virtual media roundtable.

But, “in the Air Force … complaints and criticisms of those programs usually stop with good flyers,” he said. The restructuring is designed not to save money or even increase the production of pilots, but to make better aviators with more relevant and credible flying experience, he noted.

To hasten that socialization, though, Wills said he and his wing commanders are trying to visit every Active-duty flying unit in the next few months, and as many Guard and Reserve flying units as possible, “to talk to them about pilot training transformation.” The objections usually center on shifting real-world flight hours to simulator time, he said. “It’s not going to be popular, and I totally understand that.” But the new system “makes better use of a student’s time” and shifts the instructor-pilot interplay to one more like “a coach-athlete relationship.”

Wills acknowledged, “We’ve got our work cut out for us” in gaining acceptance of the new system.

The new paths to wings include more simulator hours and some shortened phases, but with more personalized attention, going at one’s own pace, and more focus on the kind of specialized flying a pilot will do after graduation.

So far, Wills said, there isn’t much difference between the results of traditional methods and the new system, with about the same number of high-, medium- and low-performing pilots and washouts. His comments came about a week after the first class graduated from Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5, which uses laptops, tablets, online courses, purpose-built video games, traditional instruction and “TED Talk”-style presentations in a learner-centric model that serves as a halfway point between the old methods and those of the future.

“It looks a lot like a normal class,” he said. Wills noted that one graduate of a pathfinder program is flying F-35s and his unit “seems to think pretty highly of him. So, the No. 1 thing is producing a quality graduate.”

Even though the purpose of the overhaul is to improve pilot quality, Wills said the various programs should help address the pilot shortage in the Air Force.

Pilot Training Transformation
Pilot Training Transformation looks to transform the way USAF trains its pilot, using a learner-centric model to create quality pilots. Air Education and Training Command graphic.

“Our task is to get to 1,500 pilots a year,” he said, reporting that last year, “we produced 1,263,” a downturn from the previous year’s 1,279, which Wills chalked up to COVID-19. The pandemic “cost us about 120 pilots’ worth of production,” he said.

But trends are up, he added, with increased funding from the Department of the Air Force, and “blue-suit instructor manning [will be at] at 100 percent this summer cycle.”

A drag on pilot production is in civilian simulator instructors, who Wills said are reluctant to move to places like Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, and other out-of-the-way bases. One potential solution will be allowing instructors to teach multiple students virtually in simulators at many far-flung bases. A more immediate fix, he said, is “special salary rate increases” for civilian instructors, “which we hope will allow us to attract more quality candidates.”

Air Education and Training Command needs “high quality simulator instructors … in relevant numbers … to make all our plans a reality,” Wills acknowledged.

Air Education and Training Command graphic.

The “biggest bang” in production from one of the new initiatives will come from Helicopter Training Next, which shifts pilots from learning fixed-wing flying first to going directly to rotary wing instruction. This move will free up more slots in the T-6 trainer fleet and “automatically means 60-80-90 additional grads a year” in fixed-wing, he said. Additionally, HTN means “about six months” off the usual helicopter training period, he said, because pilots won’t have to make a permanent change of station from a fixed-wing UPT base to helicopter training at Fort Rucker, Ala., or to a civilian helo school. It also “shaves” about $250,000 per student off the bill.

Taking the T-1 Jayhawk out of the mobility pilot pathway—shifting to an almost all-simulator track—also will free up aircraft for assessment and training of alternate-source pilot candidates, Wills said. 

“So, between the two of those, we see great potential on the production side.” Attracting civilian pilots to become USAF pilots is a “great unknown,” though, because it’s uncertain how long the current lull in airline hiring will last, and because the Air Force requires that “you be willing to fight and kill and potentially die for your country.”

Another 50-100 additional pilots might come from streamlined paths to wings for ROTC graduates of “aviation-accredited schools” that provide significant flying training, Wills said.

The Air Force is still looking at the track record of experimental versions of the new pilot training programs, checking grades and other factors to see if it has struck “the right balance” of simulator versus real-world flying time, but Wills thinks “we have it about right,” and the resulting pilots will be “safe and lethal.”

He’s also expanding the introductory flight training program, “pushing more hours to the left,” in a light airplane. The program assesses students’ ability to learn flying in a relatively inexpensive way, and by adding more hours—up to 50, with 40 of those flying under visual flight rules and another 10 on instruments—in this phase, USAF can cost-effectively enhance the chance of success.

“We’re probably losing candidates,” that, given more time in the introductory phase, “could do really well” when they advance to the “high performance turboprop” T-6.

Wills also said the Air Force is looking to “completely revisit the scoring method” of pilot applicants, so it doesn’t give undue advantage to those who can afford to rack up a lot of flying hours before entering the program. While such individuals tend to have low attrition, “the concern is, we’re leaving exceptional candidates behind,” he said. Neither grade point averages nor flying hours “tell the whole story,” Wills noted, saying USAF is looking for other indicators “of how well you’ll do at pilot training.” It’s looking for “grit, and determination, and resilience,” and may give greater weight to “someone working three jobs to get through school” versus someone who, with a “credit card, can rack up the hours.”

He insisted that the Air Force is “not going to lower the standard, but why would you exclude someone over something as arbitrary as GPA, or how many flying hours they have? We want the best candidate, … but we have to make sure we’re using the right measures.”