By Dan Hawkins, Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
/ Published September 19, 2018
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (AFNS) -- Air Education and Training Command officials announced the second iteration of Pilot Training Next would begin in January 2019 during a panel at the 2018 Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference.
To refine the curriculum for the next class, the PTN cadre used data collected from the first cohort of the Air Force’s innovative and experimental approach to enhance the future of pilot training to conduct a “Lessons Learned” workshop in conjunction with the AFWERX hub based in Austin, Texas.
“In the first iteration of PTN, we made some significant gains in terms of the lessons we learned in training using current and emerging technologies, as well as individualized training methods,” said Lt. Col. Robert Vicars, PTN director. “Moving forward, we want to learn from our first experience to make this training process smoother and more efficient.”
During Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson’s opening remarks at AFA, she stressed the importance of people and their innovative ideas. She talked about the idea and the testing being done at PTN and that the results so far have been promising.
“When they start out, trainees are typically able to fly just 10 minutes or so, of an hour and half training ride, with the instructors doing the rest,” Wilson said. “But if they get a lot more practice in virtual reality, the students are flying about 90 percent of their first rides, shaving weeks off flying training.”
Thirteen students graduated from the first PTN iteration Aug. 3. The course 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 (which doesn’t account for training conducted on students’ own time).
One of the key tenants of the PTN program is the round-the-clock access to an immersive simulation training environment, with students having 24/7 access to simulators in their living quarters. Critical to building that individualized and continuously accessible training environment has been the use of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
“Using AI and VR in the training environment is a game-changer,” said Lt. Col. Jason Colborn, PTN Detachment 21 commander. “One of the lessons we learned is that using these technologies still requires some up-front investment in terms of VR content creation, as well as development of the AI in a way that keeps pace with the students’ timeline.”
When it comes to data collection, context matters as the data comes in many different forms, Vicars said.
“During this first class, we learned how to manage and validate a continuous data flow from multiple sensors,” said Vicars. “Moving forward, we are adding redundancy to our data flows to ensure more consistent data is gathered.”
Training Methodology Lessons
Unlike the traditional undergraduate pilot training model, PTN offered students the opportunity to learn in a collaborative learning environment in a learner-centric way, in line with AETC’s redesigned Continuum of Learning model, said Vicars.
“One of the biggest takeaways we learned is the fact that PTN students having autonomy and individualized training, as opposed to the traditional UPT students’ set syllabus, really sped up student learning,” Vicars said. “While this approach created sortie scheduling challenges, we are looking at more adaptive scheduling tools to help with that problem.”
Another lesson learned was one that while the instructor pilots intentionally took a very open approach to training that valued options-based choices, there was a need to create a more structured approach to the individual’s options during training to allow for a more meaningful experience, said Vicars.
“In the next iteration, we will have the students use the learning management system with an AI-enabled search engine to help aggregate relevant content based on machine-generated, performance-based search terms,” said Vicars, “We will also give them more robust emergency procedures training to help build airmanship.”
Additionally, striking the right balance between making early aircraft platform tracks, such as (combat air forces, mobility air forces, or special operations forces), and providing common experiences that create a typical pilot, are topics being addressed.
While the training is designed to teach students how to fly, priming them for transition training at flying training units is a major consideration for PTN officials as they look ahead to the second class.
“In terms of preparing UPT students for the transition to follow-on training, we found we need to build integrated flying training unit teams with representation from 19th Air Force, the different major commands, and the FTUs,” Colborn said. “By having those open lines of communication and refining the training for the later phases of the program, we can smooth the students’ transition out of PTN to the FTUs.”
Creating concrete milestones for students using the PTN curriculum will also be a priority for the next class.
“While individualized training provides uncertainty in terms of a student’s progress, there are ways that can help add certainty to student outflows,” Vicars said. “This will give both the student and cadre a better sense of progression through the program, as well as provide interim goals.”
PTN Moving Forward
Before the next class begins, the PTN team has plenty of work ahead of them to get ready to incorporate the lessons learned, including student selection and partnerships with accessioning sources, Colburn said.
The next PTN class will approach student selection with a more holistic approach, with applicants being selected based on a battery of test results, including psychological, cognitive and intelligence tests, said Vicars.
In a partnership with the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, PTN will also have a simulator-only distance learning program to help determine the value of full access to relevant learning materials and AI-support training.