Airman Basic Cody Alfred has always played video games, so when offered the chance to take the virtual reality (VR) version of the Fundamentals of Aircraft Maintenance course at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, he jumped at it.
Alfred, who is assigned to the 362nd Training Squadron, is training to be an F-35 crew chief. It took him 23 days to complete the traditional course, which included a lot of PowerPoints and time in a classroom before venturing out to the flight line to work on a real aircraft. But once he put on the VR headset, Alfred said he was having so much fun with the training, he breezed through the course in just six days.
The instructors “told me I could take breaks, … but I didn’t want to because the program was just, I wouldn’t say fun, because this is for professional use, but it was really engaging and the quality of training that it provided me, I just wanted to keep doing it,” Alfred said.
The virtual reality lab at Sheppard is about 44 feet by 35 feet, with VR stations located every 10 feet along the wall, each separated by a curtain. There is a computer monitor in front of a table at each station, and the student stands on a mat donning the VR headset. Once they put on the goggles they are immersed in a realistic three-dimensional world.
I wouldn’t say [VR training] was fun, because this is for professional use, but it was really engaging.Airman Basic Cody Alfred, F-35 crew chief trainee, Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas
One scenario, dubbed “a day in the life,” looks to mimic what a young Airmen will experience once they get to their first operational unit. After putting on the headset, the student finds themself inside a virtual break room. When the flight chief walks into the room, the student is directed to follow them into a hangar, where a C-130 is waiting. Once in the hangar, the flight chief—an artificially intelligent instructor—gives out daily assignments, all of which are connected to course training requirements. After being assigned a task, the student is then paired up with a virtual seven-level trainer who walks them through the process.
“One of the big ones that we show off is the wheel and tire change. There are three different opportunities for the students to learn. One is to watch the exemplar, or that seven-level experienced mechanic, do the repair. That artificially intelligent-powered non-player character is capable of doing the task without any human influence, so the student can watch the entire process happen,” said Tech. Sgt. Kyle Ingram, Fundamentals of Aircraft Maintenance Instructor Supervisor at the 362nd Training Squadron. “Then they can do what is sort of like a guided tour, [where] they can do the task themselves, but they have the instructor and the virtual instructor over their shoulder telling them what to do. Finally, they can do the entire task on their own.”
The computer picks up the student’s motion and is able to determine where they are reaching inside their three-dimensional environment, and instructors can watch their work in real-time on the screen.
“We get to see everything they’re doing live and … show them pointers or, you know, give them kudos,” said Ingram.
For Alfred, the class not only kept him engaged, but it allowed him to move at his own pace. As a hands-on learner, the ability to repeatedly conduct a task also helped him develop the muscle memory necessary to do his job.
Learning And Changing
This type of learner-centric model is key to training future Airmen, said Maj. Gen. Andrea D. Tullos, commander of 2nd Air Force, which is responsible for graduating some 150,000 joint force personnel from about 3,400 courses each year. Tullos said people often think of 2nd Air Force as a “one-size-fits-all” factory line that pushes out students exactly the same way each time, but “our vision is very different.”
“One of the lessons we’ve learned is that we’re going to have to be flexible enough that different subjects and different kinds of training are going to require different kinds of technology,” she said.
Nineteenth Air Force, which trains more than 32,000 U.S. and allied aircrew each year, first started looking at virtual reality back in 2017 under the Pilot Training Next program. It didn’t take long for Air Education and Training Command leaders to realize that if they were going to “build bigger, better, faster pilots” then they “probably should also have maintainers that are on the same path,” said Detachment 23 Commander Maj. Jesse Johnson.
Johnson’s detachment is made up of 11 people, including nine aircraft maintenance Airmen, a software developer, and an administrator. Their directive was to “go out and modernize maintenance training,” through what was initially called “Maintenance Training Next,” he said.
Though similar to Pilot Training Next, there were plenty of differences in the two programs. For one, aircraft simulators have been around for a long time, but Johnson said there was nothing comparable for maintainers, “particularly in the virtual reality space, or in the digital space at all.”
“So, what we found very quickly is that they were able to move faster than us because they could go out and adapt already present technology to meet their mission needs, and they were able to develop faster,” Johnson said. “We had to start from scratch.”
The technology needs also differed. Tullos said the VR goggles student pilots wear, for example, are just fine for an hour and a half sortie, but they are too heavy for a maintainer who might spend eight hours working on a virtual aircraft. It’s important “that we’re not trying to pick one thing and then force feed it to what are 265 different specialties,” Tullos told Air Force Magazine. “So, there’s been a lot of testing, and I’m not going to say failing, but learning and changing, and learning from each other.”
Less Classroom, More Hands-On
Johnson said his detachment first started researching human performance factors necessary to create a great maintainer, and then they compared that to the traditional classroom.
“We built this course focused on adaptive immersive learning technology, so [augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR)] to really be able to get the student into a hands-on environment faster … less classroom, more hands on,” he said. “Then we took that to a proof-of-concept test where we ran approximately 30 students through the course and gathered a whole bunch of data about their performance.”
Johnson said the feedback showed the proof of concept, which closed out in October of 2020, didn’t quite meet all the expectations, but it met enough to prove the process worked well for today’s students, most of whom are technologically minded. Those participating in the proof of concept completed the course in about half the time and came within seven percent of the academic average of the long-standing crew chief fundamentals course, Johnson said.
“Soon after we did the proof of concept, we kind of took a bigger mission look at what we were doing. … The epiphany was, ‘Hey, modernizing the classroom is not a maintenance problem, it is an Air Force problem, so we need to start thinking about how to apply modern learning techniques and practices in every classroom in enlisted skills training,’” Johnson said. It was at that point, in November 2020, when Maintenance Training Next became Technical Training Transformation, or T3, with the goal of modernizing all initial skills training, Johnson said.
The initial proof of concept allowed real-life instructors to make corrections as needed and included what is called experiential learning, taking such things as environmental safety hazards into consideration. For example, in the wheel and tire change scenario, if a student attempts to remove a safety wire, but is not wearing safety glasses as required, the wire will hit them in the eye in the virtual world and the screen will turn red, letting them know immediately they have done something wrong.
Johnson said the hope is that version 2.0, which is slated to be released in January 2022 with a final version due in June 2022, will be presented in what he called “E-1 affordable hardware.”
“We want whatever the course is delivered on to be affordable to the student, and [for] the student [to be able to] access it, not only on a virtual reality headset, but we eventually want to scope it down to where their personal electronic device or their cell phone is capable of delivering a majority of the content as long as it can be secured properly,” he said.
‘Great Work, Now What?’
Johnson’s team briefed Air Education and Training Command boss Lt. Gen. Marshall B. “Brad” Webb on their progress in May 2020, and the response was, “How do we scale and sustain this effort? So basically, ‘Great work, now what?’” Johnson said.
His team has spent most of 2021 trying to answer that question.
They remained focused on updating the original proof of concept for the crew chief fundamentals course, which is a very technical, hands-on course that graduates some 4,500 students a year from Sheppard. But they also sought a much smaller schoolhouse that doesn’t require as much hands-on training. They landed on the 2G0X1 Air Force Specialty Code—logistics planning—and offered to build them a course with various learning modalities at no cost to them, Johnson noted. That course will be released in January 2022, around the same time as the crew chief fundamentals version 2.0.
“Our goal is not just virtual reality or augmented reality courses, we want to present every single learning objective in the Air Force in a variety of modalities so that we can reach every single type of learner that comes into our doors,” he said. “So, if a student learns better by listening, we want them to be able to click a button and listen to the lecture in an audible format when they go for a run. Or, if they like watching YouTube videos, we want them to be able to watch the lecture on a video and maybe watch a hands-on demonstration in a video, and then turn to a virtual reality and augmented reality when they want to practice.”
Although the effort to incorporate AR/VR technology into USAF training was well underway before COVID-19 essentially forced everyone to learn how to live in a digital world, the pandemic “in a lot of ways proved” the validity of this type of technology “in the modern Air Force,” Johnson said.
Unexpected Cash Flow
There were financial benefits as well. Because of the uncertainty in the U.S. economy due to the pandemic, the Air Force experienced record-high retention numbers, so it didn’t need to bring as many students into the pipeline as it had originally expected. “We were able to invest some dollars to sort of buy forward, because we knew the Air Force was not going to be able to numerically produce the number of Airmen during COVID that we would have in a normal year,” Tullos said. “So, there was a little extra money there for us to take some risk with.”
Some of the money that typically would have been spent producing Airmen went to new technology necessary for the classroom of the future, such as tablets and wireless technology—the backbone of this new infrastructure.
“We’re not sacrificing quality. We always do quality first, but what we’re finding is that we can actually train the Airmen faster, and I believe it’s because this is the way they’re comfortable learning, so their retention is higher and they’re more active in the classroom. They’re more enthusiastic learners,” Tullos said.
What kind of long-term impact this might have on the pipeline, however, remains to be seen. Tullos said there are courses right now using approved augmented reality and virtual reality technology and their trainees are meeting the standards. There are courses, she said, that know they want more tech, and some that are standing by to see how this all plays out.
“Most of our classes haven’t really figured out where on that spectrum the blend lies. Is it at 40 percent? Is it at 60 percent? How much is too much, and how much is not enough?” Tullos said. “It’s going to take some time to convert from the way we have the curriculum set up now until the way we want it to be in some future state. Some of those courses are deliberately waiting for the lessons learned because they know at the point that they do it, they just want to go all in. They don’t want to be the ones to go through the testing and in the phasing. They want to learn from everybody else and … skip a generation.”