BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
Maj. Mark Budgeon is a driven man.
So, in 2018, when the National Defense Strategy stated the U.S. military’s competitive advantage was “eroding” and Air Force leaders were sounding alarms over elements of the service’s readiness, the B-52 Stratofortress pilot took action.
“We have a pilot crisis, the Secretary of the Air Force has said that,” Budgeon stated about his growing concern over readiness.
Last month, with the help of two other B-52 instructor pilots, Maj. Brandon Wolf and Maj. Justin Stephenson, Budgeon unveiled the Virtual Reality Program Trainer, but he made it clear the new pilot training technology was only the tip of an innovative iceberg.
Beneath the waterline is a planned learning management system called Barksdale Training Next, a program the three pilots hope will revolutionize aircrew training for the jet.
Budgeon developed BTN as a comprehensive training system to help individualize instruction for B-52 students while helping instructors improve training through data gathering and analysis.
During a presentation last month to both active-duty and Air Force Reserve leadership at Barksdale Air Force Base, Wolf, Stephenson and Budgeon contended that BTN could alleviate some readiness concerns by turning out better trained B-52 aircrew at a potentially faster rate. They explained current training follows a linear pattern, with months of classroom instruction followed by several more months of practical application in simulators, and finally, the B-52 itself.
Wolf said the current approach has some inherent disadvantages, including logistical concerns that force students to wait for hands-on training and an inability to gather data to individualize instruction.
Taking off the handcuffs
BTN’s learning management system gives students ready access to virtual environments that can be accessed with portable tools students can sign out and practice with outside the classroom environment. The VRPT, for instance, can recreate an exact working copy of a B-52 cockpit using a computer, a virtual reality headset, and hand triggers.
Expanding on this idea, BTN allows for virtual training systems, known as sleds, for weapons systems officers and electronic warfare officers. Like the VRPT, these would be tied into a suite of artificial intelligence software platforms and immersive instructional videos, all designed to help students gain greater access to training while providing in-depth instruction.
“We are taking the handcuffs off students with this non-linear model of training that eliminates down time,” said Wolf.
Even simple learning devices, such as flashcards, can be enhanced in BTN by utilizing a historical database of right and wrong answers to help students hone in on areas of weakness and not waste time on items they have already mastered.
“You may study hydraulics early in the program and not see it again until upgrade training two years later,” said Wolf. “The system can determine what you have retained and focus on what you need help with most.”
From instructing to coaching
BTN is designed to help instructors as much as students by giving them access to data by measuring a student’s cognitive workload.
“You can measure the conductivity of their skin, how much they are sweating, and the dilation of their pupils to determine when they have gone from gaining information to cognitive overload,” explained Wolf.
Access to such data would allow instructors to know when and how to adjust instruction based on the feedback. But the ability to measure cognition goes beyond physical manifestations. The sleds can also collect data on errors made by students, providing instructors with feedback that might otherwise be missed.
“There could be the ability for us to catch mistakes early on and create processes for correcting them before they become bad habits that have to be corrected in the jet,” explained Stephenson.
These factors potentially enable instructors to move from a broad-based teaching style to a coach-on-the-side approach. Instructors could meet students where they are in the learning process, eliminating redundancies and addressing shortcomings.
Budgeon, Wolf, and Stephenson understand BTN is an ambitious plan, but they believe it holds huge potential dividends for the Air Force. Its future rests largely on the success of the VRPT, which is still in the design phase. However, if its three proponents can make their plan a reality, the oldest bomber in the AF inventory would have one of the most advanced training curriculums in the military.