With the exception of current US DoD discussions on transferring F-16s to Ukraine, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is at the center – or darn close to it – of most major US Air Force and joint operations and activities around the globe. And so it was an attention-getter when Capt. Kyle Schoonover, from his vantage as Chief of XR training for AFSOC, provided VRARA Enterprise and Training Forum 2023 webinar attendees with the imperatives and progress to transform the command’s training enterprise.   

Schoonover first touched on the business case for using XR and like technologies in AFSOC pilot and maintenance training – many reasons familiar to MS&T followers. While AFSOC is saving resources by preserving fuel when shifting away from live-training for aircraft, “we’re also saving resources by using a much more effective training method, which is XR.”    

Capt. Schoonover then boldly moved on to emphasize what AFSOC “is getting after, spreads across the whole continuum of XR technology.” While current maintenance training is using VR, “mission rehearsal gets into mixed reality as well as exploring augmented reality, which is ‘no kidding’ wearing glasses or visor in the plane, being able to look outside the cockpit and maybe seeing a digital wingman – allowing you to train as you’ll fight with the wingman next to you. You don’t need a second aircraft.”    

ROIs and Use Cases

Schoonover outlined the returns on investment the command is seeking from its use of XR technologies. At the overarching level, while the command primarily wants to increase retention and academics, it also seeks to produce more effective and efficient training, to generate more proficient students by their first flight.

AFSOC maintenance personnel use a camera and iPad to walk them through a checklist or procedure they are not familiar with, helping identify components and walking them through the lesson step-by-step. Also in the maintenance domain, personnel are learning about engines by moving beyond clicking through a 2D powerpoint presentation, and putting on a VR headset “and have an engine right there in front of you.” The AFSOC added, “this is proving incredibly effective for both our maintenance personnel and aircrews.”

In the pilot training domain, AFSOC is seeking to move beyond VR training devices being used in adjacent pilot training programs – “looking to modify them to our needs at AFSOC. It will look a little different, but the needs are still the same.”  

Schoonover also provided a valuable datum point on progress being made to use AR for AFSOC pilot training, observing the “development requirement is so high for that technology. But it’s something we’re working towards.” 

Collaboration Not Competition

The AFSOC presenter matter-of-factly said US DoD is no longer in a position to where “we can compete with the R&D expenditures of commercial industry. We need a relation with commercial industry for success.” That pronouncement was a perfect segue to the high points of the command’s S&T help-wanted list. 

At the top of his requirements list was full-cockpit emulation solutions, both hardware and software. “This is full ‘switchology’ capability, full button-pushing capability, where you’ll see the actual result when you push and pull switches in any order.”

As AFSOC is aware of the quickening pace of head- and eye-tracking technology, the command is seeking the technology as an instructor training aid enhancement. “And the same for intelligent tutor, where you use AI to walk students through lessons.” In an adjacent use case, AFSOC is further looking to use AI to develop the most realistic training scenarios.