The sky's the limit: Sheppard innovation goes from ground up

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Madeleine E. Jinks
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – To maintain the title of the world’s greatest Air Force, it is imperative to keep moving forward. To commit to never being stagnant. To find creative solutions, think outside the box, and always adapt and overcome. 

Sheppard AFB has made the commitment to growth through innovative training on the ground and in the sky through the use of virtual reality for student pilots and Airmen in technical training. Some of this technology will be available for use to attendees of the Sheppard AFB Open House and Air Show Oct. 26-27, 2019. 

Mixed reality used by the 80th Flying Training Wing is a flying environment in a controlled setting that enables students to learn and make mistakes with a safety net. It was created through the use of 360-degree cameras, skilled pilots and actual images from flights over North Texas and Southern Oklahoma. The program is able to build instructional content to train students on items such as local aerial procedures and ground operations.

Lt. Col. Michael Schmidt, 80th FTW director of strategic initiatives, said he believes the use of mixed reality technology in training has helped with translating skills from classroom to cockpit. Schmidt explained that on the first day of his pilot training he was provided with a tall stack of books and a poster with an image of the front of the cockpit. 

“I slapped that thing on the wall and I would sit in front of it for hours and practice starting the aircraft and understanding the functions of the switches, familiarizing myself, all with the poster,” he said. “You’d have to make that mental leap to put yourself in that environment. Whereas here, all you have to do is put on the goggles and you’re virtually there.”

Johnnie Williams, 366th Training Squadron electrical systems training manager, has found that implementing technology in the training environment is key to efficiency. To be an electrical systems apprentice, Airmen must be able to conduct electrical procedures from the top of electrical poles and bucket trucks. Rather than teaching climbing procedures in a high-risk environment, instructors can send Airmen up to great heights through a virtual reality fear of heights assessment. 

“At first, I didn’t believe it would be that realistic,” he said. “But you put those goggles on, go up in an elevator and walk out on the plank and it feels real. It’s not real life experience, but it’s accurate enough that fear can be gauged.”

The assessment is given to Airmen on their first day of the 48-day course, so if it is found that an Airman has a severe fear of heights, they can possibly be placed in an appropriate career field. However, having a fear of heights isn’t an automatic disqualifier for being an electrical systems journeyman. 

“Having that fear doesn’t always take them out,” Williams said. “It identifies who might be a weak climber and gives instructors an idea of who they may need to spend more time with.” 

Similar results were observed regarding technology and improved efficiency in training within pilot training at the 80th FTW. 

“If these tools help the students to learn faster, it means the instructor is able to teach more advanced concepts with the same amount of time in the aircraft,” Schmidt said. “Once we start burning gas in the engine, each drop of gas becomes more valuable. Now we can get more training out of each drop of gas that we burn.”

The efficiency of innovative training through virtual reality has proven itself time and time again in the 80th FTW and the 366th TRS, but it can’t stop here. Schmidt said the 80th FTW sees continued innovation on the horizon. 

“I’ll be the first to say technology is not perfect and it’s not a revolutionary change,” he said. “It’s breaking through the mindset that the way we’ve always done it is the correct way, that is revolutionary. The way we go about training pilots will never change, but the tools which we use to get there certainly can.” 

The mixed reality lab is currently available to student pilots 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but even that is not enough. Schmidt said he is working toward making the lab portable to maximize resource availability. This means eliminating the tall stack of books and assigning each student a set of mixed reality goggles and an iPad with course information; making it possible for students to immerse themselves in a flying environment from the classroom or from their couch on a Sunday morning. 

Williams also has plans of furthering innovation within his squadron through testing virtual realities for bucket truck training and a new simulator. 

“The simulator will show Airmen arriving at a scene with a down power line and they need to isolate the circuit,” he said. “This allows us to see them go through it step by step and make the area safe without anybody getting hurt.”

The innovation here at Sheppard has made an impact on the efficiency and effectiveness in training and the quality of graduates it is producing. However, Schmidt said this is not the only thing that makes Air Force the lethal force that it is.

“What makes us the Air Force that we are is our tactical side,” he said. “The quick thinking, decisive, and aggressive side we have is not something I think we should place in technology’s hands.”

Airmen should hold these attributes near and dear to their hearts, as it’s what makes each and every one of them a guardian of freedom – the theme for this year’s air show. 

“Ultimately, pilots are just the end of a very long line of people that do incredibly important and critical jobs to accomplish the mission,” Schmidt said. “Regardless of the job, everyone is integral to the process, which is what makes them a guardian of freedom.”