The U.S. Air Force’s pilot training landscape took a significant step forward in reimagining how Airmen learn to fly as 13 students from the first iteration of Pilot Training Next pinned on their silver wings in a ceremony Aug. 3, 2018, at the Armed Forces Reserve Center, Austin, Texas.
As Air Education & Training Command’s most tangible example of the Continuum of Learning, a paradigm shift in education, training and the capitalization of experiences, PTN is the embodiment of student-centric learning.
“This initiative has really been focused on providing a personalized learning environment for every student,” said Lt. Col. Robert Vicars, Pilot Training Next director. “We have been able to show that by using immersive technology, we can help people learn more effectively, deeper and faster.”
The graduates now head to complete advanced flight training across multiple airframes, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-35 Lightning II and the C-17 Globemaster III.
As the Air Force’s innovative and experimental approach to enhance the future of pilot training, the PTN graduates completed the six-month program that integrated various technologies with the idea of producing pilots in an accelerated, cost-efficient, learning-focused manner.
Upon assuming command, Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast, commander of AETC, took on the challenge to revolutionize the pilot training experience, empowering his team to take a deeper look into the way Airmen learn and can be taught, putting the idea of PTN into motion.
“Pilot Training Next is really discovering what it is that makes people good at this art of military aviation and being an Airman in the vertical dimension,” said Kwast. “When we know what makes people good at that, we might be able to find ways of teaching them to be good at it faster and better than ever before.”
With the city of Austin’s ties to various technological and innovative communities and immediate access to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, both students and instructors were placed in an environment primed for this new way of training.
“Austin is tremendous for pilot training for the simple fact that it’s an air traffic control environment,” said Maj. Ben Lindsay, PTN instructor pilot. “We have real-world issues we have to deal with here, so it’s not a canned undergraduate pilot training environment. You have to deal with very dynamic situations constantly as there is an abundance of air traffic and students get to learn what the real-world is like.”
During a recent visit to the detachment, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, spoke to the benefits of the collaboration taking place between the newly-rooted military presence and the Austin innovation community.
“Technology has changed quite a bit, but the syllabus for pilot training had not significantly changed in about 20 years,” Wilson said. “The Air Force is partnering with industry and educators to build a training environment that integrates today’s latest technology to improve pilot training.”
A collaborative learning experience
Unlike the traditional undergraduate pilot training model, PTN offered students the opportunity to learn in a collaborative learning environment in a learner-centric way, in line with AETC’s redesigned Continuum of Learning model, said Vicars.
The most significant difference between UPT and PTN learning environments was that PTN students’ autonomy and individualized training were encouraged, as opposed to UPT students’ set syllabus.
“The most useful part of PTN training has been the autonomy built into the program,” said 1st Lt. John Massey, PTN student. “That has opened us up to allow our own self-exploration, self-paced learning and self-paced study. You can move yourself along through the program that fits you personally in a better way than what a cookie-cutter training program would allow.”
To place learning and success in the program in the hands of each learner, PTN cadre challenged students to seek new ways to learn and search for solutions with an open mind, all while training on the timetable that best meets each individual’s learning needs.
“One of the biggest advantages these guys have is the opportunity to grow and learn in an environment that allows flexibility and encourages open thinking,” said Lt. Col. Jason Colborn, PTN Detachment 21 commander. “So instead of being told no, they’ve been told that there are numerous ways to learn and we may not have identified what they all are. We value everyone’s input and open-mindedness.
“I hope we have helped these guys learn they shouldn’t stop where the book ends. They shouldn’t stop because somebody tells them no, but instead, they should have a hunger to learn.”
As with any initial program, both students and instructors endured growing pains as PTN evolved. With the incorporation of the simulators, students and instructors worked side-by-side during initial set-up and hands on maintenance work provided a deeper technical understanding of the equipment.
“The evolution of the sims started where we came here and literally built them from the ground up,” said 2nd Lt. Nate Lewis, PTN student. “The nice part is, everything we have used is something we literally have built with our own hands. Having that personal buy-in on something so advanced made the learning experience that more beneficial. When we ran into issues, we were able to come together as a team and use experience garnered by trial and error to keep things moving forward.”
Different than traditional training pipelines across the Air Force, PTN is the embodiment of the on-command and on-demand tenant of the reimagined Continuum of Learning. Students have been afforded the opportunity to not only immerse themselves in the world of virtual reality and simulators in the classroom environment, but also through access to a simulator in their living quarters.
Students across the program attributed their success to the availability of the flight simulators when and where they needed it.
“We get our schedule and I can plan with my roommate or other students to practice,” said Lewis. “We can practice and work out the details of what we want to do together and what we are expecting for the actual flights or the graded simulations. If I’m not doing a loop right, I can go home and practice my visual cues and my scanning. That is where it has really helped out in the long run by helping my thought process and being very adaptive.”
The next iteration
PTN leaders are using the lessons learned from both students and instructors to improve the learning experience for the next iteration of the class, tentatively set for January 2019.
“Any time you go bold and start something new, there’s going to be failures,” said Colborn. “Learning from those failures, tweaking the processes, and ultimately improving the learning environment is our number one goal.”
While technology can enable better learning, the PTN cadre believes it all comes down to the Air Force’s number one asset – its people.
“Pilot Training Next is a misnomer,” said. Maj. Scott Van De Water, PTN deputy director. “Technology is an enabler, but from my perspective it’s really about people. Technology allows the Air Force to be wiser with our resources – time and money – in order to maximize human performance.”
“I think the most encouraging thing I am seeing out of this program is not necessarily about pilots of technology; it’s about unleashing Airmen to solve hard problems,” he said. “Innovation is no longer a buzz word in our facility, it’s a daily occurrence powered by instructors and students.”