Banzai Flight initiative improves training because ‘Today’s students simply learn differently’

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  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – The proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention,” clearly applies to Vance Air Force Base’s undergraduate pilot training initiative, Banzai Flight.

Banzai’s inception began as a response to the Air-Force-wide pilot shortage and Air Force leadership’s directive to implement efficiencies in the pilot training production line.

“We looked at the existing pilot training syllabus, specifically for the T-6, and tried to utilize Air Force Smart Operations principles to gain some efficiencies,” said Lt. Col. Tracy Schmidt, who was the 33rd Flying Training Squadron director of operations at the time. Schmidt now sits as the UPT 2.5 program manager for 19th Air Force. “But it just wasn’t enough to make a true difference in pilot production,” she said.

Then in January 2018, “Pilot Training Next” kicked off. The first iteration of PTN focused on understanding how Airmen learn, as well as exploring and potentially prototyping a flying training environment that integrates technology to produce pilots in an accelerated and learning-focused manner.

As PTN began, Vance personnel started looking at ways to become more efficient. It was soon apparent that today’s cadre of students learns in a way that was limited by the existing pilot training syllabus.

“Today’s students simply learn differently,” said Maj. Kinsley Jordan, Vance’s Chief of Innovation. “YouTube and online academics available on-command and on-demand are the norm for today’s graduates, instead of referring back to paper products and relying only on in-person instruction.”

When that disparity became apparent, a small group of Vance instructor pilots investigated how the T-6 syllabus could be modernized, with a goal of not only streamlining academics, but providing education in a way that students could relate to and understand.

Within a few months they tackled initiatives addressing the acquisition of electronic publications and creating 360-degree videos, virtual reality interactive lessons and video academics available to students 24/7. They also received approval to purchase 16 virtual reality simulators with an end goal of having over 50 on site.

These enhancements to the traditional academic phase allowed students to study after-hours using their preferred learning method. In-person instruction proved more value-added since students could use classroom time to ask specific questions and clarify points instead of simply taking notes.

Fast forward six months. T-6 students were utilizing all of the innovations, but the syllabus was almost identical to what had been taught for the last 50 years. And while students seemed better prepared for the academic portion of their training, the length and composition of the next phases of training were unchanged from past years. That didn’t truly address streamlining UPT as a whole.

Vance leadership requested permission to try out a locally-created T-6 syllabus that would advance students according to their proficiencies. Once approved by 19th AF and AETC, Banzai Flight was born.

Twenty-six students came together in July of 2019 to embark on a truly different UPT educational experience. 

Instructor pilots embraced roles usually associated with coaches and mentors rather than rigid taskmasters, cultivating thought processes and student motivations rather than assuming traditional student shortfalls and errors.

Additionally, students were able to accelerate in areas they were proficient, both in and out of the cockpit. This gave instructors more time to dive into the areas students truly needed to work on, resulting in more capable students ready for their next airframe.

Upon completion of the T-6 phase of training, the Banzai students were more advanced than their peers in the traditional track. 

Banzai grades for Airmanship – situational awareness, decision making, and task management -- were so advanced, instructor pilots commented that it was like flying with a peer, rather than a student.

After the last phase of training in the T-38 Talon and T-1A Jayhawk, students were assigned their follow-on aircraft. Banzai’s students dominated fighter/bombers and were well postured within the tanker/transport community. That success validated the intangibles of Airmanship such as the three-dimensional thinking that goes hand in hand with today’s advanced weaponry.

“What they did here was amazing,” said Col. Timothy Danielson, 71st Flying Training Wing commander. “It was a perfect mix of flexible leadership and a core team of innovators who looked beyond business as usual and created a new paradigm. At the end of the day our goal is not to train pilots to a syllabus, but to train them to be warriors proficient in a fluid and diverse changing environment.”

Lessons learned were applied and results were shared with 19th AF and AETC and eventually, in concert with Pilot Training Next, became Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5, which launched July 15, 2020.