FORT RUCKER, Ala. – With inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci, the 23rd Flying Training Squadron here is transforming the learning environment with the intent of developing vertical-lift aviators better trained and prepared to conduct homeland security, combat search and rescue, and special operations missions.
The first six students to complete the experimental specialized undergraduate pilot training - helicopter curriculum utilizing virtual reality technology graduated Oct. 11, six weeks earlier than normal.
“We’re seeing the vast potential of this program unfold right in front of us,” said Lt. Col. Jake Brittingham, 23rd FTS commander. “Our initial test reduced aircraft flying time approximately 35% by supplementing aircraft flights with VR, with the students still using legacy simulators for certain events. Students also gained 15 more hours of practice time using aircraft controls through the use of VR than our previous classes.”
The initial goal of the project, also called "Rotary-Wing Next," was reducing the time needed to teach the syllabus from 28 weeks to 14 weeks and to increase student production from 60 to 120 students a year without needing additional aircraft or flying hours.
“This is just the start,” Brittingham said. “We are focused in on ensuring we continue to get even more efficient with our training, while at the same time maintaining the quality of our graduates the Air Force needs and expects.”
Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training - Helicopter class 20-02 was the first class to use the VR training systems starting in May 2019, but there were significant learning curves in terms of instruction at the beginning.
“The students in-processed here May 7 without knowing they would be a test case, and then had their first virtual reality flight on May 8,” Brittingham said. “The challenge was our contract instructors were not ‘under contract’ to teach using virtual reality technology, so our active-duty instructors were conducting the daily VR lessons with the test class in flight fundamentals they don’t normally teach.”
The students’ introduction to VR during the initial 19-day academics portion of the curriculum paid off in how they were able to perform on their first day behind the controls in the actual aircraft.
“After 23.5 hours of VR instruction, students were able to hover, taxi and perform various other helicopter maneuvers unassisted by their instructor pilots on their very first flight,” said Capt. Matt Strick, 23rd FTS innovation flight lead. “We assessed the students to be at least seven days ahead of schedule at that point.”
Providing a measuring stick on the validity of the training and collecting the daily lessons learned is a large piece of the “Project da Vinci” initiative.
“Only a few select instructors taught during the class to better facilitate student mentoring and collect the lessons learned,” Brittingham said. “The end-of-block evaluations were conducted by normal student check pilots to provide an objective evaluation of the students’ progress and measurement of the VR teaching philosophy.”
The experiment got started back in 2017 when the squadron found internal training efficiencies that facilitated a 25% increase in overall student pilot production, but they decided to take their innovation efforts further by combining technology and innovation after participating in a 19th Air Force-led working group at the AFWERX-Las Vegas hub.
“After the workshop and with the purpose of re-looking at antiquated training methods and maneuvering towards the ‘Pilot Training Next’ model, our team entirely rewrote the vertical-left pipeline from the undergrad level at Fort Rucker to the formal training units at Kirtland Air Force (N.M.),” said Brittingham. “Our proposal included acquiring commercial off-the-shelf virtual reality technology to allow us to start learning the transferability of VR into the helicopter training environment.”
The rewrite was endorsed by their parent unit, the 58th Special Operations Wing, and then-19th AF commander, Maj. Gen. Patrick Doherty, who gave the 23rd FTS permission to “run with scissors” in standing up the project.
“We suggested a small group tryout with one of our upcoming SUPT-H classes,” Brittingham said. “Our thought process was we might fail, but we will fail forward, collect the lessons learned, and keep trying until we get it right.”
The team of rotary-wing and tiltrotor experts coined the venture “Project da Vinci,” named after Leonardo da Vinci, who is arguably one the most innovative people in recorded history and is the designer of the “Helical Air Screw,” the first sketch of a machine that follows helicopter aerodynamic properties.
“Project da Vinci” became an immediate “go-do” as a complete grass-roots initiative folded into the existing SUPT-H construct so it did not slow down current student production.
With the help of contracting to acquire software and using $350,000 in 58th SOW innovation funds, the squadron initially stood up the program with six VR systems.
“The acquisition proved challenging because of federal computer purchasing laws and limitations and took some time and effort between us, the 42nd Contracting Squadron at Maxwell AFB, 19th AF, and the 338th Specialized Contracting Squadron at Randolph AFB to make the initial purchase,” Brittingham said. “We really couldn’t have done this in eight months without the help of the contracting team enabling us to make these purchases smarter and faster.”
Looking ahead to the next iteration of the project, the VR software is being updated to reflect the TH-1H primary trainer currently flown by the unit. The current software features a Bell 412 utility helicopter, Brittingham said.
“During the acquisition process, we concurrently secured three estimates to design the TH-1H in the VR environment to aid in enhancing pilot cross-check and allow unrestricted training in the day, night, and instrument environments,” Brittingham said, adding a contract has been awarded allowing for sustainment and growth in areas like bio-metrics, artificial intelligence and VR training for the enlisted special mission aviators.
During the graduation ceremony, Doherty, now the Headquarters, Air Combat Command director of plans, programs and requirements, expressed his appreciation for the progress the 23rd FTS has made in looking at the helicopter pilot production challenges of the future over the last eight months alongside similar initiatives with the remotely-piloted aircraft and the air battle manager flying communities that were started at the AFWERX hub in Las Vegas.
"I'm honored and blown away with the success the warriors at the 23rd FTS have had with the "Rotary Wing Next" project," Doherty said. "Lt. Col. Brittingham and his team have identified the challenges and opportunities in a bold fashion, and moved out with speed. They are providing pathfinder leadership and vision to change and train better aviators in the future."
Future small group tryouts will commence after the current class progresses through the UH-1N Huey, HH-60G Pave Hawk, and CV-22 Osprey formal training units to allow feedback on the quality of student graduating SUPT-H. In the interim, the VR systems will be added to the normal SUPT-H syllabus, giving students more repetitions and the opportunity to reinforce and rehearse aircraft instruction.
“As a commander I couldn’t be more proud of the work the squadron has done to make this happen,” Brittingham said. “No matter the obstacle, our entire team has rallied around the project and the results really are speak for themselves.”
The 23d FTS is responsible for all undergraduate rotary-wing helicopter pilot training and is a geographically separated unit under the 58th SOW at Kirtland AFB, and is the sole entry point for careers in the UH-1N, HH-60G, and CV-22 communities.