US Services Testing VR-Based Flight Training Tools - MS&T

US Services Testing VR-Based Flight Training Tools

The US military Services are all facing significant pilot shortages, as are other Western nations with volunteer forces. US Editor Chuck Weirauch looks into some of the early-days attempts to accelerate the learning curve.

Attempts to improve retention numbers of older, more-experienced pilots through financial and other incentives have not generally achieved their goals. The siren-song lure of becoming a commercial airline pilot is becoming too enticing for many Air Force, Navy and Army pilots to resist; airlines continue to sweeten the pot as they mitigate their own shortages. And while training times to a commercial left seat might sometimes seem long, those durations pale in contrast to the years it takes for military recruits to achieve their goal of commanding a military aircraft.

The UK Royal Air Force is now taking part in the USAF Pilot Training Next (PTN) program, which seeks to speed up the learning process and pilot production. Image credit: US Air Force/Dan Hawkins.
The UK Royal Air Force is now taking part in the USAF Pilot Training Next (PTN) program, which seeks to speed up the learning process and pilot production. Image credit: US Air Force/Dan Hawkins.

Just looking at the numbers can be depressing. At current staffing levels, the US Air Force needs some 800 active-duty pilots and 1,150 reserve pilots to fill the gap, with the fighter pilot shortage the most acute. The near future is no better, with numerous reports, including a 2018 RAND Corporation study, stating that the Air Force active-duty pilot shortfall will grow to more than 1,607 by 2023. According to RAND, “The supply of fighter pilots is limited by the capacity of the Air Force to train new pilots and to absorb new, inexperienced pilots in operational units, with absorption typically being the most binding constraint.”

A 2018 US Department of Defense report concluded that the US Navy lost 1,242 aviator billets – which includes pilots and navigators – the previous year. A 2018 Government Accountability Office report found that the Marine Corps fighter pilot shortage had quadrupled – from 6% in 2006 to 24% in 2017. Army helicopter pilots are also being “poached” by US airlines through their helicopter transition programs. However, through a more-successful bonus program ($35,000) for AH64 Apache helicopter pilots, that Service has reduced its shortage to about 400 pilots overall.

In the UK, a key problem is lack of instructors; the usual three to four years training has often been doubled before pilots are posted to operational squadrons. (Helicopter pilots have been offered £70,000 retention bonuses – about $85,000.) In Germany, the problem is lack of working aircraft; some pilots are quitting out of frustration, and some rotary-wing pilots are losing their licenses for lack of currency.

US Air Force Alternatives

With limited success with incentive programs for experienced pilots, all of the US major Services have turned to revising their initial pilot training programs to improve efficiencies and help mitigate their pilot shortage issues. Those efficiencies include making more use of aviation training devices (ATDs), part-task trainers and full-flight simulators in their training curricula. These efforts also include the development and employment of new training technologies, with all Services experimenting with training devices that feature augmented, virtual and mixed reality (AR/VR/MR).

It can take about two years of Air Force training time for a pilot candidate to qualify to become a fighter pilot. Any reductions in this timeline can make a considerable improvement to the pilot pipeline throughput. This time includes about a year of Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). Then, the student must spend what could be another year at an Operational Training Unit before becoming a green, inexperienced fighter pilot still not ready for a role in combat.

To address the shortage, the Air Force is developing several initiatives, one of which is a complete revamping of its UPT program. Another is its Pilot Training Next (PTN) program, which employs an ATD that incorporates VR and AR technologies. Equipped with these revised and advanced training tools, along with other yet-to-be-described products, the Air Force is gearing up to produce 1,500 new pilots a year by 2022. This number includes active-duty Air Force, Air Force Reserves, Air National Guard and international pilots.

Undergraduate Syllabus Changes

Last year, the Air Education and Training Command (AETC) made several modifications to its UPT syllabus that in part incorporated “more robust simulator time.” The changes decreased the time required for students to qualify as UPT graduates from 53 weeks to 49 weeks. According to AETC Public Affairs Officer Marilyn Holliday, the initial phases of the revised UPT program are underway. Preliminary studies already show improved pilot performance, with the improved training effort related more to self-paced learning.

The first UPT students were scheduled to graduate this spring, she added.

According to COL Lee Gentile, 71st Flying Training Wing Deputy Commander at Vance AFB and director for the UPT syllabus team, the revised syllabus incorporates several best practices from advanced military flight training and civilian flight training, including more use of simulators in the curriculum. “By front-loading simulator training, the instructors have noted that students are more proficient with basic aircraft maneuvers and basic procedures,” Gentile reported. “As a comparison, students on their first flight in the new syllabus are performing at a proficiency level that was normally achieved in the sixth or seventh sortie in the old syllabus.”

What Next for PTN?

According to the AETC, the experimental PTN program is designed to help determine if students can learn faster and more effectively by using existing and emerging technologies – in this case VR and AR – thereby “decreasing the time and cost of training.” The Command launched the first PTN course in February 2018 with 13 Air Force Academy graduate officers and two airmen before they entered the UPT program.

Normally student pilots begin their basic training with heavy academics and regimented simulator time in the UPT program. Instead, the PTN students were immersed directly into VR and AR simulator-based training, with realistic and immersive flight training scenarios. The program ran 24 weeks, and included 184 academic hours, approximately 70 to 80 flight hours in the T6B Texan II turboprop trainer aircraft, and approximately 80 to 90 hours of formal flight training in the simulator.

The ATDs feature consumer-grade HTC Vive Pro headsets and gaming computers coupled with flight simulator software, plus stick, throttle and other equipment to simulate virtual cockpit and practice maneuvers. Artificial intelligence tracks students’ biometrics, including stress, to tailor the simulation environment. Students are also provided simulator headsets to use in their private quarters and encouraged to practice as much as possible. The total equipment cost was under $15,000.

After six months, the 13 officers graduated from the PTN course and went on to their respective Operational Training Units. Though the PTN program was successful enough to approve a second trial, AETC officials cautioned that at this stage, the PTN course is still considered experimental, and is not intended as a replacement for the UPT program. The second PTN course began in January of this year, and graduation from that program was scheduled for August. Graduates include two Air National Guardsmen, two Navy pilots who will fly the T45A Goshawk, and one UK RAF graduate who will fly the Typhoon.

The PTN program is an outgrowth from the USAF “AFWERX” competition which seeks to tap into the creativity and innovation from entrepreneurs, industry, academia, investors and other non-traditional contributors. SAIC manages AFWERX for the Air Force, and the company’s SAIC Integrated Training Edge (SITE) basket of tools for assessing student results is being used on PTN. (SITE was a finalist for the 2018 MS&T Outstanding Innovative Product Award – for this year’s winners).

The US General Services Administration (GSA) has made an award to Discovery Machine “to bring a more complete virtual instructor pilot (VIPER) solution” to the PTN program.

A USAF Pilot Training Next instructor and student look over the flight plan for their training mission. PTN graduated its second class at the end of the summer. Image credit: US Air Force/Sean M. Worrell.
A USAF Pilot Training Next instructor and student look over the flight plan for their training mission. PTN graduated its second class at the end of the summer. Image credit: US Air Force/Sean M. Worrell.

Navy PTN Variant?

The Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) Command is reported to be in the process of standing up a Navy initial pilot training program similar to the Air Force PTN effort; the CNATRA program would include the employment of VR-equipped ATDs. CNATRA program developers have been collaborating with Air Force PTN program developers and an Army acquisition program, and CNATRA staff procured new VR trainer devices within just 90 days. Complete with spare parts, tech support, and cyber security, etc., each unit had a price tag of approximately $20,000, the command reported.

There are now four T45 VR trainer devices available to Navy student pilots at Training Air Wing 1 at NAS Meridian, Mississippi, and four at Training Air Wing 2 at NAS Kingsville, Texas; also six T6B VR trainer devices at Training Air Wing 5 at NAS Whiting Field, Florida, and four at Training Air Wing 4 at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas.

According to a statement to MS&T by CNATRA Public Affairs, a CNATRA flight training team is constantly looking for ways to improve the Navy pilot training syllabus, from streamlining standard operating procedures to researching emerging technologies to modernize training.

“While virtual training is not currently a graded element of the Chief of Naval Air Training student curriculum, we recently implemented virtual training devices at each of our primary flight training wings,” the CNATRA team lead pointed out. “These devices provide an opportunity for students to increase cockpit familiarity before stepping into a real aircraft, and to practice maneuvers in the safety of a virtual environment.”

Under a 2018 Naval Air Warfare Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) contract, Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) developed the first T45 VR and mixed reality part-task trainers, one of which was linked to a T45 operational flight trainer (OFT). Since then, 11 T45 training devices have been deployed to several naval air stations, with four T6 devices located near CNATRA headquarters in Corpus Christi, Texas. All have been used by initial Navy student pilots on an informal, free-play basis and not in formal courses.

Analyzing the Effectiveness

While both AETC and CNATRA have gathered anecdotal input as to the effectiveness of using such technologies, actual pilot performance data that would verify any performance improvements gained through their use has not been made available. That will change by the end of September, when the results of a formal training effectiveness study are to be released. The study was conducted for CNATRA by the Navy Aviation Training Systems and Ranges Program Management Office (PMA-205) and NAWCTSD.

According to that study’s lead, Navy LT Joseph Mercado, Deputy for PMA-205’s Air Warfare Training Development Integrated Product Team (IPT), there is not any hard, objective data to back up subjective observations and conclusions. “Notionally what we are seeing is that these devices are providing a higher level of immersion for the pilot,” Mercado said. “One of the reasons for this observation is because students can see 360 degrees in the virtual world (in and outside the cockpit via the VR headset). Another is that some of these devices can be linked together so that students can fly formation flights with them. This is something that they can’t do except in live-flight training. Another notional point concerns training cost-effectiveness, but that has to be verified as well.”

The study also has the goal of determining which versions of the new technologies incorporated into the ATDs work best for training, Mercado added. There are three different groups of students, each operating different equipment, such as with different VR headsets. This also includes the T45 device developed by BISim that is linked to the T45 OTF, and one that employs Leap Technologies student hand-and-finger motion tracking sensors in the trainer.

“In the training effectiveness study, we hope to track student training to see if there is a difference in their performance gained by employing the VR-equipped devices in contrast to those without the devices,” Mercado said. “But the missing piece is aircraft data once these students fly the actual aircraft after using the VR-equipped part-task trainers. We hope to get this data next year though a follow-on effectiveness study that has been funded for fiscal year 2020.”

As a part of next year’s training effectiveness follow-up study, Mercado’s team will also be evaluating the performance of students flying newly developed TH57 Sea Ranger training helicopter VR part-task trainers. These training devices are aimed at making new trainees more comfortable in the cockpit before their first low-level familiarization flights.

“We are looking at getting 10 TH57 VR training devices, and then doing a training effectiveness study similar to that of those conducted with the T45 and T6 devices this year,” Mercado reported. “This second study should take about seven to 10 months. The motivation to conduct such studies is to see if there are really some benefits to this technology, such as immersion, time to train, and cost-effectiveness. We use the Kirkpatrick four levels of training effectiveness standards for these studies.”

The leadership of other Navy aircraft platforms have expressed an interest in the development of VR and mixed-reality FTDs for their aircraft, such as for the V22 Osprey, Mercado pointed out. But so far they have a wait-and-see attitude until the results of the CNATRA-PMA-205-NAWCTSD training effectiveness studies become available. 

Originally published in Issue 4/5, 2019 of MS&T Magazine.