From classroom to the flight line, the military aviation maintenance sector is reexamining everything from the classroom to virtual environments in the context of emerging technologies and methodologies. Group Editor Marty Kauchak surveyed the sector.

Innovation is sweeping across maintenance training courses in defense aviation enterprises, as new learning technologies and systems are delivered to support new and legacy aircraft. While BG Lyle Drew, US Air Force 82nd Training Wing Commander, has personally witnessed this trend, he pointed out the first thing to emphasize is that “innovation” in the training environment isn’t just about technology: “We need to think differently about building curriculum, the teaching methodologies we use, and even what ‘classroom’" means. How can we move from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model to more of a student-centered, self-paced model but still retain the necessary focus on core maintenance principles like tool management, safety, and technical order discipline?” 

MS&T surveyed developments and trends in the technologies and curricula supporting aviation maintenance training from the perspectives of two military services and three companies with portfolios in this sector. 

Selectively Retain, Modernize

BG Drew noted the idea of shaping his training wing’s efforts to transform technical training resides in Action Order A – “Airmen” – under US Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown Jr.’s focus on accelerating change across the Service. “General Brown is talking to us; the 82nd Training Wing produces the lion's share of Air Force technical training graduates, about 44 percent, so we have an innate responsibility to answer his call.” 

Beyond the Service boss’s directive, evolving technologies in US Air Force weapon systems and the classroom are compelling the Air Force learning enterprise to add realism to the classroom experience and improve the quality and efficiency of training. Drew emphasized, “The airmen themselves are also a factor – these are digital natives who think and learn differently than we did. There’s a lot of good in the tech training models we’ve used for the past few decades; however, we need to change a lot too. The key will be retaining what works and modernizing where we need to.”

The 82nd Training Wing’s journey to insert cutting-edge technologies into its curricula is a deliberate, measured work in progress, where in one case, Drew observed, “we are learning how to effectively leverage technologies like augmented and virtual reality,” and called attention to the Technical Training Transformation project, or T3, underway with Air Force crew chiefs. “The intent is to measure the impact and effectiveness of these technologies compared to the traditional curriculum. There is still a relatively long way to validate these efforts fully, but what we’re finding early on suggests that practicing in a virtual environment seems to increase a student’s success rate in task-based performance evaluations. That makes sense because you can walk through a task a dozen times, or a hundred times, virtually, but you might only get two or three chances to practice on an actual aircraft.” 

While T3 is ongoing, smaller-scale tests are going on in other courses. 

RAF C-17 Use Case 

Boeing announced in May it will continue training Royal Air Force (RAF) C-17 aircrew and engineers at the C-17 International Training Centre (ITC) in Farnborough. The UK MoD and Boeing provided several insights of the new Synthetic Training Service contract which will extend through 2040. Of significance, the planned C-17 program-level activities mirror the higher-level efforts at USAF’s 82nd Training Wing – bringing to bear the latest technologies and instructional changes to enhance learning.

A UK MoD spokesperson noted Boeing is contracted by the ministry to provide engineering training to support initial qualification and ongoing training requirements for all C-17 engineers. The spokesperson added, “This training will ensure that our engineers are equipped with the skills they require to conduct their duties and that they are periodically refreshed in order to assure through-life competence. As engineers progress through their careers, enhanced training will be delivered to further enhance their skills and personal development.”

One example, the new Wing and Engine System Trainer and Main Landing Gear training device will enable off-aircraft training to take place and provide other returns on investment. The MoD spokesperson explained, “These devices are critical to the training service in providing a more efficient and realistic training solution.”

Philip Raper, C-17 ITC Training Delivery Manager, Boeing, said in addition to the introduction of new devices, all new courses are designed and developed on a learning content management system and published to a learning management system, where courseware is configured and maintained. “Students are provided with smart devices to review their training notes as well as to review and revise course material,” the training executive added and noted, “The use of a Virtual Maintenance and Aircrew Training (VMAT) system has been expanded across the ITC, enabling full access to a virtual C-17 environment for students and instructors, including touchscreen capability to maneuver and interact with the aircraft systems, which provides an effective training mechanism to demonstrate and conduct practical operations in a classroom or briefing room environment prior to advancing to fully simulated devices.”

It’s one instance of “cross pollination,” or the flow of lessons learned, capabilities and other enablers between the military and civil aviation sectors, in which Boeing Global Services is taking advantage of its ability to use technology and innovation across the company. 

Raper pointed out his company’s resources “are built on core areas of expertise and our maintenance training center of excellence enables cross pollination across many of our platforms, including sharing of lessons learned and innovative practices to optimize our maintenance training solutions for customers across the globe.” Of relevance, “Advances in 3D and visual modeling that have improved the fidelity of training devices is another area of success, and we are always looking for additional ways to replicate our successes and bring value to all of our customers.” 

Virtual Trainer Trends

Huntsville, Alabama-based Pinnacle Solutions provided another datum point on the growth of the defense aviation maintenance training market. 

Duke Tucker, the company’s Vice President for Business Development, told MS&T that Pinnacle’s Virtual Maintenance Trainers (VMTs) are used across the globe by aircraft maintainers of many different skill levels and added, “Our customers include the US Army at multiple locations; the Joint Aviation Command in the UAE; and the Royal Saudi Land Forces in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” 

Tucker highlighted an intriguing technology baseline expansion of the company’s VMT, which was originally envisioned to be used in a formal classroom environment for maintainer training. “What we have experienced, however, is a transition to using our VMTs as maintenance rehearsal tools and for refresher training for experienced maintainers to refamiliarize themselves on tasks they have not performed for a period of time.” Additionally, Pinnacle’s VMTs are being increasingly used as remote learning – “over the horizon” tools – for instructing students virtually (e.g., via Zoom, MS Teams, WebEx, etc.) in any geographical location.

As in other S&T sectors, Pinnacle has a rich mix of industry partners. Tucker called attention to Pinnacle having developed its VMTs by heavily customizing COTS software like Unity, while designing it to run efficiently on commercial PCs. “For VR we’ve integrated headsets from HTC, Valve Index, Oculus, and VRgineers. We are also incredibly proud of the support for our MD-530 VMT from the helicopter’s original manufacturer, MD Helicopters.”

John Hayward, DiSTI’s Chief Executive Officer, provided insights from the perspective of an expanding portfolio in this market, having delivered maintenance training solutions for aviation assets to the US Army, Army National Guard, US Navy, US Air Force, and the Marines. “Additionally, you will find DiSTI content in maintenance training devices throughout the Services where we performed as a subcontractor. Internationally we have delivered maintenance training solutions to the Singapore Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Canadian Defense Forces, among many others.”

The Orlando, Florida-based corporate executive also shared several trends and requirements that his company is responding to from military customers. At the top of his list are common solutions that can be developed once and used multiple times, along with customer ownership of the technical data required to provide long-term support for the delivered solutions. “DiSTI is fully supportive of this trend and has traditionally provided the technical data necessary for support of our systems and will do the sustainment for customers, or sell them the tools and teach them how to sustain the systems themselves.” Beyond that, mixed media (hardware, desktop, and XR) are still very popular. “We are seeing some Services move more quickly with the acceptance of virtual reality and augmented reality training systems. The ability to deliver training solutions through multiple channels, i.e., desktop, AR/VR headsets, and mobile devices (tablets, phones) is important, which we are able to deliver through our VE Studio product.”

Staying on the topic of AR/VR/XR, Hayward called attention to DiSTI moving to support wireless headsets, with the goal to support any headset that can be supported by the commercial gaming engines. “We are also currently working in the augmented reality space and have developed a solution we call VE Mentor. Developed out of an Air Force SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research], this solution allows us to re-use the models developed for our DoD customers for use with AR headsets. The AR headsets can be worn by maintainers at the point of maintenance (for example, on the flight line) to assist them with their maintenance tasks by helping with component location, providing maintenance instructions – taken directly from the IETM [Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals] or TO [Training Objective] – and allowing the maintainer to markup content and bring it back to the system for updates.”

Headset Choices

Pinnacle’s Tucker noted his company is always looking for the next challenge and ways to innovate. To point, “We are currently designing a new Mi-17 platform to be added into our fleet of virtual maintenance trainers. We are also working on some of the most complex challenges facing our maintainers, like full-phase maintenance, and we are always keeping an eye out for new hardware technologies to incorporate into our system.” 

Tucker and his colleagues are also eyeing other technology advancements. He noted with continued progress in hardware, and the firm’s current capabilities in VR and XR products, “we see a future where users will perform virtual training on a PC, then simply pick up an XR headset to move from a training system that instructs to a mentor system that supports the user on the aircraft, providing real-time information and feedback.” 

In DiSTI’s product portfolio, the company is working on releasing a new version of VE Studio that supports deployment to wireless headsets. “We are working on continued improvements to our cloud-based virtual training delivery system, DiSTI Schoolhouse, and working on ways to improve wide-scale, enterprise-level deployment of AR/VR content to headsets and the ability to return results from students as they complete lessons,” Hayward concluded.

At the 82nd Training Wing, BG Drew noted there are myriad challenges in transforming a training enterprise that encompasses 800 courses in 60 locations on three continents. “Infrastructure is a big one, especially communications and data infrastructure. Getting secure network bandwidth to support virtual reality for a couple of dozen students at a time in a single course is one thing – but scaling it across 5,000 students on any given day is altogether something else,” he noted and continued, “In many cases, we are training in hangars that are 75 or 80 years old. So, it’s a big challenge.”

The Air Force one-star also observed sustainment, standardization, and cost are also huge issues. In one case, he rhetorically asked, “There are dozens of different tablets and VR headsets out there – how do we standardize that across the entire training enterprise? Not just for initial skills training but in an operational context as well.” Further, software licensing models are a specific hurdle the Service is grappling with – many are priced on a ‘per use’ model. “That may be fine if you talk a few dozen or even a few hundred students per year, but we produce more than 60,000 graduates annually,” he emphasized and added “per-use licensing presents a challenge in that context, so we are looking for industry to help us navigate that in a way that's affordable and realistic, but viable for them as well. We realize it’s not easy or inexpensive to develop these technologies and then keep them current.”