MIGHTY CULTURE
John Ingle

How Air Force pilots train with VR and 360-degree cameras

(U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

The 80th Flying Training Wing is moving at the speed of innovation and is bound to only get faster as visionaries incorporate the latest in mixed realities to boost undergraduate pilot training.

Lt. Col. Jason Turner, 80th FTW Strategic Initiatives director, said the implementation of virtual and augmented realities is creating a portfolio of tools that allows instructor and student pilots alike to enhance the learning experience within the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, the world's only internationally manned and operated combat pilot training program.


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.

In short, it's creating a realistic flying environment in a controlled setting that enables students to learn and make mistakes in a safe setting.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reserve Officer Training Corps Cadets Preston Tower, left, Alexander Knapp and Ian Palmer fly three T-38C Talons in formation in a mixed reality environment during a flying training session with the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 1, 2019.

(U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

"The solution essentially gives them the ability to visualize some of the things that they'll experience airborne so that once they do get airborne, they're able to take those reference pictures that they saw in mixed reality and apply them to their training in the air, hopefully making their air time training more valuable," he said.

Maj. Steve Briones, the 80th FTW's director of Wing Innovation, has played an integral role in leading the innovative charge to marry traditional simulator training and real flight time with fast-advancing technologies such as virtual and augmented realities. He said it has taken about six months to go from concept to two functional "Innovation Labs" available to ENJJPT instructors and students.

Virtual reality creates an experience where a person is immersed in a virtual world, whereas an augmented reality incorporates digital elements to a live view of an environment.

"It's the future of learning in the Air Force," Briones said. "It's just being able to take different methods of delivering content or just making the learning content accessible in different ways."

Briones said the innovative training tools will not replace traditional simulators as they provide a physical, hands-on platform to practice instrument familiarity and emergency procedures. However, the newest set up does allow for visuals that can't be replicated in a simulator such as formation flying because they are able to link individual training stations.

The technology brings pilot training methodologies together in a new and adaptive way, he said, that is a cloud-based and student-focused in such a way that airmen in the ENJJPT program can access courseware wherever they are and whenever they want to.

"If you asked folks six months ago when we were just thinking about this if this was possible, they would've been like, 'No way. There's no way,'" he said. "So, I think it allows us to think critically about how we're training and how we can make ourselves better."

A group of Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were in the 10-station lab Feb. 1, 2019, trying out the technology as part of a visit to the 80th FTW. Turner said the trio taking a virtual flight had spent about 30 minutes on the mixed reality trainers, but they were already showing a skill ENJJPT students learn over the course of the 55-week program: formation flying.

"They're still learning. They're still developing," Turner said of the potential for student pilots as seen by the MIT students. "But this also gives them a place to practice where mistakes don't cost them their safety."

There is, admittedly, some hesitancy with the new technology as there is very little performance data in the program at this time to fall back on. Turner said part of that is because the technology has not been specifically introduced into the ENJJPT syllabus.

What they've done, he said, is encourage students to try out the equipment to change their mindset in regards to effectiveness of the training and the sense of reality it brings. What they've seen is when one student sees the capabilities, they bring others to the experience, who in turn bring more.

Turner said ENJJPT Class 20-04 will start a small-group trial at the end of February 2019, which will include deliberately implementing these technologies into their training. They will also soon have the ability to toggle between T-6A Texan II and T-38C Talon training modules.

"While that virtual reality or mixed reality won't replace actual flight time, it's intended to augment it to make that time more valuable," he said. "That's when students will officially be coming here as part of their training experience."

Turner and Briones both lauded the public-private partnership with industry leaders to create a training environment that compliments existing platforms. The technology, they said, is exceeding expectations and they are seeing how it will continue to enhance the ENJJPT training curriculum.