JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --
Helicopter pilots and special mission aviators from the 41st Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, performed a demonstration of a virtual reality (VR) training system here for Air Combat Command leadership July 8, 2019, as part of a squadron-led innovation showcase.
Lt. Gen. Chris Weggeman, the deputy commander of ACC, viewed the demonstration and lauded the unit’s efforts to incorporate new technologies into the squadron’s everyday culture.
“It’s inspiring,” Weggeman said. “I think it’s going to be a set of equipment that will allow us to improve the efficiency of how we conduct training in the HH-60, and it’ll also give us insights in to the broader Pilot Training Next (program) and all the things we’re doing with virtual reality.”
The trainer allows four people to don VR headgear and simultaneously enter a server to fly a virtual HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopter in simulated training missions. The controls are the same equipment the helicopter uses to add further realism to the VR environment.
“Science and technology innovations in VR present an excellent opportunity to advance and augment realistic training and learning for our warfighters to not only maintain competitive advantage but also to increase lethality over emerging threats,” said Dr. John D. Matyjas, the scientific advisor to the ACC commander and the person who arranged the demonstration. “The 41st RQS seized this opportunity and showcased results in just a couple months.”
And this is how it all came together.
In mid-2018, Moody leadership hosted a Spark Tank competition, which is an innovation-driven event where participating Airmen present their ideas in an effort to secure funding. The winning concepts more often than not focus on increasing squadron readiness, modernizing mission sets and creating a more resilient, future-minded Air Force.
The 41st RQS currently employs the HH-60G to conduct combat search and rescue missions abroad. They deploy often, and their everyday job can be dangerous. With this inherent high-level of risk, they train regularly to keep their people as safe as possible.
One of the ways some helicopter squadrons do this is by using simulators, which allow pilots and aircrew to train together in a physical helicopter housing designed to mimic actual flight conditions.
However, no operational HH-60G squadrons own such a simulator.
So, the rescue community at Moody came together to research a way to fill the gap between live-flying exercises and the conceptual rehearsal of missions.
This is where VR comes into play.
They brought their idea to the Spark Tank competition, earned the funding and contacted a small business to begin the development of this new system. From there it has evolved into an everyday accessible and repetitious training tool to hone pilot and aircrew proficiency skills.
“We introduce concepts in VR so that when in the real cockpit, the training synchs faster,” said Capt. Brian Combs, 41st RQS chief of weapons and tactics. “With this software, we can pause the mission, look where we are, rewind to fix mistakes and repeat as often as necessary to ensure the training is as effective as possible.”
The system even uses real-time data to overlay environment and roadway skins on pre-existing topography scans of the simulation location.
Put simply, when the pilots enter this virtual world, they can fly over the computer-generated version of their real ranges and airspace. The two are almost identical.
“This means we can have full rehearsal of missions on the Moody range before ever stepping foot into a helicopter,” Combs said. “We had a need to hone our combat edge and to maximize our resources. For us, this was it.”
Virtual and augmented realities like this are an emerging tool for aviation-related training, and Air Force leadership has encouraged units to take risks to develop these tools to bolster their traditional education. One of the cornerstones of former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s leadership was to foster a culture that rewards innovative thinking and modern solutions to pilot shortages and training deficiencies.
“Technology has changed quite a bit, but the syllabus for pilot training had not significantly changed in about 20 years,” Wilson said regarding the Pilot Training Next program, which is a similar VR training for fighter jet pilots. “The Air Force is partnering with industry and educators to build a training environment that integrates today’s latest technology to improve pilot training.”
Lt. Col. Scott Rein, the 41st RQS commander, said he agrees the future of ACC pilot training involves VR, and a holistic approach is necessary to certify qualification training and to maintain flight currency.
“Virtual reality capabilities are rapidly growing,” Rein said. “While this technology does not replace flight time in the aircraft or experience in the simulator, it is an incredibly valuable and complementary training system. It allows us to accomplish our mission training and increase our combat readiness in unprecedented ways.”
Although the squadron is still actively collecting data and feedback as they integrate VR into their training program, he continued, the early statistics are very promising for what it can bring to the table.
“I don’t think we’ve even scratched the potential for virtual reality,” said Weggeman, who is responsible for the combat training and development of more than 98,000 active-duty service members and civilian personnel. “Virtual reality environments are going to be huge, because that’s the way you’re going to generate the threat, the enemy and all the multi-domain problems that our leaders are going to have to work through in command and control.
“VR is going to play a huge part as we integrate into complex multi-domain environments,” he added, referencing the command’s role in the National Defense Strategy.
The next step for ACC is to plan how to implement policy, oversight and an enterprise-level approach to VR implementation without stifling the innovative spirit borne of squadron-led risk takers.
“VR is a game changer,” said Rein, “and there are so many applications throughout the Air Force, within aviation as well as outside the flying community. But as the technology rapidly develops, we also need an enterprise-wide strategy and VR framework to create the most effective training systems for the Air Force.”