Air Education and Training Command is turning to the digital realm to educate maintenance technicians on their planes as part of a new program that relies on virtual reality.
Double “Transformation of technical training”, or T3, the effort seeks to engage maintenance students in new ways, without the typical constraints posed by issues such as aircraft availability. This could ultimately help speed up the time it takes to train managers and give them the experience they need to strengthen the middle and top ranks more quickly.
Sheppard will be hosting two full-fledged virtual reality courses next year on team leader fundamentals and logistics planning, the Air Force said.
“Students come out of the line more capable and comfortable in their roles,” said Maj. Jesse Johnson, who oversees T3 as the commander of an AETC detachment at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas. “I really see it is a force multiplier.”
The T3 initiative was launched over two months in the summer of 2020 as part of AETC’s previous, technology-driven experiments “Maintenance Next”. Twenty-nine students in the Basic Crew Chiefs Course at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas used virtual reality headsets to examine tools, repair simulated airplanes, and learn other tricks of the trade.
The Air Force spent $ 5,000 to $ 6,000 each on approximately 30 VR game systems for the initial pilot program. As technology got better, cheaper and smaller, the service shrank to headsets like Facebook’s Oculus or HTC’s Vive models costing several hundred dollars each.
To test the technology, students first took the usual three-week course in a classroom, then tried out the VR version of the classroom for two weeks while waiting to move to their next base. It took students about half the time to learn the same fundamentals in the digital course compared to the regular version.
Their scores were comparable between the two methods, the Air Force said.
“Each student has their own class on their heads. This allows each student to see their own plane, and they can all work on that plane on their own, ”Tech said. Sgt. Kyle Ingram, an instructor supervisor in the Aircraft Maintenance Fundamentals program at 362nd Training Squadron Sheppard, told reporters on a call Tuesday.
Students can see their instructors inside the headset and ask for help outside of the virtual environment. The approach also avoids unnecessary damage to aircraft caused by inexperienced maintainers who don’t know what they are doing, Ingram said.
Earlier this summer, the team began testing artificially intelligent characters who can answer student questions and grade their work inside the helmet. These avatars are based on interviews with technical sergeants or master sergeants who have gained artisan-level expertise in the field, eventually freeing up their real-life counterparts to work on airplanes.
The Air Force fought off criticism that virtual training won’t work as well as hands-on training because it fails to build the same type of muscle memory. Numerical repetition of a task in advance enhances an aviator’s understanding and skills in real-world work, Johnson said.
“This will improve the quality of the training we give to students, preparing them more for the flight line before they actually get to the flight line,” Ingram added.
Future improvements will provide a way to track how well a student is learning and what they have accomplished, Johnson said. He hopes the data could eventually be used to further tailor Airmen education based on their learning style and shortcomings.
While supporters of the team are keen to spread the virtual reality tools throughout the service – which has started to use it in limited cases for pilot training – they recognize that there are obstacles that could take years to overcome.
The challenges range from high-tech to the mundane: Even for off-the-shelf commercial hardware and software, aviators would still need on-base wireless internet access that was widespread and fast enough to support the VR imagery. Air Force facilities also need more electrical outlets to plug in systems, Johnson added.
“Our infrastructure is not designed to handle this, and we haven’t trained people to be able to create responsive and immersive content,” he said. “I think we could come up with a fully capable and available system that will allow students to do this over the next… years. “