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Pilot instructor training embraces change through virtual reality

At Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, pilot instructor trainees assigned to the 12th Flying Training Wing, are utilizing a variety of emerging technologies to aid in their learning and development. It’s known as Pilot Instructor Training Next, also referred to as PIT Next, a technology-based learning approach, which began with Pilot Training Next, an undergraduate pilot training program that leverages virtual and augmented reality.

JBSA-RANDOLPH, TEXAS (AFNS) -- Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command, has empowered Airmen across the recruiting, training and education enterprise to "be bold, take risks and embrace change" as they make changes to their training curriculum and processes to find the best way to inspire and develop AETC Airmen.

With that charge in mind, the Pilot Instructor Training Next program was forged, as two 12th Flying Training Wing squadrons have integrated virtual reality simulators and 360-degree video headsets into the training syllabus. The genesis for this technology-based learning approach began with Pilot Training Next, an undergraduate pilot training program based in Austin, Texas, that leveraged virtual and augmented reality to reimagine what the future of Air Force pilot training could look like.

Lt. Col. Matthew Strohmeyer, 560th Flying Training Squadron commander, and Lt. Col. Justin Chandler, 99th Flying Training Squadron commander, added the new technology to their squadrons here in May and June of this year, respectively.

“Students that get into the seat and start flying in the virtual environment are reacting like they would in the actual aircraft within minutes,” Chandler said. “This ability to recognize and drive change at the operational level is a monumental step for the Air Force.”

Since VR use in PIT Next was implemented, there have been measurable benefits from the addition of the technology and ten instructor pilots are slated to graduate from the program each month.

“In line with the National Defense Strategy, the Air Force is focused on maintaining its competitive advantage,” Strohmeyer said. “We’re making sure our pilots are capable of providing air superiority and air power for America in future conflicts. Our leaders are enabling us to find the advantage we need to ensure we can deter a peer-level adversary from fighting us, and if we have to fight, we can dominate.”

One of the biggest training advantage to PIT Next that has been noted is the ability to place students in complex or dangerous situations that would otherwise be impossible to do in an actual aircraft.

“In real-life, an instructor cannot put a student in an intentionally dangerous situation and compromise flight safety, but that is not the case virtually,” Strohmeyer said. “Virtually, instructors can put students in any situation to determine if they would recognize the danger and whether or not they take the right course of action.”

Students also have the opportunity to take home mobile-video headsets which connect to the pilot’s smart phone, allowing for on-command and on-demand training.

“Incorporating this level of technology and deep-repetition learning allows these students to see the flight environment so many more times than they would have in the past,” Strohmeyer said. “In the end, this allows students to gain a much higher level of mastery of the skills they need to be competent on at the end of the program.”

The changes in the 99th FTS include the incorporation of the VR and 360-degree video headsets, as well as a new perspective in the unit approaches traditional classroom academics.

“We need to acknowledge there are new insights into how the human brain learns and processes information. There needs to be an evolution in how we tackle these tasks,” Chandler said. "We refuse to accept the status quo and that refusal has driven us to a higher-level of training."

Chandler believes the Air Force is just now scratching the surface on what is possible with advancements in training.

“We began with our specialty, aviation, but I think this is just the beginning for the Air Force,” Chandler said. “I think this will have impact on every career field.”

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