By Senior Airman Alexa Culbert, Air University Public Affairs
/ Published November 07, 2019
First Lt. Matthew Gulotta, 23rd Flying Training Squadron student pilot, demonstrates the use of the flight simulation, Oct. 22, 2019, at Fort Rucker, Ala. The leadership at the 23rd FTS is in the process of determining whether virtual reality can benefit the unit's training program. The new program requires 23 1/2 hours in virtual reality before stepping foot in an actual aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alexa Culbert)
The 23rd Flying Training Squadron is using virtual-reality technology to increase their numbers without having to sacrifice excellence.
Hidden away on Fort Rucker, Alabama, an Army post, the 23rd FTS is responsible for training helicopter pilots and enlisted aircrews, preparing them for their next assignments.
While the Air Force's rotary-wing community is small, the 23rd FTS has a tall order to fill as the Air Force’s one-stop shop for helicopter aircrews.
Currently, the squadron produces between 74 and 85 pilots per year. With the arrival of the new Air Force HH-60W “Whiskey” helicopter, however, those numbers need to increase to more than 120 by the year 2023. This is where the “da Vinci” project comes into play.
The project, named after famed polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, supplements hours within a flight simulation that translates over into flight hours in an actual aircraft.
The idea for project da Vinci was created during the AFWERX conference in Las Vegas in January. Maj. Gen. Patrick Doherty, the former Nineteenth Air Force commander, invited helicopter training experts to attend the conference to brainstorm new ideas to propel the community forward.
“I was a student (at the 23rd FTS) from 2002 through 2003 and I would agree that the way we trained then was pretty similar to the way we trained our students prior to this virtual-reality class, so this is a really exciting time for the community,” said Lt. Col. Jake Brittingham, 23rd FTS commander. “Coming together and addressing this as a vertical-lift community as a whole was really beneficial and it paid off. I think we’re all in agreement that this is the right thing to do and to assume a little bit of risk to advance our training mythologies.”
It was at this point the team at the 23rd FTS began thinking of ways in which virtual reality could be used to increase their numbers and best utilize their resources.
“One of the things that makes the Air Force culture so distinct from the other branches in the U.S. military is that innovation is a part of who we are and it’s what we do,” said Capt. Jarrod Huffman, 23rd FTS chief of future operations. “As new technologies are becoming available, we’re wanting to adapt to those technologies and incorporate them in our training processes.”
In standard training, student pilots are required to obtain 105 in-seat flying hours, with each hour costing the Air Force approximately $1,300. The new class, featuring virtual reality, cuts those flying hours down to about 60, thus cutting the cost per student roughly in half. With an investment of less than $30,000, the new training system will save the Air Force more than $5.7 million per year.
In addition to cutting down costs, the incorporation of virtual reality also condenses the course length. The once eight-month course now only takes five months.
Though they are producing pilots in a radically different way, Huffman said they are working hard to ensure that the students are able to perform at the same level as the students who go through the original program.
In order to successfully test whether or not the new program is efficient, the pilots responsible for passing and failing the students at the end of the program were not integrated or exposed to the virtual-reality training, as to not skew the overall program standards.
Through the new program, the student pilots spend approximately 23 1/2 hours in the virtual-reality simulations before even stepping foot in the aircraft, ultimately saving fuel, flight hours and maintenance hours.
Capt. Matthew Strick, 23rd FTS innovative flight commander, recalled a student who was able to hover the aircraft and then fly it to a staging field without any assistance from the instructor pilot, all during their first time in the aircraft, adding that this type of progress is unheard of through the original program. Even with the progress this initial class has shown, the team at the 23rd is aware that there is still a lot to be determined as the use of virtual reality is further refined.
“It’s important to know that this virtual-reality technology is still very much in its infancy and part of the da Vinci project was to learn if this technology has the potential to be rewarding a payoff for helicopter operations … I think with the speed of technology and what is becoming available, we will see a day where we can really invest in virtual reality and for it to be cost effective,” Brittingham said.