Training pilots like athletes leads to more success in the cockpit

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Alyssa Letts
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- After graduating college in 2020, 1st Lt. Kyler Hearn dreamed of becoming an Air Force pilot. He joined Team Vance as an Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5 student in May 2021. 

After a few flights, Hearn’s dream was nearly derailed by bouts of airsickness that eventually led him to hook a check ride in the T-6A Texan II.

“On my check ride at the end of my transition block I threw up, and I hooked my check ride for airsickness,” he said. “And, the air sickness was driving a cognitive issue known as imposter syndrome.”  

Turning student pilots into professional athletes

Hearn is part of UPT 2.5 Class 22-09 and as part of the modern pilot training curriculum has been meeting with Airmen and contractors assigned to the Comprehensive Readiness for Aircrew Flying Training program -- better known as CRAFT. 

CRAFT is a program that trains student pilots to perform like professional athletes to improve their performance in academics and flying. 

In 2021, CRAFT instructors performed more than 8,000 contacts with the student pilots. That is nearly 28 contacts per day on average. A contact is defined as an in-person training with a student or instructor pilot.

Every pilot in Class 22-09 has been required to utilize the CRAFT program at least three times to enhance their performance in one of three modalities – cognitive, strength and conditioning, and nutrition. 

The cognitive modality

The cognitive performance specialists aid the students in nearly every part of UPT. The foundation of all flying is built on mental ability. It’s the most comprehensive part of the CRAFT Team at Vance, said Maj. Ryan Holets, the CRAFT program manager. 

“We help them learn and understand academics and retrieve the information at critical times,” said Shrujal Joshi, the lead cognitive performance specialist. “We help students improve cross check (how a pilot gathers their bearing) not just with speed, but with accuracy by sustaining composure before, during and after flight.”

Joshi’s team uses biofeedback software that shows students how well they actually regulate their stress. After the students see their results, they are taught different strategies -- one being diaphragmatic breathing -- to help them overcome stress. 

The cognitive performance team also helps students and instructor pilots understand the way they think and how it correlates with how they perform. They help cross the communication barrier between students and instructors by teaching briefing, debriefing and adult learning strategies to the instructors. 

This is all done through educational classes, technology in the CRAFT facility and one-on-one sessions between the CRAFT coaches and students.  

Strength and conditioning is different for every pilot

Through the strength and conditioning modality, the CRAFT instructors create a personalized workout plan for each student based on their needs.

“A T-38 student needs to be able to have short bursts of intense and focused energy,” said Holets. “They have to have strong neck muscles to handle pulling G’s (gravity-force) and turning their head at the same time. Whereas a T-1 student has to focus on the strength in their back and their ability to endure long sorties.” 

In addition to the personalized workouts, the CRAFT instructors engage the students in an activity called “Mind Gym.” Through Mind Gym, students are asked to perform a cognitive task while doing a rigorous workout. 

“The old way was to keep going up in the air and practice a maneuver over and over until you figured it out,” said Holets. “It wasn't very efficient. Now, if they can recite knowledge while they are doing a strenuous task, they probably know that information well, and they'll be able to access it in the jet.”

Nutrition matters

The nutrition modality rounds out the holistic approach. Coaches educate students on healthy choices in order to make them most effective in the cockpit. 

For example, a kale salad wouldn’t be the best choice before a strenuous flight, said Holets. Instead, the pilots are asked to look at food as fuel. If a student is worried about airsickness they are often dehydrated or eating the wrong food, or not eating at all. 

Holet’s team recommends a banana with oatmeal and a low sugar sports drink before jumping into the cockpit. And for pilots flying more than one sortie a day, salty carbs with a bottle of water will provide energy and focus.  

CRAFT saved his dream

The results of the program have been so successful, that CRAFT academics are now a required part of the syllabus for all three training aircraft at all UPT bases– T-6A Texan II, T-1A Jayhawk and T-38C Talon, said Holets. Every single pilot who graduates from UPT 2.5 will have exposure to CRAFT at their training base. 

Hearn credits the CRAFT team and his wingmen for his success at UPT after he hooked a check ride for airsickness. He worked closely with the nutrition and cognitive teams to overcome his ailment and the resulting cognitive blocks. 

“I do not think I would be as far along in the program if I didn’t have CRAFT,” he said. “Its things like hooking your check ride for airsickness that takes a really big mental toll.”

The team helped him “re-cage” his thoughts to get back into the game if he made a mistake during a sortie, he said. 

Re-caging is moving on from a mistake or negative situation and learning from it in the moment without letting it eat away at you, said Hearn who hopes to pursue flying a U-28A Draco – a single-engine tactical aircraft -- or a helicopter after Vance. 

Hearn is not alone in facing challenges in the jet. Being a pilot in the Air Force is demanding, but CRAFT helps make that transition smoother, said Holets. 

“I would rather fly with someone that has had to face adversity as a student and learned to bounce back,” said Holets. “I know they can get through anything.”