SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — Very little has changed over the years when it comes to the Air Force training aircraft maintenance Airmen.
Instructors still lecture blocks of instruction and take Airmen to the flightline or a hangar for hands-on practicums. That could result in spending more than a day teaching one concept depending on the scenario the class is learning at the time.
Steven Canham, an F-15 avionics instructor at the 365th Training Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base, knows that predicament all too well. He said, for example, that the archaic method of having Airmen demonstrate how to perform an operational check on an aircraft often means a one-at-a-time process that takes one hour each.
But Cambridge, Massachusetts-based technology company Charles River Analytics, with the help of the 365th TRS and Sheppard’s Instructional Technology Unit, is in the process of developing an F-15E Strike Eagle game-based virtual environment trainer that will enhance training, making it more efficient and modern.
“If we could have a virtual trainer, where you have your students all doing the operational check at the same time under the supervision of an instructor in the virtual world monitoring what’s going on, you can get a lot of work done really quick,” Canham said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that we can revert to solely teaching without a real aircraft because you still have to understand that these students need to have dexterity and coordination and things like that.
“But at least they will be able to follow the tech data, which is one of the biggest challenges we have.”
The public-private collaboration was made possible with support from the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Program.
The joint venture is sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory. The program manager is 2nd Lt. Mitchell Lichtenwald.
Sean Guarino, principal scientist for Charles River Analytics’ human effectiveness division, said the company was awarded a SBIR contract and began Phase I of the project in 2012. The company was selected for Phase II to develop a prototype F-15E for a virtual world, which was completed in the fall of 2015. CRA was again selected for Phase III, which began in August 2017, to build a “deployable system” ready for delivery by late-spring 2019.
“We’re building a computer-based classroom trainer that will allow instructors to manage classes and allow them to go through a virtual implementation of some of their procedures effectively and be able to do things that they would not necessarily be able to do an the actual aircraft,” Guarino said, adding that gaining experience in the virtual world will make Airmen more efficient at what they are learning and doing.
Frank Peszynski, an ITU supervisor, said the Sheppard ITU has been a part of the process from the beginning, serving as the entity that ensures information is flowing between the subject matter experts at the 365th TRS and CRA. Although the small business is developing the product, they will have to turn over the virtual environment trainer to the Air Force once the project is complete. Having the SMEs involved helps ensure the service is getting the desired product.
“The SMEs provide the technical expertise to ensure the product meets classroom objectives,” he said. “The ITU’s job is to facilitate between the SMEs and CRA to ensure the final product is instructionally and functionally sound for future sustainment.”
A critical aspect to the teamwork, he said, was the work of ITU IT programmer Joe Yeary. Through his expertise in the field, Yeary has been able to make sure interface and the platform on which it is working are compatible and function appropriately.
Peszynski said learning tools such as 3D environments, VR, and augmented reality have great potential and possibilities to enhance training while saving time and money for the Air Force.