Student pilots who are looking to earn their wings in the U.S. Air Force can now train using virtual reality (VR). Earlier this month, the Air Force launched a new program that allows student pilots to train for as long as they’d like in a VR flight simulation environment. Known as Pilot Training Next, the program is an experiment to see whether VR training is more effective than traditional training.
The Pilot Training Next program places student pilots in a digital, virtual cockpit while giving them full — or close to full — control of a fighter jet. While wearing a VR headset and wearing biometric monitors, students must perform everything from basic takeoffs and landings to attack formation, navigation and more. The biometric monitors are particularly important because they allow the Air Force to measure students’ health markers, including their heart rate, breathing rate and eye movement. Using this information, the Air Force can see whether students are stressed, and if so, the conditions under which they are stressed.
While the Pilot Training Next program is simply an experiment, it serves an important purpose: to see whether VR training is better than traditional training. When speaking about the Pilot Training Next program, an Air Force pilot student who’s participated in the program explained that the Air Force typically limits the amount of time that students can use a flight simulator. Under the Pilot Training Next program, however, students are offered unlimited access to the VR flight simulation.
“We could come back and work over the weekends,” said one of the student pilots in an interview with Military.com. “‘In normal pilot training … there are limits for how long you could be in [the simulator]. We basically got nearly unlimited access. Learning something in the books, it’s just the books. visualizing something mentally. We could practice anytime we want.”
Of course, there are challenges to using any flight simulation for pilot training purposes, and the Pilot Training Next program is no exception. VR training doesn’t offer the full elements and environment of real-world flight training. Furthermore, there have been issues with the Pilot Training Next program, including a required meeting during which students would discuss the program and how the Air Force could improve it. Those things aside, however, the Air Force’s Pilot Training Next program signals a new way to train student pilots so that they are ready to step into an actual cockpit.