AETC’s top learning expert visits Vance to study Air Force pilot training

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  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs Office

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – To better understand the relationship between student pilots and their instructors, Dr. Wendy Walsh, Air Education & Training Command’s chief learning officer, travelled the path every student takes before and after a training flight during her visit to Vance Air Force Base, Feb. 21-22.

“My main objective of visiting Vance was to learn all I can about flight training,” she said. “I now have a much greater understanding of the T-1, T-38 and T-6 training experience and environment.”

Walsh was accompanied on her Vance visit by Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Nelson, the 19th Air Force deputy commander.

They met with Vance instructor pilots during their visit and were briefed on how training sorties are scheduled. Vance flies more than 200 a day. 

“I intend to make time to find out more and will look to see if we can share Vance scheduling techniques with other flying bases and even consider how the techniques might inform scheduling in other training areas,” said Walsh.

As AETC’s chief learning officer, she had a special interest in the engagement between the student and the instructor. Following a briefing for a solo flight, she noticed how prepared the student was and the supportive attention the instructor gave.

“The prep was very collaborative helping the student ensure they could practice what they needed,” said Walsh.

Flight simulators are an important part of pilot training at Vance. Walsh found her exposure to simulator training very impressive. 

“The instructor was a former pilot and had a great deal of passion for flying,” she noted. “He created a comfortable experience for the student, even with five strangers observing.”

While using humor, the instructor never reduced the seriousness of the emergency procedures the student was learning, she said. 

“Both in the simulators and the aircraft, there was a great deal of coaching provided rather than direct instruction,” Walsh said. “And it appeared to be very effective.”

But the learning processes used on the ground are just part of the total training package for student pilots. Walsh wanted to see firsthand how a training flight was conducted.

Because she wanted to observe both instructor and student, the aircraft of choice was the T-1A Jayhawk, the military version of the Beech 400A. It is a medium-range, twin-engine jet aircraft used by the 3rd Flying Training Squadron in training students selected to fly airlift or tanker aircraft.

Walsh was shown how to safely exit the aircraft in case of an emergency, then joined the flight pre-brief along with the instructors and student. For the next few hours, she was part of the chain of learning that delivers more than 300 world-class pilots a year.

Walsh’s visit to Vance was a continuation of her goal to create a shared understanding across the Air Force, building a framework where Airmen can share information with each other. She has traveled around the world meeting with Airmen from different specialties and learning about Air Force programs and organizations.

With over 200 career fields in the Air Force, Walsh’s aim is to bridge the gap between career fields in order to work together to get the Air Force mission done, while ensuring each Airman’s learning journey is personalized, she said in an interview with AETC Public Affairs.

Her visit to Vance was an up-close look at the Pilot Training Transformation, a significant change in how pilots are produced. The first 17 UPT students to receive their wings under the fresh curriculum graduated from Vance in April 2021.

Just as the modern take on UPT acknowledges that students learn differently than those even a decade ago, Walsh brings a nontraditional outlook on the approach to learning.

“The Air Force really wanted somebody who saw things differently,” she said. “And they wanted a person who wasn’t already steeped in the culture of how they’d always done things.”

Walsh holds a doctorate degree in Education Leadership and has been a public servant in both state and federal agencies for the past 30 years. She joined AETC as the chief learning officer in 2020.

“It is clear we have outstanding instructors, and we need to remain vigilant to support this continued growth,” said Walsh. “We need to continue to improve competency models and identifying empirical measures of competency acquisition or decay.”

As AETC transforms into the Airman Development Command, a significant part will be the creation of an Enterprise Learning Engineering Center of Excellence. 

“This center will help amplify and support the human performance and human-centered aspects of pilot training,” said Walsh.

It will support the learning continuum of pilots with an emphasis on growing measurable competencies and serve as a clearinghouse to share successful practices across the learning enterprise, she said. The center will provide support to instructors through learning interventions such as gamification to help students retain training.

She noted that the best way to prepare students to maintain interest and develop the skills the Air Force needs is to give them a connection to the mission.

“We are protecting the air domain and the nation from security threats,” said Walsh. 

Helping students reflect on the mission and notice each day their opportunities to contribute to mission success is key to the learning process, she said.

“The stronger, smarter and healthier we keep ourselves the better we can meet mission requirements,” said Walsh. “Learning is our competitive advantage and to optimize learning we need balanced care for our mind, body and spirit.

“The war is not won by the one, but by the collective,” she said. “Take care of yourself- be your best, take care of your wingman and collectively create the environment for all to thrive! It’s not easy but it is worth it.”