173rd Fighter Wing leverages off-the-shelf technology to help student pilots

  • Published
  • By MSgt Jefferson Thompson
  • 173rd Fighter Wing

Aspiring F-15 Eagle drivers arrive at the 173rd Fighter Wing to work through what many call the most challenging course in the Air Force—the B-course.

The sole F-15C schoolhouse for the U.S. Air Force, located at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Ore., requires a tremendous investment on the part of students who successfully navigate its syllabus and step into the slim ranks of fighter pilots.

For the instructor cadre, developing these future pilots requires keeping a constant eye on technology’s role in shaping the newest members of the fleet.

Lt. Col. Julius Romasanta is an F-15 instructor pilot who is also a commercial passenger airline pilot, when he’s not wearing his military uniform at the wing. He explains that pilots prepare for a mission by visualizing the process from start to finish before ever stepping to the aircraft.

“We all ‘chair-fly’,” he said. “It’s the most important thing we do to get ready for any mission.”

He goes on to say that “chair-flying” is the process of using the imagination to mentally prepare oneself, picturing in the mind’s eye each step from taxi to landing. Although this process of visualization is important, it has its drawbacks, chief among them the fact that the visualization isn’t real, it’s a best guess as to what a given situation will look like.

For example, imagining how it will look to approach a tanker aircraft for a student’s first attempt at air-to-air refueling is usually very different than the reality.

Romasanta addresses this drawing from both his military and civilian training. He’s bringing a new tool to student pilots at the wing he calls enhanced chair flying. With a standard laptop computer, joystick, throttle control and some virtual reality goggles, which are available at electronics or gaming stores every student can both watch real, recorded flying missions, or fly simulated missions from their desk or at home.

“When I say ‘chair-flying’, I normally mean you can imagine how your mission is going to go,” he said. “Well now, you can actually fly the mission and experience it, while controlling the aircraft for yourself.”

Students can practice dogfighting and formation flying, after firing up the portable computer and donning VR goggles, as well as fight against another student by linking two computers together, he added.

“The VR training is a great tool to see the sight pictures while learning Basic Fighter Maneuvers,” said student pilot 1st Lt. Martin Sipe. “Learning the concepts and then immediately seeing what it should look like from the jet’s perspective is huge for preparing to fly that fight.”

When the student pilots don their standard, off-the-shelf VR goggles they see Kingsley Field from the cockpit from initial start to takeoff to the mission over the range space. Romasanta accomplished this by capturing video during his training missions, which supplies most of the content. 

In order to ensure the VR application was suitable for home use he asked Air Combat Command-approved personnel to review his footage and clear the product.

“This is the perfect use of this VR technology to actually show people where you’re going to go, what it looks like and how long it’s going to take.”

Student pilots also rely on the state-of-the-art simulators housed at the base, which provide a totally immersive experience, however that facility is not available outside the duty day.

“My initial tasking was to ‘provide something the students can take home,’” said Romasanta.

This enhanced chair flying doesn’t replace the student’s valuable simulator time but rather adds another layer to it. It’s a layer that finds a likely home for future student classes with its combination of low cost and realistic training.