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The U.S. Air Force (USAF) is currently identifying ways to address its shortage of active-duty airmen, and specifically the shortage of available pilots. Recruitment of airmen and pilot training, continues to be an area of focus for the service.

In written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, noted that the service ended fiscal year 2018 with a total pilot shortage of 1,937 and that the shortage is most acutely felt among the ranks of fighter pilots. To compound the matter, LTG Kelly continued, “We are below the retention target of 65 percent needed each year and within each pilot category to sustain a health inventory” of pilots.

In order to address these concerns, initiatives like Pilot Training Next (PTN) are developing new platforms that make simulator training less expensive, even to the point of giving students “24/7 access to a simulator.” This may critically help the USAF increase the number of pilots that they can run through the training pipeline, a necessity with more near-peer competitors that could mount a challenge to U.S. air superiority.  Yet, it is not without its challenges.

For pilot training, in particular, which is high-stakes and requires a low level of failure, the synthetic training environment requirements need to be advanced to replicate the “real-world” environment. High fidelity simulators can offer pilot trainees a level of realism to match the “real-world” environment including visual, auditory, haptic, and tactile feel.  However, platform to simulator match is still key to effective training and this requires maximum concurrency for improved training effectiveness.

Initiatives like PTN fuel the pipeline allowing for a faster and higher student throughput rate, while at the same time preparing students as they proceed through their curriculum toward that “real-world” experience. With readiness being the ultimate goal, achieving that goal faster with lower attrition rates is the challenge. As the USAF explores these challenges in future iterations of its pilot training program, Modern Military Training has gathered some of the latest trends reflecting on the current state of military pilot training.

Military Leadership Notes Potential Acceleration of Pilot Learning

Lt. General Steven Kwast, commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command (AETC) and General Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command (ACC), both recently affirmed that adopting alternative models of pilot training, and particularly ones that incorporate virtual training like in Pilot Training Next, “would experience our pilots much faster” in comparison to the standard training model. To elaborate, LTG Kwast remarked that, “Simulations offer quicker, easier access to training than real cockpits do,” making it possible for pilots to learn some of the basic “caveman skills” of flight without the need to sit in an actual airframe. This reduces the demand for real flight time in the early stages of pilot training.

Virtual Training Would Reduce Demand for Finite Flight Time

Furthermore, LTG Kwast argued that the ability to allot enough flight time to a growing pipeline of student pilots is restricted by immutable factors like weather conditions, the monetary cost per flight, and the “fact that technology is making the range and speed of the fight so big, that the only range space that would be adequate would be from here to Australia.”

Recent concerns about the aging fleet of trainers and the bumper time until the next generation trainer is fully integrated into the fleet makes this a particularly relevant concern.

Alternatively, said Kwast, “We can put them in that cognitive reality [environment] 100 times a day if we want.”

Vice Chief of Staff Visits Pilot Training Next Headquarters

Following up on Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s visit last year, U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson’s visit to the Pilot Training Next initiative’s headquarters in Austin, TX underscores how important this initiative is to the U.S. Air Force’s future.

During his visit, he expressed his support for the program among a wide range of USAF innovations. “Does this make the Air Force faster or more lethal?” he asked in reference to PTN. “The answer is yes. We need to speed past the status quo. That’s what PTN [is] designed to do.”

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