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Team Vance on leading edge of innovation for future of pilot training, Airmanship

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James Bolinger
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – “In every pilot training class, there’s a future squadron commander, wing commander and maybe a future chief of staff of the Air Force,” said Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, 19th Air Force commander.

“It’s imperative that we don’t view pilot training as simply technical school for officers. The reality is that it is one of the most important leader development programs we have. Undergraduate Pilot Training is where we teach officers how to make good decisions under stress, deal with adversity, and never settle for good enough,” said Wills. 
 
The team at Vance Air Force Base was tasked by Wills to bring UPT 2.5 online in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a year earlier than the Air Force had planned, but on May 5, 2020, then Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Dave Goldfein asked Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, then commander of the Air Education and Training Command, if the 19th Air Force could push the timeline forward due to the expected severe impact to the pilot training pipeline by the coronavirus. 
 
Vance’s 71st Flying Training Wing had already been identified as the unit that would roll out UPT 2.5 at full scale after Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, conducted small unit trials, Wills said.

The program was scheduled go online in July of 2021, but after consulting with the Vance leadership team, AETC gave the order to begin training pilots under the UPT 2.5 curriculum a year ahead of schedule.  
 
In July 2020, Air Force pilot training -- already producing the best pilots in the world -- leapt into the 21st century. It utilized advance technology including virtual reality simulators and a modern approach to adult education that emphasized a coach-to-athlete like mentality between instructor pilots and students. 
 
Two years later, UPT 2.5 has taken off at every pilot training base in the Air Force and according to Wills, it never would have happened had it not been for the Airmen of Team Vance. 
 
“What history should record – and it was no small feat – is that it was the people of Vance who made this happen,” said Wills. “In the midst of a global pandemic, with incomplete data systems, incomplete guidance, and basically operating on commander’s intent … they trained literally hundreds of people in a time frame that no one could have reasonably expected to happen.” 
 
Vance had the most advanced culture of innovation and the people who were the most ready to take on Goldfein’s challenge to avoid a catastrophic blow to the timeline brought on by the pandemic, Wills said. 
  
After the program’s launch, Wills became a “frequent flyer” at Vance, visiting the base regularly to get in-person status reports from instructors flying the line.  
 
"Getting UPT 2.5 off the ground as early as we did meant that our instructor pilots and spark cell Airmen were making adjustments and solving problems on the fly," said Col. Jay Johnson, the commander of the 71st FTW. Johnson was also the wing's vice commander in 2020.

"General Wills stood by us the entire way, finding funding when we needed new equipment and providing influence when we needed decisions made at the upper echelons of Air Force leadership,” said Johnson. “We wouldn't be here today without his help."
 
More than just the T-6
 
The Air Force has received a lot of criticism for supposedly turning pilot training into an easy, self-paced program and that simply isn’t true, Wills said. 

“UPT 2.5 is a lot harder than the pilot training that I went through. We expect more out of the students, and it requires the instructors to operate at a much higher level than we have ever asked of them before,” he said. 

In its entirety, UPT 2.5 is approximately seven months flying the T-6A Texan II, and 4-5 months of specialized follow-on training more specific to a pilot’s final air frame. Future airlift and aerial refueling pilots complete the Air Mobility Fundamental Course using the T-1A Jayhawk. This program will eventually use only advanced simulators as the Air Force divests its fleet of T-1As. 
 
For students – often Guard or Reserve -- who know from day one that they will fly cargo or refueling aircraft and have some prior aviation experience, there is the Accelerated Path to Wings program, which bypasses the T-6 entirely.
 
Finally, for pilots that complete T-6 training and will one day fly fighter or bombers, UPT 2.5 will include the Fighter/Bomber Fundamentals Course. The course combines the T-38C Talon Phase 3 with the fighter fundamentals syllabus to create a curriculum that better prepares newly winged aviators for their follow-on training in the fighter and bomber world.  

Teaching pilots to solve complex problems starts on Day One

The battlespace of 2022, 2025 or 2035 is not the battlespace of 1991, said Wills. Recognizing this, the Air Force decided that the next generation of world-class pilots needed to learn advanced problem-solving skills earlier in their careers. 
 
In response, Team Vance – already executing UPT 2.5 -- was tasked to stand up the Comprehensive Readiness for Aircrew Flying Training program, better known as CRAFT. 
 
The program began operations in 2020, but didn’t have an official facility until fall of 2021. CRAFT grand opening article

CRAFT is based on the premise that humans are the most important weapons system. If they can improve in the cognitive and physical domains, not only will they be better warfighters, but they will take better care of themselves and their Airmen from day one in the Air Force. Training pilots like athletes article

CRAFT recognizes that Air Force pilots undergo physical demands similar to professional athletes, but according to Wills, the importance of the program is much deeper. 
 
“Back in the old days, we made the assumption that everyone knew how to study,” said Wills. “Now what we are saying is that we can all get better at learning how to deal with complex problem sets.”
 
CRAFT is about taking advantage of available science and resources to make people stronger physically and mentally, make them more lethal in the cockpit, and help them live longer, happier and healthier lives, he said. 
 
CRAFT includes intense physical training to help future fighter pilots avert neck injuries from extreme G forces, as well as tools to help with task saturation and complex problem-solving techniques, said Wills. 
 
CRAFT however is not just for pilots. It is the future of the entire Air Force, said Wills. 
 
“When we briefed Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. at the Aircrew Summit, he asked what we as an Air Force are doing to bring human performance programs such as CRAFT to the entire Air Force,” said Wills. 
 
It would be difficult to do what Vance is doing at every base, but there are pieces that can help all Airmen, he said.

The idea is to create teams that work with Airmen from any career field the same way CRAFT and similar programs work with pilots and special operations forces, said Wills. “It’s my belief we will get better warriors from programs like CRAFT.”
 
By embracing innovation and empowering Airmen to look to the future, Team Vance and other UPT bases are continuing to train the world’s best pilots with the most advanced pilot training curriculum in the world. . 
 
“UPT 2.5 is the embodiment of where we are trying to go as an Air Force,” Wills said. “Whether you listen to General Brown and his vision to Accelerate Change or Lose, or to Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall who talks about the need to be ready to fight and win in the Pacific, the core of UPT 2.5 is about building a pilot who is more competent and more able to handle complex situations.”