The Truth About The Air Force’s Biggest Changes To Pilot Training Since The Dawn Of The Jet Age

General Wills faces a pilot shortage while saddled with a training system that’s stayed largely the same for 60 years. Here’s how it could change.

byJamie Hunter|
U.S. Homeland photo


U.S. Air Force pilot training is in the midst of a revolution and a lot is on the line. Air Education and Training Command is pioneering a series of new concepts designed to modernize the way the world’s biggest air arm trains its new aviators. At the center of this effort is Major General Craig “Pulse” Wills, commander of the USAF’s 19th Air Force. Few people are better able to explain the reasoning behind these changes and detail the array of solutions that have been carefully crafted to offer at least the possibility of a versatile new pilot training approach that is tailored for a modern and high-tech air force, not one from the dawn of the jet age. With that in mind, we got the real story, in detail, straight from General Wills, about the service's sometimes controversial initiatives to drastically rethink its long-held pilot-making machine.

The USAF is facing a well-publicized critical shortage in pilots. Airlines are on the verge of a new round of pilot recruitment, and training new military aviators has never been more time-consuming and expensive. These are some of the principal drivers underpinning the need for a major overhaul in the way the USAF trains its new aviators.

The world’s largest air force is experimenting with a range of new and innovative approaches to pilot training. This includes a simplified training process using mainly the T-6 Texan II for fighter pilots, novel fast-tracking programs, as well as a more aggressive approach to take advantage of skills that Airmen already possess, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. However, there is skepticism in squadrons that USAF leadership is looking to cut live flying hours, speed up training, and rely too heavily on simulator time.

1st Lt Steven Boger prepares for a flight in an F-35A during his nine-month Basic Course., USAF

Greater use of synthetic training devices and cuts in flying hours is a catalyst for concern in the middle ranks. There have been some very vocal concerns over a potential lack of experience when new pilots hit frontline squadrons. However, the USAF says it must transform its training system if it is to meet these burgeoning requirements. 

The current training system was designed for the demands of the 1950s, and so USAF leaders are pressing for greater use of modern technology to create better pilots in a far more efficient and cost-effective manner, without compromising quality or safety.

“The simple fact is that our pilot training systems really haven't changed in six decades,” says Maj Gen Wills, who commands one of the most important elements of Air Education and Training Command (AETC) — the 19th Air Force — an organization that is tasked with training more than 30,000 U.S. and allied students annually. Wills is one of the most senior officers charged with the tough and controversial task of overhauling USAF pilot training.

Maj Gen Wills meets personnel during a visit at Altus AFB., USAF

Winds of change

“If you take someone who went through F-100 Super Sabre training years ago and brought them back here to Randolph Air Force Base today, they would immediately recognize our syllabus. Maybe that’s because it’s perfect, or maybe it’s because we just got comfortable with the way we do things. I’d argue that it’s the latter. When students arrive for pilot training they are presented with the exact same tools as they have received for decades, an aircraft checklist, and a poster of the cockpit. We can do better in 2021!”

The USAF has no alternative but to transform the way it trains aviators, embracing new technology, new processes, and ensuring every hour in the air is optimized. “We need a very crisp way of teaching. We don't have room for five-to-10 sorties in a syllabus that students don’t need,” says Wills. “In our pilot training system, the average pilot training base needs to fly 250 to 300 sorties per day to stay on timeline! The scale of what we do is phenomenal. We had a huge winter storm this year and lost almost 8,000 sorties in two weeks of Undergraduate Pilot Training [UPT].”

Heavy snow at Sheppard AFB, Texas, in February 2021 halted pilot training missions., USAF

“The way we instruct has fallen into a certain pattern, so we are trying to take a fresh look at how we train, to build something from scratch that makes more sense. The big worry in our community is that we are going to trade live flying time for simulators — that’s everyone’s concern. But actually, the most important changes we are making are not about the technology, but actually about the adult learning models and instructional systems design.” Wills says that the current “assembly-line process” needs to evolve and break away from a one-size-fits-all approach.

The USAF is working on some fundamental changes in its approach, leaning towards a coach-athlete relationship when it comes to pilot training. The mantra is “competence, not time” and Wills wants a system that is versatile, scalable, and able to adapt to overall air force needs. “Imagine a giant funnel with gears, a crank, and a chute out the bottom of it. You can pour almost anything in the top, turn the crank for 52 weeks, and out pops a new pilot. We’ve built a system that achieves that at scale. For example, you might drop a fully trained pilot into that funnel. Right now, if you show up with civilian training experience, we generally ignore that.”

“Proficiency advance is an unpopular concept because there is a feeling of putting the student at risk. So we have started proficiency reallocation. If a student performs well in a certain phase they can advance faster, but we put those saved flights in the bank. If they struggle in another area then we can plug those sorties back in.”

This is just one of many ways the USAF is breaking the mold, shaking off old norms, and taking a totally fresh look at how it trains.

Instructor and student pre-flight a T-6 Texan II., USAF

Pilot Training Transformation — what the Air Force did

The broad effort is known as Pilot Training Transformation, and under it are a series of different efforts. Wills emphasizes that this wasn’t a panel of high-ranking Generals that worked out the plan, it was down to a group of officers of Lieutenant Colonel rank and below and their charter was to see if it was possible to train a pilot in half the time of the current system, meet the same standard, and potentially bypass parts of the legacy system where possible.

“All over the world, people are teaching themselves to fly with desktop flight simulators. In contrast, in the military, we behave as if we are the only people who know how to teach people to fly. So we started by introducing immersive training devices for the T-6 Texan II. Initially, this was a gaming laptop, a monitor, a Virtual Reality [VR] headset, an off-the-shelf control stick, and rudder pedals. We spent between $8,000-12,000 and included in that price we invested in getting the right software for the T-6. Initially, it wasn’t great, the stick didn’t have any force feedback, but it was still light years better than a poster and a checklist. This is actually 10-year-old tech, and we are finally catching on.”

A pilot temporarily assigned to the 559th Flying Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph flies a T-6 Texan II simulator during an immersive training device evaluation., USAF

“Now we’ve evolved it to a point where the stick and pedals have force-feedback and we have motion included in one of the systems, so we are getting closer to an actual simulator,” explains Gen Wills. “Even this developed system cost us around $40,000-45,000 compared with a $26-million full-up simulator that we are more accustomed to. What we are building doesn’t replace that simulator because it doesn’t have a physical cockpit layout with all the right switches, but what it offers students to prepare for a sortie is phenomenal. It all lives in the cloud, which means Instructor Pilots [IPs] can put on their own rig and be “sitting” in the airplane with the student, no matter where they are located.”

Organizations throughout the USAF are taking up the use of this kind of technology to help improve training procedures. New USAF A-10 Warthog pilots in training at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona are now training, in part, using Digital Combat Simulator World together with commercially available VR headsets to provide a low-cost way of augmenting more traditional training procedures. You can read more about this here.

So what difference does this make and why does it matter? “In the old days, when you went for your “dollar ride” — your first flight in pilot training — it was widely acknowledged that the IPs looked forward to that sortie because they got to do most of the flying,” Wills explains. “The student would walk out to the airplane, follow the IP for the walkaround, who would show them everything, check they’re strapped in correctly, laboriously start the airplane, etc, and the student might do a little bit of flying. Today on the “dollar ride” students typically fly around 90% of the sortie!”

“That’s because on their very first day of pilot training students can now visually recognize the traffic pattern references thanks to the 360-degree videos they have to practice with, with their VR rig they can “fly” the pattern to their heart's content. It means that on day one they know their way around the airfield, which for me was about 10 sorties when I went through training.”

Virtual reality training systems are being installed near students' dormitories to allow them 24-hour access to training resources., USAF

The VR set-up has been enhanced with a service known as Pilot Edge. This enables the USAF to link live Air Traffic Control (ATC) into the training. “In the old days we had tape on the floor, and the students would walk around the makeshift pattern and learn how, when, and where to make the radio calls,” Wills says. “Now, we can have up to seven students in a virtual pattern while a real ATC controller talks to them. They know how to talk on the radio, which means they are leaps and bounds ahead even before they start live flying.”

“When I went through aircrew training to be a Weapons Systems Officer initially, my class got delayed. They wouldn't even give me my flying suit or my boots. The reasoning behind that was that if I had my boots I might start shining them early and that would give me an unfair advantage. They wouldn’t give me my books — I might learn more and leave as a better navigator!”

“We had this old adage; you can teach a monkey to fly if you throw them enough bananas. There’s no doubt that there should be time pressure and a higher standard in military pilot training. The problem with that philosophy though is that the monkeys are expensive and the bananas are cheap. Seamless access to content isn't unlimited tries or extra bananas — we are saying why wouldn't we let you practice, we will send you an iPad and access to certain modules to complete before you arrive. Everything is in the cloud, it’s all connected, all the data and simulators, it’s all right there. The IPs can see all the data in exactly the same way as all the students can. If I’m flight commander I want to see if you’ve been practicing well, now I can go and check.”

While there is a clear imperative to speed up pilot production, Wills is adamant that this is about better training with the available resources. “We’ve made the T-6 phase longer, adding 100 hours of immersive training into the T-6 syllabus to make the students better. We’ve also added extra sorties into the T-6 course, so actually, the live flying hours go up.”

A T-6A from Vance AFB., USAF

The new T-6 course

The broad Pilot Training Next (PTN) effort was a big experiment. It has led to a number of initiatives, with the principal one now known as UPT 2.5. This is applying some of the key lessons from PTN at both the 12th Flying Training Wing at Randolph as well as at the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance AFB. 

UPT 1.0 is seen as being the T-37 Tweet and T-38A Talon era, with 2.0 being what the USAF runs today, the T-6A, the T-1A Jayhawk, and the T-38C. “What we are doing right now with UPT 2.5 is very much an interim step,” explains Wills. The USAF is eagerly awaiting the new Boeing T-7 Red Hawk that will ultimately replace the T-38 in the advanced jet training role and Wills says this aircraft will eventually give rise to the ultimate UPT 3.0. 

The USAF ran three experimental PTN classes, with an aggressive plan to accelerate and improve some of the existing standards in pilot training. One of the initial aims was to evaluate if students could train on the T-6 and then go directly to a Basic Course (B-Course) on a frontline type at a Formal Training Unit (FTU). The first two PTN courses flew the T-6A, however, the USAF’s 20-year-old Texans are suffering from avionics obsolescence issues, with no Head-Up Display (HUD), no Flight Management System (FMS), and they are considered to be in desperate need of an avionics upgrade. So for the third class, the Air Force borrowed T-6Bs from the U.S. Navy, which feature a fourth-gen fighter cockpit layout and a HUD.

“We upgraded the software in the T-6Bs so we have a radar emulator, radar warning receiver, and a moving map, so the T-6B cockpit looked much like a Strike Eagle cockpit. Class three flew that airplane. We have now graduated 42 total students out of PTN, the last few are just finishing up their FTUs and the first graduates have been in operational units for just over a year,” explains Wills.

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“Broadly speaking, the graduates have done well. Some finished at the top of their follow-on training class, some in the middle, and some near the bottom. One quit and one washed out. Typically, the grads that go to fighters have a pretty steep learning curve at the beginning of the course. The very first PTN guys that went to fighters got 11 rides in an F-16 before they went to their respective FTUs. The second and third classes went cold turkey, straight from the T-6B to their fighters, F-35s and F-15Es — they didn’t fly the T-38 or F-16 at all, they just adapted.”

“If you really pin the FTU instructors down, they will say they were behind the power curve and behind the class in the beginning, but caught up by the end of the course. We don't have absolutely pristine data yet on how many extra sorties they had to fly, and whether they would have performed better if they’d flown the T-38, but we are analyzing this. I’m not arguing that there’s no benefit to the T-38, none of that. If the question is “can we do it this way,” then the answer is yes we can, we can have a T-6-only pilot training system and adapt.” 

“What we’ve done is prove lessons from Pilot Training Next,” Wills explains. “This includes the quality of our instructors and the acceptable IP-student ratio, the use of immersive technology to provide better training tools, and the transition to a learner-centric mentality, with seamless access to content.”

A pilot in a T-38C simulator., USAF

“The next question we faced was whether we could apply the Pilot Training Next program at scale, and what we found is that you couldn’t precisely scale the experiment, [mainly due to a lack of suitable T-6s]. Instead, we looked to apply the primary lessons from the program at scale." These included the acceptable IP to student ratio, the immersive technology, the transition to a learner-centric mentality, seamless access to content, and the introduction of human performance programs to UPT.

PTN led directly to UPT 2.5, which is now gathering pace, marking its one-year anniversary at Randolph and Vance on July 15, 2021, as the first steps towards full implementation. Wills says that currently, the majority of pilot trainees are still going the old route, but UPT 2.5 is here to stay. For fighter pilots, most are still going through the traditional pipeline — T-6, T-38, Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF), then on to the FTU. “Out of 700-800 graduates that have gone to fighters over the last two years only 15-16 were T-6-only graduates,” says Wills.

Unlike in the past, students in UPT 2.5 are graded under a system that gives credit for more complex tasks. “If they are willing to stretch themselves then they are going to get credit,” explains Wills, adding that gone are the days of praying for no strong winds or trying to get a sortie to the closest Military Operating Area (MOA). “The T-6 final check-ride is now a two-day event. There’s a three-hour ground evaluation with general knowledge of the aircraft, a four-hour mission planning cycle, then the next day they do a formation departure, fly some formation work, undertake individual aerobatics, then recover to a divert base for instrument pattern work. They land, debrief, plan the next sortie, then get back in the aircraft and fly a navigation leg home.”

“We’ve been misquoted in the past that we are building a self-paced pilot training program. The truth is that the whole system works at a certain pace, but if you can walk faster, then we are trying to build a system where you can do that. Our first UPT 2.5 graduate graduated two classes away from where he started because he was flying well, the weather was good, and he just kept going. That compares with a previously written rule that said all students in a class needed to be within three or four days of each other to keep them together for graduation ceremonies.”

One of the biggest changes under UPT 2.5 is that pilots now earn their wings after graduating from the T-6. Some may see this as a controversial move. “If you look at the attrition rate for students failing training, we lose around 7.7% in the T-6 phase, just 1.5% in the T-1, and 0.9% in T-38s. The reality is that historically once you pass the T-6 phase, the vast majority of students earn their wings. We believe that the increased complexity in UPT 2.5 will result in shifting the historical attrition from T-38 and T-1 training to the T-6. Thus far, we’re seeing wash-out rates of approximately 17% in the new program. All UPT 2.5 students will earn their wings at the same point, so culturally it’s a unifier, not a divider.”

The T-1 Jayhawk is currently used for training new aircrews for large aircraft such as transport and special mission types., USAF

Mitigating a possible T-1 Jayhawk retirement

One area in training where there has been a big change is related to a pending decision on whether to retire the Beechcraft T-1A Jayhawk. Wills says: “The T-1 has been with us since 1992 and the type has never had depot-level maintenance. It needs re-engining and over the next five years, it would cost us $1.1 billion to operate. The success of Pilot Training Next combined with the impending recapitalization bill on the T-1 has us planning for a future without the T-1.”

Pilots earmarked for Air Mobility Command (AMC) or heavy Command and Control and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C2ISR) types undertake the UPT 2.5 T-6 course and then go through a three-month simulator-only T-1 course. “Students will undertake a course focused on preparing them for air mobility and crew aircraft. They will learn crew coordination, threat and error management, complex emergency procedures handling, en-route navigation, ICAO [International Civil Aviation Authority] procedures, and the many other complicated aspects that our AMC crews must master to be successful. The goal is that when they arrive at FTU, the instructors will notice a clear improvement in their level of preparation and readiness to move into the air mobility world.”

Reforge could change things further

While a T-6-only course has been proven to work by PTN, retaining a fast jet element in training is the ultimate goal — the jump from the T-6 to a modern fighter is acknowledged as being a big step. However, the ambition in the near term is to eliminate the pilot training element of the T-38 course and make it all skewed toward Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF).

“I want fighter pilot students to learn like a fighter pilot from the very first day of flying the T-38," says Wills. "IFF has always been a gap filler to the FTU, but it's the IFF part that really matters. The T-38, and eventually the T-7 Red Hawk, prepares the student for the FTU. The big issue right now is the lack of fighter pilot instructors in the T-38 phase, and actually a real shortage of fighter pilots in UPT overall."

Some new pilots destined for the F-22 fly the T-38A alongside their new mount to gain insight into the way the Raptor operates., USAF

Reforge is an Air Combat Command-driven proposal that could have a profound effect on the fighter pilot training process. AETC may retain some sort of T-7 qualification phase, but essentially the new Reforge concept would effectively migrate IFF over to Air Combat Command (ACC), but undertaken in T-7s that are attached to the FTUs. 

“Students would fly a version of the T-7 for 12-14 months and learn how to be a fighter pilot, and once they reach the 250-300 flight hour point they would do a transition course to their respective fighter type,” Wills says. “Essentially, it would mean that the T-7s would migrate to the FTUs, enabling new pilots to learn basic fighter pilot concepts in an airplane that costs considerably less to operate than a frontline fighter type.”

“Co-locating the T-7s with the fighters means those young students will have the chance to fly with and against the fighters that they will ultimately fly. They’ll be working in the same briefing rooms, learning F-22 tactics, for example, the entire time. It’s about experiencing people at the right price point. We still have work to do with our partners at ACC to determine the best way forward with the T-7s to ensure we’re training the best pilots for our combat air forces we can.” 

The T-38 was built to train pilots for Century Series jets and Wills calls it “very unforgiving,” adding that it takes a lot of time to learn the basics of operating it. “The T-38 taught you how to do a lot of the mechanics of flying yourself, so to become a great F-15C pilot you need to learn how to handle the radar, handle the sensors manually, and process the communications.”

The new Boeing T-7A is aimed at realizing fundamental changes in the way the USAF trains new pilots., Boeing

“A type like the F-35 automates a lot of that. I mean, an F-35 Basic Course from Luke Air Force Base just went to Red Flag at Nellis and slayed the opposition. The T-7 should allow us to get past the basics quickly and pull more FTU tasks forward. It means that when we release someone to the FTU they will be really ready. It should also allow those FTU courses to be the same length, but we can add more of the really advanced tactics.” In turn, it should allow a pilot to become combat-ready far quicker once they reach their operational squadron.

“The experience and airmanship are really important,” Wills enforces. “The question is would you rather get people to their frontline unit faster so they can build experience in the airplane they are going to go to war in, or do you build experience in an airplane that they're not going to fly again for some time. No one will argue that hours in the air is the gold standard, but it can be effectively coupled with simulators and immersive training aids. We need to find the right balance between synthetic and live flying, and we will adjust that balance going forward.”

“Everyone wants what the T-7 brings, but where you put it in the training flow and in the commands is up for debate. Boeing needs to show up with a jet that’s relevant, not one that’s based on a vision from 10-15 years ago. The T-7’s immersive training devices need to be in the $25,000 region and available in a student’s dorm room, and they need to be good — we are moving at a pace now!”

The results are in

So how have the T-6-only students fared? Anecdotal evidence suggests those fighter pilots destined for fifth-gen fighters do better than those headed to F-15s and F-16s for example. That reflects how the fourth-gen fighters rely on the skillsets imparted in the T-38 course. “We have had instances where students initially struggled in big airplanes like the C-5, and this underlines how big a jump it is from the single-engine turboprop to a huge jet like the Galaxy,” said Wills. “The T-1 has been a remarkable success story for AMC and the USAF and so our partners in AMC are working with us closely and monitoring the results of these efforts. They have made a huge investment in pilot training transformation and they expect us to deliver, which is quite fair.”

Maj Gen Wills and Chief Master Sgt Kristina Rogers talk with Col James Miller, 433rd Operations Group commander, in the cockpit of a C-5M Galaxy., USAF

AETC decided to retain the T-1 simulators, training devices, and instructors for the Air Mobility Fundamentals (AMF) course. Wills says there was some early discussion over moving to a 737-type simulator, but it was decided to stick with the existing T-1 infrastructure. “So now we wing the new pilots as they graduate from the T-6, we then put them through a simulator-only T-1 course, and then over to the respective heavy aircraft FTU. Ultimately, we’re looking at whether we should move AMF to the FTU, so that we can teach mission planning, crew coordination, formation flying, aerial refueling, etc, on the aircraft type the students will actually be flying.”

When it comes to fighters, Wills says that it’s not practical to adopt a system where all pilots go from T-6 to FTU at this time. Right now, AETC doesn’t have the right T-6 for the task. “If we had T-6s with a glass cockpit and modern tools, we’d be more likely to say “let’s do this.” Given the worldwide pilot shortage and chronic lack of fighter pilots, it’s certainly in our interest to find new ways to meet requirements, and our T-38 fleet is increasingly difficult to maintain. That said, the system right now can’t accommodate such a move. Speed matters a lot, and it doesn’t make sense to add a training burden to our FTUs if we can avoid it. I’m convinced that with the top third of the class you can train with just about anything, but for the majority of the students, the time is not right and the tools just aren’t there yet.”

Wills attributes PTN’s success in part to a one-to-one student-instructor ratio. “Not having a new class beating down their door every few weeks made a difference, and therefore adding the chance to do bespoke pilot training” was another major plus, but he concedes “that’s not the model when we take this to scale.”

Other initiatives

Alongside the main efforts of the Pilot Training Transformation are a series of other initiatives that are designed to bring new approaches into the pilot training system. Comprehensive Readiness for Aircrew Flying Training (CRAFT) is all about making a new pilot both mentally and physically ready for the job. Wills believes that human performance will be a key differentiator in future air force capability. 

Therefore the USAF is using a range of new approaches to help teach its personnel how to deal with stress, and make better decisions at what Wills calls “the speed of sixth-generation warfare,” using science to help it fight better, measuring the performance of its people, using nutritionists and strength coaches to keep personnel at the peak of personal fitness and able to perform at the highest level.

Maj Gen Wills at the Human Performance Initiative facility at Eglin AFB, Florida, learning about physical fitness, physical therapy, and chiropractic care., USAF

Accelerated Path to Wings (XPW) is a program to train pilots in UPT solely in the T-1 Jayhawk. Students fly 17 hours in the Diamond DA20-C1 at the Initial Flight Training Center at Pueblo Memorial Airport in Colorado, before moving directly to the T-1. The first class took eight students, six of whom were brand new to aviation, while two already owned a Private Pilots’ License. The first phase in XPW includes academics where students learn general aviation terminology, after which they go directly to the T-1 aircraft, skipping the traditional route of flying the T-6. At the 12th Flying Training Squadron’s simulator branch, the students developed extensive training profiles, allowing them to practice and be certified as proficient in the aircraft. 

Once students make it through the required simulator training, they go on to fly in the T-1 under the guidance of the 99th Flying Training Squadron team. 2nd Lt Kassandra Fochtman was one of the graduates, and headed to McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, to fly the KC-135 Stratotanker. “It feels amazing to have endured the last seven months of pilot training to reach this point, it’s all been worth it, I’m extremely proud. I can’t wait to begin flying around the world,” she said.

The first graduates from the Accelerated Path to Wings course., USAF

“Fundamentally, in seven months versus the usual 12 months we graduated seven of the eight, and the last student will graduate imminently,” Wills explained. “They look exactly the same as any other T-1 student pilot, except they didn’t fly the T-6 at all. They flew really well, although as you would expect their airmanship and experience were lacking at the beginning of the program. They caught on really quickly and by the end of the program, our check pilots reported they were indistinguishable from an ordinary T-1 pilot who had previously completed T-6s. With UPT 2.5 we have been able to create T-1 capacity in the short term. Two more of these classes are on the way, and we really believe in the program. A lot of students have civilian flying experience when they join the air force, and this is the perfect way to accelerate them through training, and this program is especially good for the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserves when the students have existing pilot experience.”

“We also have what we call the Civilian Path to Wings. This is about bringing a student on board and applying an assessment methodology to determine whether they have the competencies we need and then vector them according to scale. We have broken it down as Qualified, Well Qualified, and Extremely Well Qualified. We teach them Air Force Fundamentals, some simulator work, and vector them for the heavy aircraft, not for fighters. So far we have found five Extremely Well Qualified applicants, and not surprisingly they are existing airline pilots and now in the Air National Guard or Reserves, and previously trained by the USAF.”

Alternate Path to Wings aims to partner with Aviation Accredited Bureau International (AABI) schools such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, although the USAF is not exclusively partnered with any specific schools at this time. The USAF is developing plans to assess these students upon completion of their flying school. If they meet the required competency level, they would proceed to an Air Force fundamentals course and then straight to the Formal Training Unit for a Mobility Air Forces, Special Operations, or Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C2ISR) platform. 

Some new airlift pilots have completely bypassed the T-6 Texan II., USAF

“Traditionally, we make well-trained civilian pilots repeat every day of pilot training,” said Wills. “It doesn’t make sense to do that when you are facing a pilot shortage and you have a highly qualified pilot who wants to serve.”

The USAF is overhauling its rotary-wing track too. Traditionally, students have flown the T-6 before moving to helicopters, but Helicopter Training Next ultimately accelerates their path to training on helicopters at Fort Rucker in Alabama. Experiments have been run with sending students straight to the TH-1H Huey at Rucker, and other groups have trained with a civilian contractor before heading to the TH-1. “We have five courses in varying states,” comments Wills. “Those who went straight to Rucker and had no other experience and no T-6 rides had very little clue when they arrived, but after six months they were pretty good. The guys that went through the civilian school showed up at Fort Rucker, flew a check-ride, and on that very first ride, five of the seven passed! We are showing that we can train new pilots in lots of different ways. The beauty of these helo paths is that we can free up 60-80 UPT fixed-wing slots a year — that’s not small chicken. Not putting people through every single day of T-6 training saves huge amounts of money and time, but more importantly allows us to train a world-class helicopter pilot while freeing up fixed-wing training slots.”

Lt Gen Brad Webb, commander of Air Education and Training Command, tries out a virtual reality simulator used in Helicopter Training Next., USAF

There are a whole host of other initiatives running across USAF pilot training now. The Air Force is even tapping into previous instructors in order to help get its manning levels right. With all these immersive training devices being stored and run in the cloud, the USAF is finding ways to work remotely with skilled instructors who might be at a distant location or living away from its training centers. 

Remote simulator instruction is in the concept phase but is ideal for some former Air Force instructors who are still happy to teach. “They might have finished their time with the Air Force and don’t want to be all that expeditionary anymore. They might fly for an airline and be on a layover. We provide them with the right tools, it’s all in a bag and with an internet connection they can work with our students.”

The USAF started its UPT 2.5 initiative at Randolph as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Such was the success that the UPT 2.5 effort at Vance AFB kicked off a year earlier than originally planned in the summer of 2020.

In 2018, prior to Wills taking up his current post, the USAF made quite a few syllabus cuts. He says that the big problem with the T-6’s On-Board Oxygen Generator System (OBOGS) in late 2018 meant AETC lost two months of flying with no T-6 sorties — that’s a whopping 13,000 sorties. 

“The pilot training pipeline became hugely backed up,” says Wills. “Following the OBOGS crisis, we attempted to introduce innovative ideas we thought were ready and in the process streamlined several of our syllabi. These changes were hugely unpopular in the frontline squadrons. It’s a wary and skeptical crowd out there.”

Synthetic training aids are designed to supplement and improve the quality of live flying, not replace it., USAF

”A couple of years ago we adjusted the length of the FTUs to get back to about a six-month course which matches the historical course length. The majority of our fighter force is pretty young and remembers a B-Course that was nine-to-10 months long.  Unfortunately, with our current challenges, we can’t experience the force if the FTU is almost a year long. We’ve got to get people through pilot training in about a year, and through FTU in about six months to keep a healthy flow of well-trained pilots to their operational units, and ultimately back to fill the training and institutional requirements needed to keep our Air Force strong.”

“We rolled out our major innovation efforts in 2018 at the same time we were trying to streamline our syllabus and jump-start the pipeline in the wake of the OBOGS crisis. As a result, many of our pilots see “innovation” as code for “syllabus cuts.” We’re trying to change that perception. Lt Gen Webb, the AETC commander, has been crystal clear that quality is our goal. Over the past couple of years, we’ve steadily added hours and simulator events back to our syllabi along with introducing immersive technology and virtual hours. The T-6 syllabus, in particular, has grown in both flying hours and virtual training.”

The bigger picture

It takes deep knowledge of the subject to be able to create effective, safe, practicable solutions, and a lot of breaking down walls to effect change. While some of the PTN approaches have been seen as radical, out of this has come some sensible adaptations, embracing new technology, new approaches, designed to ultimately transform USAF pilot training and make it a better fit for the current and future realities of combat aviation.

While there are skeptics in the frontline squadrons, and they certainly have every right to be concerned considering the stakes, there is much more going on here than just the idea of increasingly trading time in real cockpits for the simulator. These changes are not only focused on solving the Air Force's towering pilot shortage — an existential crisis for the service in itself — but also training new aviators smarter, more economically, and doing so leveraging modern advances in instructional aides, some of which would have looked like science fiction just a decade or so ago. All while not sacrificing the quality of the end product. 

Successfully and positively making changes to arguably the most deeply ingrained institution in the Air Force is without a doubt a massive challenge, one that has cultural impacts within the service as well as technical and readiness ones. But considering that the Air Force still flies almost entirely with humans in cockpits at the controls, failure is truly not an option.

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