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?
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?
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.
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:
OP + NT = VEOP
(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.
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
A very well written article on a very important issue that is reliavent in many areas of life and other organizations beyond pilot training in an air force.
What are we really talking about here?
Pilot training with a greater reliance on simulators? Recruiting pilots from the gaming community? VR Glasses? I’m not sure.
There’s no reason why traditional flight simulator companies can’t build a cheaper, less realistic simulator exploiting VR glasses and gaming platforms. It is exactly traditional flight simulator companies that could best create a seamless training environment between gaming platform flight simulators and higher end, more expensive, more realistic flight simulators.
We live in a post Theranos world. As John Carreyou at the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, the Silicon Valley cult of disruption is running low on gas, and greater skepticism is in order.
I’m sure VR glasses developers are eager to gain a foothold in the flight simulator market. The venture community has been investing big time in these glasses for the last ten years. So far, there is no “killer ap” for these glasses. VR glasses sales are pretty lackluster. Even dedicated gamers don’t really want to wear them:
Flight simulators, to be valuable for pilot training, have to simulate a broad set of scenarios in a realistic way that closely mimics the cockpit, the “feel” of the controls, and the environment. We don’t want pilots that can’t land without instruments or can’t recognize when they might be suffering from spatial disorientation.
I don’t think we should downplay the amount of investment and engineering necessary to create these realistic scenarios. I would be skeptical of any overture from gaming or VR glasses investors that say that they can dramatically lower the cost of conventional flight simulators. Still, it might be worth it for the Canadian government to fund companies such as CAE to incorporate more gaming technology into a version of their simulators.
As always, intriguing comments. I write a blog so don’t have the luxury of explaining in the detail of a white paper or essay the complexity of revamping pilot training in a holistic fashion. I clearly failed to highlight the key points. A couple of issues to return to.
New Tech + Old Processes – Very Expensive Old Processes. There is a place for Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality and soon Augmented Reality. We need to train pilots with more effective tools that, as an example, would allow students to learn and practice using VR goggles to prepare for flights in their homes rather than be forced to schedule the limited time available with the bog box sims at a military site. The user base for gaming equipment is in the millions. And there is a very real place for networked, classified sims all linked together to permit the aviators to exercise their aircraft’s systems in complex, realistic high threat scenarios to tax both the aircraft’s systems and the pilots themselves. Big firms like CAE can build those sims for the small user base which needs those capabilities. CAE is a big OEM and can never big agile, efficient or risk takers. I flew for those big OEMs for decades and know firsthand that it is impossible for them to be as quick and nimble as the small enterprises.
But the real issue is the product of those pilot training systems. We need the young men and women to fly different vehicles, spaceships and we are missing the potential to create young pilots who can fly and think on a different plane than the generations of pilots who came ahead of them. As some point I will introduce the programs from the USAF (like Pilot Training Next) and other nations where it has been recognized that change is needed and innovative training programs have been trialed to introduce that change.
“. . . would allow students to learn and practice using VR goggles to prepare for flights in their homes . . .”
Sure. The level, aircraft type, and type of training would have to be matched to the the home VR simulators. It would be interesting to hear more about the USAF Pilot Training Next program to understand some of these details.
“. . . impossible for them to be as quick and nimble as the small enterprises.”
I agree that *some* small focused companies with good financing and good management can often advance technologies more quickly than big OEMs. But flight simulators, even simple ones, are probably more complex than most games or social media applications.
One additional thought: if the CAF, USAF, or Navy wants to improve its culture, which I know is a goal in both the US and Canada, leveraging the gamer community and gaming VR software raises some red flags. Now ubiquitous gamer chat platforms such as Discord are notorious for enabling sexual exploitation.
Even the link I posted earlier about VR glasses applications points out that one of the greatest drivers of VR thus far has been pornography VR. And we only need to look to Gamergate to understand the cultures that permeate many small game developer companies.
In short, the culture of the gaming community and gaming companies is at odds with the culture of the USAF, CAF and US Navy.
Anyway, I’m sure there are opportunities to leverage VR technology to train pilots. But, as they say, the devil is in the details.
We teach skills (how to fly) and airmanship, professionalism and discipline (culture). We are discussing how to fly in this blog. Culture is an entirely different essay.
Tools like VR / MR / AR (Red 6: https://red6ar.com/news-press/ as best example) will give us valuable tools to teach better. Another essay could be written on how our old training systems unfairly failed out many, many viable pilot candidates who, barring one or two bad flights, would have passed training and become great lifelong pilots. Providing tools to allow students to teach more effectively will certainly help students learn ‘better’.
Taxing a student whose capacity to uptake higher order scenarios to create a 21st century pilot will also include exposure to the culture that is needed to be a military pilot. Just because a man or woman can fly doesn’t mean they can be safe and effective military pilots unless they comprehend the enormous responsibility that they are assuming. Long essay needed to discuss that.
I don’t buy the tangent on VR porn. We have bigger adversaries to focus on as fighter pilots. The outside world and any obsession on that dark world certainly won’t be entering the highly classified world of 5th Gen fighters.
Sorry, the link I posted about discord is incorrect. Here is the correct link:
Some light can be shed on the current state of home flight simulators from this Wired
1. They are using Discord to parallel chat the flight simulator experience. (Discord is a known unmoderated pornography sharing and child grooming ap that does not verify user ages.)
2. Many users agree that Discord’s lack of consistent moderation has led to chaotic experiences for flight simulator users. Some users have quit due to their very negative experiences.
3. The Microsoft Flight Simulator is good for teaching air traffic control protocol.
4. It is questionable as to whether this simulator is good enough to learn to fly with:
“Reiter says that the flight simulator community has done such a solid job accurately replicating the flight experience that he believes some “could probably manage to fly an aircraft, at least for some period of time and in the right conditions”—though he notes he’d rather stay on the ground for those flights.”
Hi Marnie, I think you are too focused on the negative aspect of both Discord and the flight simulator experience, and frankly, I think it’s not realistic to think about it that way.
I have joined many Discord servers and have found nothing remotely sexual like you claimed. And what it has to do with leveraging the gaming industry technology anyway?
Same thing with VR, I think it’s too negative to say that its sole purpose / main usage is for porn. From what I can see, aside from casual gaming experience, most serious simmers use it for racing game or flight sim.
Regarding flight simulator, I think you can take a look at DCS World instead of Microsoft Flight Simulator. DCS World is a combat flight simulator that everyone can try out for free with great VR support. As far as I know, the France air force is already leveraging it to train their pilots for the Mirage 2000. And of course, they use VR to provide the best experience.
And if the flight sim in question is not up to the task, there’s also an option of outsourcing the software part to the developers who have thousands of hours of experience with physics simulation and 3D graphics that scale well and provide a battle space for multiple virtual pilots coordinate with each other.
This is why I think there is a strong point to support Billie’s opinion. I understand that this is a much complicated issue, and there could be multiple hidden blockers / problems, but attaching “sexual” aspect to them to dismiss them is certanly not a valid one.
Curious as to your thoughts about Saab’s recent commitment to using relatively inexpensive Varjo Virtual Reality headsets as part of the Gripen simulator training? https://varjo.com/company-news/saab-and-varjo-bring-virtual-reality-to-flight-simulators/ It would appear that the future is here ..
Varjo Googles may be interesting, I use them to teach new test pilot students. However as I mentioned in a past blog, new tech and old processes just mean expensive old processes. The key is to change the entire training process and what we expect from the students. Gucci gear does not accomplish that element needed in new training schemes.
Hi Billie….I’ve been debating with more than a few people that because of the operating cost of the F-35, it means a Canadian F-35 pilot will only fly 9-10 hours a month, and be flying the sim a lot more. Because of that, some people have the impression that our pilots would be less proficient somehow and not get enough actual time in the jet. I don’t know how many hours our current Hornet pilots get, but saying a Canadian F-35 pilot will only fly 9-10 hours a month seems highly improbable. Do you have an idea of whether or not a Canadian F-35 pilot will be flying less, more or maintain the current average of flight hours that our current Hornet pilots are flying?
Colin – The real issue with F-35 vice legacy fighters is not wasting flight time flying around the flag pole and not getting valuable training each and every time a pilot flies….which is what happens with legacy jets…wasted time. F-35 needs to be stressed with advanced simulators to exercise the sensors and the combined effects / capabilities of the formations. The sensor coverage is so vast that normal training areas and ground emitters do not truly exercise the systems or make the pilots work. Today, F-35 pilots are getting roughly the same number of hours as in legacy fighters but much more valuable training. You will see better use of realistic sims in the future and no more wasted flight hours. Hope that helps…
I recently read but cannot now find an excellent article of yours relating to our (early) CF18 training in which we forced students to ignore moving map technology and instead carry hand drawn conventional paper maps a la CF104 days. There were more examples of our lack of vision -and I would really appreciate your sending it to me in digital form. Please!!!
Will do…will have to find it. Funny how the 5th Gen pilots in the USAF and USMC are forcing the old school, legacy 4th Gen instruction to adapt to a revolution in pilot training to prepare pilots to fly F-35, far different than how F-15, F-16, F-18, etc. pilots were taught.
You are right! I found it! Many thanks
Jock…I think you are referring to an interview that I did with Dean Black in the Air Force magazine, September 21, 2021…Snowbirds over Niagara Falls cover. I don’t have a link to it but Dean and I talked about the ‘old school’ mentality when we first started training on the CF-18. Hope that helps.