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AETC explores learning possibilities through new pilot training program

Air Education and Training Command is looking to explore how people learn and making a more efficient path to pilots earning their wings by revolutionizing training through the Pilot Training Next initiative. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)

Air Education and Training Command is looking to explore how people learn and making a more efficient path to pilots earning their wings by revolutionizing training through the Pilot Training Next initiative. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)

T6 aircrafts taxi toward the runway at Randolph AFB, Texas May 28, 2010.

T6 aircrafts taxi toward the runway at Randolph AFB, Texas May 28, 2010.

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- Air Education and Training Command is taking a different look at how people learn and hopes to make a more efficient path for pilots to earn their wings through the Pilot Training Next initiative.

Scheduled to begin February 2018, the program’s goal exemplifies the command’s concepts of the Continuum of Learning, including blended learning and data-centric facets by using existing and emerging technologies that can decrease the time and cost of training without sacrificing the depth of learning.

“This is student-centric learning,” said Lt. Col. Robert Vicars, Pilot Training Next initiative director. “We are going to use immersive technology to see how we can help people learn more effectively. This is an initiative to explore whether or not these technologies can help us learn deeper and faster.”

Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, AETC commander, said the PTN initiative is one way AETC helps make the Air Force more agile, adaptive and lethal.

“AETC is creating a new learning paradigm,” said Kwast. “It is vital we exceed the Air Force’s expectations with action. Creating Pilot Training Next is one step, one milestone, to ensuring America’s Air Force is fueled with the best pilots in the world. We owe it to them to get it right and we will rise to that challenge.

“AETC chose to focus on flying training because of the urgency involved with the enterprise,” he continued. “However, our focus is on how Airmen learn, not necessarily what they learn, exploring technology and how that technology can produce better and faster learning.”

PTN will lean on a variety of technologies, to include virtual and augmented reality, advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence and data analytics, all of which can be used to tailor the training environment to the individual student. The knowledge gained will be used to refine scientific measuring capabilities and teaching techniques in order to produce the world’s greatest military aviators.

“The next generation of technology is emerging so we will rely on current as well as future technologies,” said Vicars. “We are looking at building an intelligent tutor to monitor the students. It will track their biometrics and understand their stress level to optimize the learning environment for the individual and put them under the right amount of stress to create learning.”

The PTN class, beginning in February, will consist of both Air Force enlisted members and officers. In order to be successful, AETC officials are seeking students from different learning backgrounds. The officers for the class are slated to start undergraduate pilot training between January and February. The enlisted Airmen will be selected from a pool of Airmen who have recently completed basic training and are not college graduates.

Vicars said there is a pilot candidate selection method as well as an enlisted candidate selection method that will allow for the best possible participants in the program.

“We want to select top-caliber students and give them the tools, objectives and teachers needed to structure a quality learning environment,” said Vicars. “Selecting enlisted members to fill the non-college student role is not intended to develop enlisted aviators. In this selection model, we can pool the data to determine what qualities, habits of mind and patterns of thought equal success in the flying training environment. We are then able to filter that data to develop simulators, apps and testing tools to pull in the very best talent.”

If the results of the initiative do not meet or exceed our current training standards, officer students will be placed in the traditional specialized undergraduate pilot training course, and the enlisted members will continue on to technical training.

“If we do this right, and the students learn all the functional competency sets, as well as key and critical learning objectives and skills, then we would expect to be able to pin wings on them,” said Vicars. “Part of the challenge is to demonstrate that the necessary knowledge and skillsets have been created at the end of the program. Using the software we are integrating, we will be able to prove and demonstrate that learning more objectively than we can right now in legacy pilot training.

“Our enlisted Airmen are an important part of this program and will help us evaluate these learning methods across ranks, education background and learning styles,” he continued. “If they are successful in this program, creative options for them abound. We want to ask ‘what ifs’ without predetermining the outcome. If the results of this program put us in the position to have to answer these types of questions, we are moving in the right direction.”

The training will be located at the Reserve Center at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Austin, Texas.

“We wanted to give the training its own environment and Austin has a very good growing technology ecosystem,” said Vicars. “Austin currently has the second-largest virtual reality ecosystem in the country. There is an energy there that we can tap into that will allow us to iterate this technology. It is also close enough to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph to have access to Air Force resources.”

Instructor cadre and AETC officials must remain fluid and adapt to failures as this new training program rolls out and evolves, said Vicars.

“This only fails if we don’t learn in the moment,” he said. “We are driving and pushing for things to fail, which in turn will create a safer training environment. Our intent is quality training and if the benefit is that we can do it faster and cheaper, so be it. We are striving for deeper and more meaningful learning.”
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