Great Power Competition Drives Air Force Pilot Training


Air Force training pilots Lt.Col Matt Strohmeyer and Lt. Col Justin Chandler discuss the effect of great power competition on the pace and intensity of training the next generation of  instructors with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference held at the Gaylord National Harbor. Our Air, Space and Cyber Conference coverage is sponsored Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.

Lt. Col. Matt Strohmeyer, USAF

Commander, 560th Flying Training Squadron

Lt. Col. Justin Chandler, USAF

99th Flying Training Squadron

Randolph AFB, Texas

AFA 2018 Air, Space, Cyber Conference

September 2018

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian here at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference and Trade Show outside Washington, DC, the number one gathering of U.S. Air Force leaders from around the world to discuss the service’s future, its strategy, its budget and technologies.  Our coverage here is sponsored by Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.

We’re here on the show floor to talk to two guys who are integral to the U.S. Air Force’s Pilot Instructor Training Next.  Did I get that right?  At Air Education and Training Command, working for the inimitable General Kwast who is leading the organization.  Matt Strohmeyer, Justin Chandler, both lieutenant colonels, Commander of the 560thFlying Training Squadron flying T-38s.  You’re with the legendary 99thFlying Training Squadron, the legendary Red Tails, the Tuskegee Airmen, flying the T-1.  So talk to us from your guys’ perspective, and let me start with you, Matt.  Talk about the PIT Next program, what you guys are trying to achieve.  Because you’re trying to bring in all sorts of novel technologies here to fundamentally change how the Air Force trains instructor pilots. Tell us a little bit about how you guys are doing that.

Lt. Col. Matt Strohmeyer:  Absolutely. So we are tasked with training, at least in my squadron, the next generation of T-38 instructor pilots who go and train the future fighter/bomber force for the United States Air Force.

And what we have found is after the guidance we have been given from General Kwast, from General Goldfein, from Secretary Wilson and the 2018 National Defense Strategy, it has said that we need to adopt a competitive mindset in absolutely everything we do, because we are now in a period of renewed great power competition with actors like Russia and China that are challenging us on every front.  And so at our level, we have said how do we do that?  At the squadron level, how do we relook all of our processes, everything we do to train these instructor pilots to ensure that they are ready to produce the aviators for great power competition.

The first thing we did is we challenged our learning paradigms from the ground up.  We said how can guys learn better, learn faster, and you get to a higher-level proficiency by incorporating all the emerging technology that exists today, commercial, off-the-shelf technology that we could bring in.  Things like virtual reality trainers, things like 360-degree virtual reality goggles where they can see the flight environment 10, 20, 30 times over before they actually go out and fly it.  So that they’re flying, and the instruction when they’re flying is more meaningful than it was in the past.

Mr. Muradian:  And Justin, what does it mean on your end of the equation at the T-1?

Lt. Col. Justin Chandler:  It’s really a similar approach.  We train the future mobility pilots of the Air Force through the T-1, but we really needed to evolve the way that we train and leverage this emerging technology and really the insights into the human mind.  How the human mind learns.  What are the advancements in the cognitive process?

So we really went out with a humble approach to academia and industry and went to the experts to really figure out how can we change the way we do things so that we don’t just meet the same expectations, but we surpass them.

So a graduate out of our program going forward, we think, will be a better pilot and a better instructor than they were previously.

Mr. Muradian:  The extraordinary thing I think a lot of people don’t know is in the commercial world, everything you have until your first flight with self-loading cargo is — a little shout-out.  There’s a Navy friend of mine who always calls me self-loading cargo.  But you know, the first time you were doing it is for a revenue flight, right?  I mean everything else you’ve done is in the simulator, you do it obviously with a high time pilot the first time you go out.

Talk to us a little bit about, you know, some of the virtual and immersive technologies you guys are using to give that kind of fidelity.  Because one of the things that you find out when you do a VR immersion is you’re really building mental muscle memory around something. It becomes a real memory as opposed to something synthetic.

Lt. Col. Chandler:  It’s really multiple technologies that we’ve integrated.  So you’ve got virtual reality, augmented reality, big data analytics, and artificial intelligence.  And what we’ve done is bring all of those together in a meaningful way so that we’re not just training pilots and the insights we’re getting don’t just apply to aviation, but we really think they’ll apply to every career field because this is a different approach to educating and training.

So the same approach to teaching something to someone.  It doesn’t just apply to pilots, it applies to everything. So we think the sacred cow of the Air Force is training aviators, and now that we’ve proven that it works, we can apply it elsewhere.

Lt. Col. Strohmeyer:  And I think at a tangible level, I’m an F-15 pilot by trade.  I think about the first time that I ever flew an air combat maneuvering engagement during my initial training in an F-15, the first time I ever flew it was the first time I ever saw it.  And so I was pretty terrible at it because I hadn’t seen the line of sight cues, I hadn’t heard the radio calls, I hadn’t seen all the actions that you need to go through.  I’d read about it in a book, but that was it.

So to take our training, the United States Air Force, to the 21stcentury level, what we can do is with these tools here, I could, as an F-15 guy, I could see that environment 30, 40, 50 times over.  I could memorize the mental habit patterns for where I need to look. I can actually look in these VR goggles and I can hear the instructor say okay, look off to your left.  The bandit will be at that point, and I want you to fixate on the bandit, and this is what you need to do with your stick and throttles.

And then I can take that and put it into a virtual reality simulator and I can have the student or myself go off and fly that 20, 30, 40 times before we get in the aircraft.  So that when I sit in the aircraft the first time, it’s not the first time I’ve seen it, and I’ve not only been able to see it but actually have been able to fly it, to some extent, with a pretty high fidelity representation of what it’s like to fly it so that the instructor teaching that new F-15 student can get him to a higher level of proficiency than he’s been able to get him to in the past. And eventually, we can achieve a higher level of readiness in the force so that we can be ready for that peer-level conflict that we might have to fight in the future.

Lt. Col.  Chandler:  The approach allows us to set the student up for success on the first flight, so they now have a level of understanding they didn’t previously.  So that first flight is often called a helmet fire because so many things are going on that you’ve never seen before.  So if we can get past that, it’s like driving a car.  I make that comparison.  Where the first few times you’re driving a car you’re thinking about everything, you’re checking your blind spot, you’re scanning your instrument gauges.  Now you get to the point where it’s almost second nature, that muscle memory.  So your brain is able to take in all this different information and really make more effective use of flying an aircraft, which is very expensive.

Mr. Muradian:  Yeah. The big difference is on the car you kind of pull over and you’re like all right, let’s stop here.  Whereas you guys don’t really have that option, and then you could also run into something.

Everybody is trying, look, the Air Force, we were talking about General Deptula. He loves to talk all the time about a geriatric Air Force.  Hours on planes are expensive in terms of maintenance but also in gas consumption. An F-15 is what, $30,000 an hour or so in order to go up there and drive it?  Very, very important.  You still have to have that physical experience, especially for such a high-performance jet.  But tell us how that changes the paradigm?  How many hours less are you in the cockpit?  How much more gain are you getting for each one of those hours in the cockpit?

Lt. Col. Strohmeyer:  Right now our focus, we’re in the discovery phase of this.  We’re trying to see what can we learn, how can we improve instructor training and pilot training through the use of these tools?

So right now we’re still flying the same number of sorties but we’re trying to make the sorties that we fly much more meaningful than they ever were in the past.  So we’re on about a one-to-one virtual reality simulator and VR goggles experience for every flight event that they go out and fly.

So what we’re finding is that the students are learning faster in the aircraft. They’re able to demonstrate proficiency in maneuvers faster in the aircraft.  And as we continue to scale this to the bigger Air Force, we’re going to start getting more and more into the big data analytics of trying to determine well, what is effective?  What’s not effective?  And where can we adjust and try to achieve efficiencies in our training programs?

Mr. Muradian:  Because you’re also tracking eyeballs, right?  So you’re not only, you’re looking at where I’m looking while I’m in the cockpit to give me pointers on your eyes are in the wrong place.

Lt. Col.  Chandler:  There’s a tracking where you get kind of a heat map, so you can say your airspeed got out of your cross-check because you’re focusing on your altimeter, or something else. So you’ve got that insight.  But you also have the biometric feedback.  So you’ve got cognitive load, physical load, as well as channelized attention.  So those are more insights.  And as Nomad said, we’re trying to capture all of that data so that we make smart decisions based on fact versus just eyeballing it and making our best guess.

So really, we’re trying to emphasize that we’re not cutting flight hours.  We’re just trying to capture the data to figure out where the more meaningful training happens.  Make the most effective use of our time, and then allow senior leaders to make decisions on what the data says.

Mr. Muradian:  You know, I’m just, over your shoulder I’m watching that there’s a little bit of [condensate] coming out of the air conditioner which is also great, right? Because the first time you see it you’re just like wow, you know, and it’s a distraction.  But it’s like that’s in the fidelity.

As you guys look at what the technology is coming down the road.  You know, we’re talking to the guys over at Boeing that built their Titan missile launch simulator, they’re competing for the GBSD program.  They said they’ve got that, they couldn’t get into a Minuteman silo.  And it’s really extraordinary the mental memory it creates, right?  In terms of, and it’s not as high fidelity as anything like this.  You know, their point was if you’d just given us a little bit more time we could create that ultra-high fidelity.

But as you look at what’s commercially available and where we’re going to be even in five years, how is that going to change what you’re even doing now? Because if you look at this, we’re on a quantum step increase in fidelity, quality, no [JITR], and just each one of these libraries is increasing for what’s available.  Where are we going to be in five years, do you think, Matt?

Lt. Col. Strohmeyer:  That’s a great question.  So I think the paradigm is shifting when it comes to speed.  And the speed that not only the Air Force is starting to operate, but the speed the world is operating at, the speed of new iterations of technology. We’re seeing, in six months much of this will be obsolete, and we’ll be able to push this down to ROTC units and things like that for them to be able to explore and learn what this looks like, and we’ll be able to bring in the next level technology.

What we’ve found is that it’s an exciting time to be in the Air Force. Because our senior leaders from the SECAF to the Chief, down through General Kwast, are empowering us as commanders and as squadrons at the local level to be able to figure out how to find the competitive advantages we need to be able to compete against actors like Russia and China.  And so by allowing us and giving us that freedom and that ability to explore at a squadron level, it allows us to be able to keep up with the speed, the pace of changes, to be able to incorporate these technologies.  Because we are as close to the mission as you can get. Actually training the pilots that are learning how to do this.  And because we’re right next to the mission, it’s the exact right level for us to continue to innovate and to iterate on what works best so that we can not only kind of keep pace with the mission but we can get out in front of the mission and we can say what’s next, and how can we incorporate that to get the best possible training we can for our pilots?

Mr. Muradian:  Justin?

Lt. Col. Chandler:  You know, the technology is a tool and these toys allow us to do things we haven’t been able to before.  But really, the revolutionary part is the innovative mindset and the empowerment, as Nomad said, from the very top — the SECAF, the Chief, General Kwast — down that empowers us at a squadron level which has not been possible before.

We’re able to go out there, find better ways of doing things and make them happen.  We have the support of leadership, we have the funding from leadership to do these great things.  And I think that will truly revolutionize the Air Force and hopefully the DoD.

Really, the approach and the different way of educating and training really should permeate the entire nation, and that will allow us to increase our education system and really make a difference.

Mr. Muradian:  Lt. Col. Justin Chandler, Commanding Officer of, Commander of the 99thFlying Training Squadron.  Matt Strohmeyer, lieutenant colonel, Commander of the 560thFlying Training Squadron in T-38s, T-1s.  Guys, thanks very much.  On the PIT program, PIT Next.  I wish you all the best of luck, and I’d love to keep coming back.  You know, if you put any of these on eBay I’ll buy one and set it up in my living room.

Lt. Col.  Strohmeyer:  Awesome. Thank you very much.  We really appreciate the opportunity to forward this.

Lt. Col. Chandler:  Thank you for your support.  We appreciate the time.

Mr. Muradian:  Thank you, guys.


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