In an era of growing international threats, the Air Force prepares pilots for the unexpected

At Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, the scream of trainer aircraft overhead is constant. But students in the latest iteration of undergraduate pilot training don’t seem to notice.

Most of the time, they congregate in a cramped room they call “the bullpen”. Rows of virtual reality simulators divide the space, while people in flight suits fill the aisles. Most stations are made from upgraded Windows PCs and other components such as monitors, joysticks, and gamepads.

Students wear VR headsets and practice maneuvers while instructors like Captain Dylan Rabbitt give them instructions.

“So as soon as you’re at that intersection, you’re going to turn right and you’re going to go up those power lines straight to the track. This is where you make your first radio call,” he told a trainee in the pre-flight training phase.

Simulators are often linked together – like a multiplayer video game – so students can practice getting into busy air traffic.

“So we can put eight students here with an instructor and watch them simulate a traffic pattern and see the conflicts happen. They [students] learn from experience rather than trying to read and take something from a book on how to handle these particular situations,” said Major Trevor Johnson, chief of pilot training transformation at the 47th Operations Group. “It gives them those basics of task management, decision-making, risk management, situational awareness, which will inherently transition into more complex missions later on.”

Carson Frame/Texas Public Radio

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Student pilots and undergraduate instructors navigate virtual reality scenarios at Laughlin Air Force Base’s ‘relief’.

Learning from experience — and solving problems on the fly — are skills the Air Force considers essential for fighting future wars. The Pentagon now sees greater threats from countries like China and Russia, which may be able to interfere with US military communications and cyber networks.

“Our potential adversaries understand the capabilities we bring. So we have to allow our students to deal with environments, even at this very early stage, where things just don’t go as planned,” he explained.

For 20 years, the Air Force operated with air dominance over Iraq and Afghanistan. American fighters, bombers, tankers and surveillance aircraft generally moved freely through the skies – and ground forces had their support.

Johnson said a decade ago when he trained as a pilot and entered the operational Air Force, the flying environment was more predictable.

“I had nothing, let’s say, from an opponent’s perspective that impacted my ability to operate.”

But because the unexpected is becoming more expected, the Air Force wants pilots to be prepared.

Trainee Catherine Ginn hopes to one day fly a fighter-bomber. She and her cohort participated in numerous emergency drills in blackout or no-communication conditions. Whether or not these conditions are caused by a technically advanced adversary, problem solving skills are always helpful.

“If you don’t have a radio, then you’re out of luck until you’re near the airport and they can see you,” Ginn said. “So maybe you can swing your wings or wait for a light gun – something like that. Inside the cockpit you have visual cues that you can use to communicate what you want, where you want to go, what you want to do.

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Carson Frame/Texas Public Radio

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Student pilots Joseph Buxton and Catherine Ginn say the new undergraduate pilot training program gives them the autonomy to design their own flight plans and review skills they may be struggling with.

The newest iteration of pilot training attempts to move students away from rote answers and toward real-world understanding. But it’s not just about teaching young pilots to be more autonomous in the cockpit. The course format is designed to give students more flexibility in how they learn.

“You kind of have to know what you’re struggling with and challenge yourself to be a better driver,” he said. “Good example: yesterday I went out and was flying my training targets, working on circuits and landings. But I still planned to go to our area and do some fun aerobatics.

“We are planning our flights,” Ginn added. “There are certain requirements and objectives at different points in the program. But if it’s like basic aircraft control or something that’s integrated across the board, we still have space to work on that.

The Air Force has rolled out the program for all future undergraduate pilot trainees. The service is also exploring ways to modernize its communication systems and information networks to prevent adversaries from disrupting its operations.

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