At a time of growing international threats, the Air Force is readying pilots for the unexpected

At Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, the screech of the training planes overhead is constant. But students in the latest iteration of undergraduate pilot training don’t seem to notice.

Most days they congregate in a confined space they call a “bullpen.” Rows of virtual reality simulators divide the space while people in flight suits fill the aisles. Most stations consist of upgraded Windows PCs and other components such as monitors, joysticks and throttles.

Students wear VR headsets and practice maneuvers while instructors like Capt. Dylan Rabbitt directing them.

“Once you get to that intersection, turn right and fly up those power lines straight to the runway. That’s when you make the first radio call,” he told a trainee in the pre-flight phase.

The simulators are often linked together — like a multiplayer video game — so students can practice navigating busy air traffic.

“So we can put eight students here with an instructor and watch them simulate a traffic pattern and see the conflicts. she [students] Learn through experience rather than trying to read a book about and picking up how to handle these particular situations,” said Maj. Trevor Johnson, director of pilot training transformation at the 47th Operations Group. “It empowers them with those fundamentals of task management, decision making, risk management and situational awareness that will inherently move on to more complex missions later on.”


Carson Frame / Texas Public Radio


Undergraduate pilot trainees and instructors navigate virtual reality scenarios in the “Bullpen” at Laughlin Air Force Base.

Learning from experience — and solving problems on the fly — are skills the Air Force believes will be key to fighting in future wars. The Pentagon now sees greater threats from countries like China and Russia that may be able to disrupt US military communications and cyber networks.

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“Our potential opponents understand the skills we bring to the table. That’s why we need to empower our students to deal with environments where things just don’t go according to plan at this early stage,” he explained.

For 20 years, the Air Force operated air supremacy over Iraq and Afghanistan. US fighters, bombers, tankers and surveillance planes usually roamed the skies freely – and the ground forces benefited from their support.

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Johnson said when he went through pilot training and into the operational Air Force a decade ago, the flight environment was more predictable.

“For example, I didn’t have anything from an opponent’s point of view that affected my ability to act.”

But with the unexpected becoming more expected, the Air Force wants pilots to be ready.

Trainee Catherine Ginn hopes to one day fly a fighter-bomber. She and her cohort have participated in many emergency drills during power outages or no communications. Whether or not these conditions are caused by a technically advanced opponent, problem-solving skills are still useful.

“If you don’t have a radio, you’re out of luck until you’re near the airport and they can see you,” Ginn said. “Then maybe you can shake your wings or wait for a light weapon — something like that. In the cockpit, you have visual cues that you can use to communicate what you want, where you want to go, what you want to do.”


Carson Frame / Texas Public Radio


Student pilots Joseph Buxton and Catherine Ginn say the new pilot training curriculum gives them the autonomy to design their own flight plans and consider skills they may struggle with.

The new iteration of pilot training seeks to move students away from routine answers and toward understanding the real world. But it’s not just about teaching young pilots to be more autonomous in the cockpit. The course format was designed to give students more flexibility in learning.

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“You have to know what you’re struggling with and challenge yourself to become a better pilot,” he said. “Good example: Yesterday I went out and flew my training goals, worked on patterns and landings. But I still planned to go to our area and do some aerobatics.”

“We plan our flights,” Ginn added. “There are specific requirements and goals at different points in the curriculum. But if it’s basic aircraft controls or something that’s integrated across the board, we always have an opportunity to work on that.”

The Air Force introduced the curriculum for all incoming undergraduate pilot trainees. The service is also looking for opportunities Modernization of its communication systems and information networks to prevent opponents from interfering with its operation.


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