AURORA, Colo.—The Air Force’s pilot training and safety enterprise is in the midst of a pivotal transition, with data analytics and high-tech simulators gaining ground but limited flying hours and related budget pressures a continuing issue, top generals said at the AFA Warfare Symposium.
The Air Force’s continued pilot shortage is among the drivers for change, as leaders seek to accelerate pilot production using new training approaches and qualification procedures. Indeed, even if those changes do yield more new pilots, the Air Force isn’t necessarily ready for all of them, said Lt. Gen. James C. “Jim” Slife, deputy chief of staff for operations.
“We have a well-established construct for how we produce and absorb new pilots into our squadrons,” Slife said during a March 7 panel discussion. “You can’t have a C-17 Squadron full of copilots with no aircraft commanders. And so there’s a limit to how many new copilots that can come in.”
Those limits, he explained, are primarily the number of flying hours a pilot has and the standard of experience the service sets for a pilot to then be considered fully qualified and absorbed.
“And if the [Air Education and Training Command] production pipeline could produce more pilots, we would have a hard time absorbing them in the operational squadrons,” Slife said.
Limited flying hours available to keep pilots proficient remain an issue. Those numbers have been steadily declining for years, with the flying hours program having historically been a bill payer for other sustainment accounts.
There are three factors in play affecting the flying hours shortage, Slife indicated:
- The daily cost of fuels and consumables;
- The longer-term costs of weapons system sustainment in depots;
- A shortage of maintenance manpower.
That final issue might be the most important. “It takes about seven years to create a crew chief,” Slife noted, a point reiterated in a separate event by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.: “As you look at our aircraft, they are breaking a bit more, taking longer to fix, and the experience level of our maintainers is not what it was over the past few decades,” Brown told reporters. “So that’s a combination of things that grind down aircraft availability.”
While giving more money to the flying hours program would provide a short-term boost, Slife warned that investments in sustainment and maintenance personnel are needed to prevent other long-term issues—and officials are working to quantify those risks so that decision-makers can make more-informed budget choices.
“All of these variables are knowable things. I mean, it’s not a mystery,” Slife said. “This is how it works. It gets complicated in the details. And what we need is we need to take advantage of all the data that we have collected over the years about how these variables interact and affect … the end result.”
Once tools are developed to interpret that data, service leaders can decide how to prioritize different accounts. Good data can be leveraged in numerous ways. Explained Brown: “Because of the data, we can now take a look at other things we can do, other levers we can pull to have a better understanding that will help increase the number of fight hours per month.”
Increasing flying hours is not a cure-all, said Maj. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt, the Department of the Air Force’s Chief of Safety. “Everyone would like to see a direct correlation because that makes it really easy—more flying hours [equals] less mishaps,” Leavitt said. “It’s not that easy.”
Instead, Leavitt highlighted other factors in improving safety—and helping the pilot corps improve. Her first example is one that Slife and AETC commander Lt. Gen. Brian S. Robinson also highlighted: advanced simulators.
“We’ve learned that the more often you stimulate the cognitive experience for anybody, either in flying skills or no matter how heavy or lightly the touch labor aspect is, the more comfortable the students are in training when they actually get into the platform … because they’ve seen it before, and expectations are shaped,” Robinson said. “They’ve heard it before. They’ve been able to make decisions on the scenarios that we’ve been able to present through immersive training technological solutions.”
Similarly, Slife noted that pilots now get into aircraft better able to focus on learning techniques instead of spending time getting acclimated.
The Air Force is counting on advanced simulators, as well as augmented and virtual reality, to play a key role in pilot production as part of its “Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5” program
Still, Leavitt also emphasized the importance of “balance” in pilot training and safety.
“At the end of the day, we also need to get up there,” she said.
Yet even when pilots are up in the sky, there are ways for advanced technologies to make a difference, all three generals agreed. In particular, they cited a relatively new practice of analyzing aircraft flight data.
“When you think about flight data recorders and voice recorders, it’s typically in the aftermath of the crash, you go find the box, you pull it out, figure out what happened and why the airplane crashed,” Slife said. “But what we’ve found is we can actually collect data off these things, of each sortie, and look for training trends. And you can say, ‘OK, how many unstable approaches do we have inside the final approach phase? How many times can we see a bank angle that exceeds whatever it is? … And I’ll tell you, that really gives you some great insights into the training programs you have.”
Robinson said that in one instance, AETC went back and examined data leading up to a C-17 mishap and realized that, had they analyzed the pilot’s earlier flights, they could have identified a problem that contributed to the accident and made corrections before it ever happened.
With the ability to analyze data, Slife said, new ways of thinking about how to use it are needed. “We’re living in an interesting time because of the advent of technologies that are really going to change our historical models for absorption and production [of new pilots].”