New Air Force leaders view plans for more virtual pilot training

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The Air Force’s new military leaders, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, made their first trip with Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett Thursday.

The leadership team traveled to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas, where they were shown Air Education and Training Command’s plans to take lessons from its virtual reality and artificial intelligence-infused pilot training experiment, called Pilot Training Next, and incorporate them into a new version of undergraduate pilot training, which the Air Force is calling UPT 2.5.

In a conference call with reporters Friday, Barrett said the leadership team was “celebrating innovation” and airmen during their trip. The trio also visited AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation hub in Austin, and saw some of the programs it is working on. One of those, Agility Prime, aims to improve logistics and transportation with “flying cars, very Jetsons-like,” Barrett said.

Barrett said the Air Force expects virtual pilot training not only will produce pilots cheaper and faster, but also better.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett uses a virtual reality flight simulator as Capt. Orion Kellogg, left, and Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, 19th Air Force commander, look on during her visit to Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5 Aug. 20 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (Sean Worrell/Air Force)

Brown, who became the 22nd chief of staff Aug. 6, said that taking care of airmen and their families, and ensuring their quality of service and quality of life remain high, are among his top priorities. That is why he, Barrett and Bass decided to come to Randolph for their first trip together, he said, to see how the Air Force develops its future leaders.

“We start leadership development the first day they walk in the door,” Brown said. “That, to me, is important, particularly when you look at the dynamics of what we’re dealing with, whether it’s COVID, racial disparity, potential budget pressures, high-end fight.”

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Brown also said airmen are hungry to innovate and improve the way the service does things. The COVID pandemic, for example, has given the Air Force opportunities to find new ways to innovate.

Bass said she wants to focus on people, including recruiting and retaining the airmen the service needs; readiness, or making sure airmen are ready for the challenges they face; and culture, creating a place where airmen and their families feel respected and want to go to work.

The pandemic slowed down pilot production, Brown said, but the pace at Air Education and Training Command is picking up again. The service didn’t lose many flying days, he said, but social distancing measures did limit training somewhat.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass speaks with Maj. Michael Fleherty, 559th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot, Aug. 20 about the use of the electronic flight bag during a tour of Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5. (Sean Worrell/Air Force)

It is too soon to tell how the pandemic will affect factors like the commercial airlines’ recruitment of pilots from the Air Force, he said.

But Brown believes the innovations of UPT 2.5 — which began in mid-July at Randolph and Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma — are showing promise. Brown, Barrett and Bass got opportunities to try on VR goggles and other equipment the newest pilot trainees are using to learn how to fly.

Brown said he is not concerned about plans to increase the amount of mobility pilot training that is done in simulators, and said the fidelity is very good.

Enlisted evaluations

The Air Force last year dropped Weighted Airman Promotion Tests for senior non-commissioned officers and began looking at the possibility of doing the same for airmen up for promotion to staff and technical sergeant.

When asked if the Air Force has made a decision on dropping WAPS tests for NCOs, Bass, who became the Air Force’s 19th top enlisted leader Aug. 14, said she wants to talk to personnel experts and learn more first.

But, she said, “there is nothing that is off the table when it comes to figuring out the best enlisted evaluation system for the airmen of today.”

No matter which way the Air Force goes, Bass said, the service wants to make sure its promotion system retains good airmen and values their experience.

About

Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.

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