Simulators Help Pilots Earn Their Wings

Pilot Training Next offers innovative approach to preparing a new generation of aviators

Training is an essential, and expensive, part of an airman’s ascension to pilot. Before getting into an actual cockpit, they typically train in high fidelity simulators, but their hours are constrained by the limited number of these sophisticated simulators. Because those cost millions, a limited number of future pilots can complete training in any given year.

With a new Air Force initiative called Pilot Training Next (PTN), we are helping airmen get in extra “flying” time using cheaper simulators that use commercial components when the more expensive high fidelity simulators are not available. This makes it possible to get more pilots up into the air faster.

A typical high-fidelity simulator
A typical high-fidelity simulator.

Fast results

Innovators within the Air Force had the concept for PTN, but they needed an experienced technology integrator to help with execution. We had the specific expertise of integrating training technologies, and we could get things up and running quickly.

“We act like a special forces team,” said senior engineer Jennifer Lewis, who is an expert in modeling and simulation. “The SAIC employees on our PTN program wear multiple hats and work in close synchronization. Every employee has a holistic understanding of the program.”

Because of that teamwork, Lewis and her colleagues had the first group of trainees set up within weeks.

Changing the game

Until recently, the Air Force could not use virtual flight simulators on commercially available hardware. Though sophisticated, simulators on commercial hardware could either generate realistic-looking environments or accurately simulate the physics of planes in real-world conditions. Doing both required too much processing power for a typical desktop computer.

With faster computing power and constant improvements in virtual reality (VR) technology, simulators now can bridge the gap between the classroom and the high fidelity simulator.

By using commercial off-the-shelf technology, the Air Force has found a lower-cost training solution that gives all trainees their own workstation, in contrast with having to share a limited number of high fidelity simulators. Because commercial products are constantly improving, and their cost is very low, PTN can constantly upgrade equipment with little additional investment.

The virtual reality workstation where PTN training takes place.
Pilot Training Next's virtual reality simulator.

Culture shift

The Air Force started with 20 recruits in the inaugural PTN group, 13 of whom graduated in less than 6 months, each with their own in-class VR workstation. Each pair of roommates has one to share in their apartments. Early data indicate that students with increased access to the simulations will be more comfortable in the cockpit and go through the pilot curriculum faster.

Data tracking is built into our training solutions, so instructors and trainers get constant feedback on their progress. Most airmen who enter the training pipeline want to be fighter pilots; tracking their progress and showing how they rank against their peers helps them know early if that’s a realistic expectation and can potentially help them to make adjustments to improve the odds.

By empowering recruits with their own VR workstations, and giving them 24/7 access, we are helping the Air Force change its training culture.