Off-the-Shelf Technology Aids U.S. Air Force Student Pilots

173rd FW uses off-the-shelf technology to aid student pilots

Off-the-Shelf Technology Aids U.S. Air Force Student Pilots
U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Martin Sipe, an F-15C student pilot, flies the F-15 Eagle in virtual reality alongside 173rd Fighter Wing F-15 instructor pilot Lt. Col. Julius Romasanta at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon, Oct. 12, 2021. © Master Sgt. Jefferson Thompson

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, at Kingsley Field, 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 said “chair-flying” is the process of using the imagination to mentally prepare oneself, picturing each step from taxi to landing. Although this process is important, it has its drawbacks, chief among them the fact that the visualization isn’t real but 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 different from reality.

Romasanta addresses this by bringing a new tool to student pilots at the wing he calls enhanced chair flying. With a standard laptop computer, joystick, throttle control and virtual reality goggles available at electronics or gaming stores, every student can 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. They can also fly in concert with another student by linking two computers together.

“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 the initial taxi to takeoff to the mission over the range space. Romasanta accomplished this by capturing video during his training missions.

To ensure the VR application was suitable for home use, he asked Air Combat Command 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,” Romasanta said.

Student pilots also rely on the state-of-the-art simulators at the base, which provide an immersive experience. However, those are 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 adds another layer. It’s a layer that finds a likely home for future student classes with its combination of low cost and realistic training.

Master Sgt. Jefferson Thompson, 173rd Fighter Wing Public Affairs