SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what a digitalized image of a virtual world is worth for those undergoing pilot training.
While the possibilities of the technology in undergraduate pilot training have not been fully realized, the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base is taking the lead to discover how virtual reality can play a role in training tomorrow’s pilots today. That’s why the wing, home of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, hosted a Tech Symposium May 22-23 to showcase virtual reality flying training platforms from some of the industry’s leaders.
The video-game like products require users to don a headset that covers the eyes, producing high-quality digital images to create the virtual world. Wherever the pilot looks, they are viewing a computer-generated world through the use virtual reality technology.
Maj. Steve Briones, 80th FTW commander’s action group and organizer of the event, said about 15 companies were invited to showcase their wares to give leadership and others to opportunity to soar through a virtual world and gauge the feasibility of the state-of-the-art equipment in the flying training world. He said simulators used for undergraduate pilot training do an amazing job at teaching students instrument procedures, situational awareness in the cockpit, emergency procedures and more.
“Where that falls short is the ability to link those together. While we do have that functionality, we don’t really use it for that,” he said. “The visuals are a huge thing. The visuals in these headsets far surpass anything that we currently have.”
Briones said another benefit to virtual trainers over traditional simulators is cost. He said the price tag for simulators and the associated technologies are several tens of thousands of dollars, whereas the more advanced products can cost up to $1,000 or less.
Virtual technology is advancing and changing very quickly in regards to pilot training, the CAG said. But, what is being discovered as a possibility in the training environment is something that young Airmen grew up with while playing games at home. By employing the technology, Briones said they are hoping to be able to flatten the learning curve by creating more opportunities to “fly” before touching an actual aircraft and without the stressors of a traditional training setting.
He said he can see where this technology would have been a benefit in his own training six years ago
“If you gave me more opportunities to practice without the pressure of being on a grade sheet, I think you’re able to get those repetitions in a lot faster and not under pressure,” he said. “So, I think that alone is going to give me a better student at the (pre-flight) brief whenever we get ready to go fly.”
One program already using virtual reality technology in a pilot training environment is Air Education and Training Command’s Pilot Training Next program, which is based at the Reserve Center at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas. Maj. Scott Van De Water, deputy director of the program, said suing this technology is second nature for the current digital generation.
Like Briones, Van De Water said the handful of UPT students at PTN – officers and enlisted – grew up learning on and playing on the gadgetry being used in the program.
“They’ve demonstrated proficiencies already by coming to us with their background as kids and we’re just building on top of what they already know natively,” he said. “So, providing the tools to teach themselves is of tremendous value.”
The major said PTN students receive instructional training on VR simulators, but also have the advantage of having VR setups in their rooms, which allows them to continue to train out of the classroom environment. He said that’s a reverse of the teaching methodologies used in the past.
By continuously building on concepts learned in the training environment, Van De Water said PTN students are able to strong general skillsets needed to be an Air Force aviator.
Van De Water said it is too soon to share some of the results they are seeing from the program, but he is excited and encouraged by what he is witnessing. He said when he went through UPT at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, in 2008, his in-residence simulator outside of the classroom consisted of a fake cockpit and instrument panel tacked to a wall and a plunger to serve as the flight control.
“This is so far superior to that,” he said. “At the price point, I’m not sure why we weren’t doing this earlier.”
Van De Water said the fidelity of VR training provides a better learning experience for students and should be something the Air Force leverages to have a “compendium of training resources.”
Briones said the 80th FTW is in the process of looking at different platforms with hopes of setting up a VR lab for the program to experiment with the technology. Although a beginning date for the experimentation has not been set, he is hopeful it will begin in the summer.