Air Force still short of pilots and hopes technology will help close the gap

The Air Force is still a long way from its goal of training around 1,500 new pilots per year, as it seeks to fill a persistent gap and address the long-standing exodus of pilots to well-paying jobs in the airlines. .

But the Air Education and Training Command said it sees progress and hopes a combination of technology and new approaches will help it increase the number of new pilots it can get each year.

AETC Commander Lt. Gen. Brad Webb said on a Sept. 13 call with reporters that the Air Force’s technology-based pilot training overhaul is starting to pay off. results.

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“We are constantly exploding and reinventing,” the original Pilot Training Next technology, said Webb.

But there are still bottlenecks in the process – especially an issue with understaffed simulator instructors – that prevent the Air Force from producing all the new pilots it needs.

The service graduated 1,263 new pilots in 2020. By the end of fiscal 2021 later this month, Webb expects this year’s tally to reach around 1,350 graduates.

flight simulator as part of the Pilot Training Next program March 5, 2020, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. The PTN program is part of Air Education and Training Command’s initiative to “rethink” the way learning is delivered to Airmen. (Photo by Sarayuth Pinthong / US Air Force)” typeof=”foaf:Image”/>
Student pilots from Detachment 24 practice on a virtual reality flight simulator as part of the Pilot Training Next program March 5, 2020, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. The PTN program is part of Air Education and Training Command’s initiative to “rethink” how learning is delivered to Airmen. (Photo by Sarayuth Pinthong / US Air Force)

The Air Force needs approximately 21,000 pilots in its total strength, which includes active duty, the National Guard and the Reserve. At the end of 2020, the most recent year for which figures were available, the service was short of 1,925 pilots in total, leaving it around 19,075. Active service was short 800 pilots; the Guard, 675; and the Reserve, 450.

This is an improvement from the shortage of around 2,100 pilots that the Air Force experienced in fiscal 2019, but it still represents a shortfall of 9%. The severe economic blow to commercial airlines in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic caused them to significantly slow down the hiring of their pilots. In the spring of 2020, for example, the Air Force gave at least 171 pilots who were due to retire or a separate clearance to stay longer.

But with the resumption of commercial travel this year, Webb said, that “grace period” is coming to an end and the pressure is mounting again for the Air Force to push for more pilots.

One of the main bottlenecks in the process is simulator training, which is usually taught by civilians. The staffing is “not great,” said Webb, and about 80% across all flight training bases.

This means that places such as Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, and Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas have been forced to withdraw instructor pilots, who would otherwise take students on training planes. real, out of the flight line to teach on simulators. This made it more difficult for students to gain real flight experience and has hampered pilot production, Webb said.

The Air Force is looking for ways to get around these dead ends, for example by performing remote simulator instructions. For example, a commercial airline pilot who lives elsewhere in the country could “virtually head” to training bases and instruct future Air Force pilots on simulator flight, a technique the service hopes to prototype. here next year, Webb said.

In recent years, the Air Force has adopted a suite of other technologies and methods, originally developed as part of the Pilot Training Next program, which aimed to streamline the training of undergraduate pilots using reality headsets. virtual, biometrics and artificial intelligence.

In 2018, officials touted the virtual reality-powered training overhaul, in which students sometimes train simultaneously at a series of stations side-by-side, as much cheaper and more efficient than existing simulators. The AI ​​and biometrics components track how a student pilot does on a virtual excursion and are able to make the flight more difficult if the pilot finds it too easy – for example making the weather stormy – or making it easier the challenge if the pilot struggles and becomes frustrated.

But, said Webb, the push to incorporate VR training is still worth it, even if it hasn’t been able to remove traditional simulator outputs from the process. The combination of VR flights, traditional simulation time, and real-life rides in T-6 Texan II trainers allows the Air Force to be winging new pilots sooner than ever, he said.

In March, the first class of pilots graduated from the Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5 program, which includes lessons and techniques developed as part of Pilot Training Next. These 10 new pilots got their wings after seven months of instruction, unlike the traditional one-year process.

This overhaul of undergraduate pilot training, powered by technology and AI, is in full force at Vance, as well as at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas. This fall, it will launch in Columbus, then Laughlin next spring.

The Air Force earlier this year launched a program called Accelerated Path to Wings, which aims to train new pilots after about nine or 10 months, faster than the traditional annual schedule. Some students in this course arrived with previous flying experience, which allowed them to progress through the process more quickly. Others already know which aircraft they want to fly, such as mobility planes or helicopters, so the program allows them to go straight to the T-1 Jayhawk training or training helicopters, and skip the usual time period. pilot of the T-6, after completing their preflight academics.

The accelerated program frees up about 90 training places per year, Webb said.

The Air Force is still heavily focused on virtual reality technologies, seeking training for jobs beyond flying airplanes, such as for maintenance technicians or civil engineers, as part of a program now called Tech Training Transformation.

A Kelly Field detachment in San Antonio, Texas, is developing training methods that use VR glasses and a “virtual hangar” that training maintainers, or other Airmen, can use to hone their skills.

There are several ways to use this virtual hangar beyond maintenance training. For example, air transport aviators, who are responsible for loading passengers and cargo on planes, can practice operating their cargo loading vehicles with virtually no immobilization of an actual vehicle.

Or aero-medical evacuation technicians can practically practice securing all the equipment needed to safely transport patients with medical emergencies to where they need to be.

Eventually, as this tech training technology becomes more standardized and mainstream, other parts of the Air Force outside of the AETC could begin to take advantage of it, officials said.

– Stephen Losey can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @StephenLosey.

Related: Air Force Virtual Reality Fighter Training Works Best for 5th Generation Pilots

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