For generations, we have taught humans to fly the same way.  Our pilot training programs were developed in WWII to fill the urgent needs of the air forces where our predecessors churned out as many pilots as possible in the shortest period of time.  Not much about how we train pilots has changed since then.  We are dinosaurs and have followed the same path to instruct young men and women to fly airplanes like our grandfathers, mom and dads and folks like me did.  Yet, pilots are the ultimate early adopters flying state of the art tech…the coolest and best aerospace vehicles that have ever flown.  If so, why have we taken so long adapt how we teach pilots to fly with better tools using newer technologies?

Sausage Making

Military pilot training is essentially ‘sausage making.’  We grind students through a training system designed to get the maximum output from a combination of limited resources, insufficient personnel, and tight timing.  The training mill runs as fast as it can but always asks for more from the resources available and never seems to grind the products out in sufficient numbers to satisfy the end-user demands.  It’s a pipeline and a process to get the prescribed flow rate and cannot be squeezed to produce more flow much like we cannot increase how much water comes out of a garden hose; it can only flow so fast.  Over the years, no pilot training program has ever kept that flow running at the maximum rate and never generated the pilots needed for any sustained period of time. What if there was a different way to train pilots and open up that garden hose?  What if the pilot training systems could consistently deliver the desired number of pilots needed by the operational demands of the Air Forces?  How could that be possible?

Better Toys

I gave an F-35 airshow presentation recently at the Flight Sim Expo in San Diego.  The side rooms at this exposition had cool gaming Virtual Reality (VR) goggles, flight simulator throttles and sidesticks / pilot actuators and big replay TV-type screens.  It was the best of home simulators for those geeks who wanted to spend their money on super-fun toys.  It turns out that home gaming tools are not just for flying enthusiasts and have a place in the world of training pilots to fly hyper-advanced airplanes.  I talked to that audience about how F-35 simulators were such a critical part of the development and training for my airshow routine.  The simulators that I used were very engineering focused as you might expect to see in a test pilot world.  Military air forces use similar type simulators though less engineering focused; theirs are designed more to replicate the flying environments that the student pilots will face.  These are bulky, overly expensive simulators that occupy large spaces and cannot easily be maintained, upgraded, or adapted for future growth.  The user community of these big box simulators is relatively small, limited to militaries that have the finances to purchase these unique resources.  The gaming world is much different.  Gaming flight simulators cater to a user community of millions around the world.  With so many users, the designers drive development of technologies further and faster than any defense-related technology company could hope for.  What might have been ‘just okay’ as a gaming simulator in the past has become remarkably realistic and compelling today.  Military air forces have taken notice of these technology advancements looking to see where and how the gaming solutions might fit into the pilot training systems.  It is impossible now to ignore the training tools that are as good, near real life, adaptable and in many respects better than the big box, old school simulators.

Bad Math

Would new Virtual Reality goggles and gaming tools help train pilots better?  To steal math from a keen US Air Force Instructor Pilot, Major Kinsley “TRIGGER” Jordan (@kinsleyjordan) who I know from his podcast series:


(Old Process + New Tech = Very Expensive Old Process)

The USAF has understood this in their effort to revamp and revolutionize pilot training.  They have several initiatives to improve pilot training and get beyond the sausage making and the garden hose flow rate limitations.  Buying new gaming tools might help the resource problems but it does not solve the bigger equation if we don’t change how we adapt to training the future pilots differently. I started this discussion by saying how old training processes have lingered for more than three generations.  One would think that after so long, it would be time to change how the sausage is ground.  We assume that all men and women learn to fly at the same speed and in the same way, as forced our grandfathers to.  How can we teach differently and adapt training systems to match individual learning instead of forcing everyone to fit into the masses?  Militaries like order, conformity, regimented progression and defined time frames.  Militaries don’t like individualism, adapting to disorder or flowing calendars.  What if we understood how to use the innovative technologies and tools to adapt to each student, so that they could learn to study more effectively.  We could develop a system focused on helping each individuals learn better rather than forcing them to fit into an inflexible training system?  If we only needed better and cooler tools to do this, most every military air force would have figured this out years ago.

Bingo, Bogies and “Lead you’re on fire.”

The revolution of this learning process is much more complex.  We want students to operate 5th Generation fighters and fly at a level of sophistication never known before, starting at the very earliest stages of their development.  In the F-35 world, the youngest wingman has enormous authority and responsibility, far advanced from fighter pilots of old.  We give those young, inexperienced fighter pilots stunning autonomy to be an integral part of the attack formations and call this ‘Independent Decision Making.’  Historically, we treated our young pilots as support, flying to keep their experienced flight leaders safe while the leaders did the real fighting.  I only ever wanted to hear three things from a wingman in flight:  Bingo (meaning he is out of fuel, and we must go home), Bogies (he sees bad guys and needs to tell me about them) and “Lead – You are on fire” (self-explanatory).  Wingmen didn’t know enough as pilots and didn’t have the systems on board their fighters to tell them much anyway.  They were in the formation to protect us so that we, as flight leads, could direct what the formation did in battle.  That has all changed with our fighters gathering so much information each time we fly.  A wingman sees more in his/her individual cockpit of the battle space than what scores of legacy fighters saw collectively.  We now understand that we need these young pilots to be integral to the formation and to participate at a near peer level with the flight leaders.  How to we make this transformation happen?  It certainly starts with training pilots differently to develop a young aviator who can complete more elaborate tasks when he graduates from pilot training.  And that means that we need to teach him/her differently.  Our Air Forces cannot get those young pilots to that level of thinking quick enough.  Why? Well, we have treated with the same pilot training mindset that we applied to our grandfathers and not understood that the end-user has a much different flying task today.

New Math

How about asking the process to change and adapt to one which creates a pilot ready for this new world?  When we understand what the young man or woman must do in the future cockpit and use tools to help them learn more effectively and efficiently, we can get rid of the sausage making mentality and develop programs catered to the new world.  If we use better tools and know that humans learn differently than in past generations, we can adapt how those students are taught to give them the skillsets needed to operate the airplanes of today.  We create a different math equation where modern technology plus new processes equal modern-day pilots capable of operating in this era.  So, let’s change the processes and the technology and join the 21st century.  

Lockheed Martin Photo by Angel DelCueto