The Navy is overhauling its primary flight training curriculum for the first time in more than 50 years.
The goal is to produce more capable young aviators and get them to the fleet faster and more efficiently.
To do that, the sea service is totally revamping how it trains student pilots by capitalizing on modern technology, providing more one-on-one instruction and mentoring, and moving beyond the linear progression of the traditional learning environment to a student-focused model in which learning and skill development is tailored to the individual.
Naval Aviation Training Next–Project Avenger, the new prototype training program, aims to reduce the length of time it takes to train students by combining traditional classroom instruction and flying time in the T-6B Texan II with virtual and mixed-reality trainers, artificial intelligence, tablets and aviation apps.
The Avenger name is a nod to former President George H.W. Bush, who flew the Grumman TBM Avenger, a torpedo bomber, in World War II.
After kicking off the prototype program in September 2020, the Navy’s first class of 19 student naval aviators wrapped up their Project Avenger training at Training Air Wing 4, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, April 1, and the Navy is now welcoming a new class of Project Avenger students.
“Project Avenger is revolutionizing Naval Aviation undergraduate primary flight training,” said Rear Adm. Robert Westendorff, chief of Naval Air Training, in a recent news release. “Our innovative team developed, refined and implemented the program and this first class of primary completers is a testament to the entire team’s hard work and dedication.”
Faced with a shortage of pilots, particularly fighter pilots, the military services have been looking for ways to get student aviators through the training pipeline more quickly while taking full advantage of the cutting-edge technology hitting the marketplace, to include virtual reality headsets.
Lt. Cmdr. Josh Calhoun, Project Avenger officer in charge, said CNATRA was tasked in January 2020 with modernizing the Navy’s primary flight training syllabus based off the Air Force’s Pilot Training Next program, which integrates virtual reality, artificial intelligence and advanced biometrics. That initiative laid the groundwork for the Air Force’s latest version of the training, called Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5, which graduated its first class of 10 students in March.
“We took their model and said, ‘OK, let’s make it ours as far as Navy training,” Calhoun told Navy Times. “And so we built from there.”
Project Avenger departs from the traditional primary flight training in several key areas including syllabus flexibility, the increased use of virtual reality trainers and simulators, and a smaller class size for optimal personalization.
Rather than a mountain of papers, books and checklists, each Project Avenger student received a tablet with on-demand access to aviation-specific apps and pre-loaded course content, according to the Navy. Students also used the tablets for flight planning, briefing and in-flight navigation.
“Virtual reality and mixed reality trainers, and 360-degree videos, allow students to witness real-world flight training events, for example, an engine stall or recovery from a tailspin,” according to a Navy release. “Pairing these virtual reality trainer devices with realistic flight controls increases aircraft procedural familiarity before a student ever steps into the cockpit of the primary trainer aircraft — the T-6B Texan II.”
Whereas the traditional syllabus is event driven, Project Avenger’s syllabus is driven by student performance. If a student has mastered one skill, but needs more work on another, the virtual reality headsets allow them to devote extra time to it. Students advance once they achieve a certain proficiency level determined by mathematical grades and instructor confidence. That means students could conduct their first solo flight after completing eight events rather than the usual 12.
Calhoun said students were divided into two groups in the morning where one group would fly while the other group had down time in which they could study and access a virtual reality trainer to prepare for the event they would fly in the afternoon. After the first group of students completed their flights, instructors would then assign them homework to complete using the virtual reality trainers to target areas of weakness from their morning flight.
“I would say it’s a bit like a video game, and I hate to say that, but that’s kind of what it is,” Calhoun said of the virtual reality trainers. “It’s a 360-degree goggle headset that you put on, and then you’re seated in almost a commercial video game chair.”
When you stack the VR simulator up against older, legacy simulators — the kind that use projectors and hydraulics to move mock cockpits around — the difference is like watching a movie on an IMAX screen versus a 32-inch television, Air Force officials have said.
“There’s a reason that people go to IMAX theaters,” Maj. Scott Van De Water, deputy director of the Air Force Pilot Training Next program, told Air Force Times in 2018. “When you go to an IMAX theater, and you’re watching the Blue Angels fly in formation, there’s a level of immersiveness. You look around, and you’re with the Blue Angels. That is compelling.”
Similarly, student pilots wearing the VR headsets see nothing but the virtual environment enveloping them and hear the sounds pumped into their ears. This makes it easier for the students’ brains start to react as if they were actually in a cockpit.
Laying the groundwork
While the virtual reality trainers aren’t best suited to prepare students with the muscle memory to physically operate an aircraft, Calhoun said they lay the groundwork for students mentally.
“It is not a substitute for our traditional simulators, the operational flight trainer. … It’s not a good thing to train your hands and feet, but it’s a great thing to train your brain — how we’re going to operate the airplane and where we’re going to go,” Calhoun said.
Project Avenger students spent approximately six weeks training before getting into a T-6B II, the tandem-seat, turboprop trainer for beginninng Navy and Marine Corps pilots. That’s up from the three to four weeks of training for traditional primary flight students. Even so, Calhoun noted that Project Avenger students “were expected to do more once they got into the plane.”
For example, they were supposed to know basic instrument approach procedures on their first flight, and most Project Avenger students were successful in that endeavor, Calhoun said. A traditional student, on the other hand, would not yet have received that training.
Another fundamental shift was student access to instructors. Seven instructors worked directly with the small group of Project Avenger students, and the instructors worked closely together to craft individual strategies for each student’s progression.
That setup — in comparison to the usual 100 to 120-person squadron — was “part of the magic” behind Project Avenger and allowed students to receive personalized training, Calhoun said.
“Project Avenger had a classroom where all of the instructors and students worked,” said Ensign Andrew Harding, a student pilot, in a Navy news release. “This atmosphere allowed for a continuous learning experience where students were constantly asking questions and building a firm foundation.”
The Navy hopes Project Avenger will reduce the total time it takes to produce a naval aviator, a task that comes as the Navy copes with a shortage of nearly 100 fighter pilots in the fleet.
The traditional syllabus takes students approximately 29 weeks to complete, and Project Avenger students didn’t dramatically depart from that timeline — although the February winter storms that plagued Texas and the COVID-19 pandemic affected how long it took them complete all the material.
“We were able to shorten the training time a little bit,” Calhoun said. “It wasn’t a lot this time. But we produced, I think — we’ll see what happens as these students continue flight training — I think we produced a better aviator.”
CNATRA graduated 970 pilots from the strike, tilt-rotor, rotary and maritime pipelines in 2020, and expects to increase that number to 1,206 in 2021.
Students in the first Project Avenger class were randomly selected, but those with previous experience may be chosen in the future.
“It was a purely random selection, and the process will be similar next time,” Calhoun said. “This class did not include any students with prior flight time, so we may select a few students with prior flight experience to see how much of a difference this program makes.”
The next round of Project Avenger students are getting settled in now, and will be divided into two classes of 12 students. While Training Air Wing 4 is the only unit offering Project Avenger, Training Air Wing 5 at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Florida will start teaching the updated curriculum this summer.
The Project Avenger students, who were assigned to the “Boomers” of VT-27 and the “Rangers” of VT-28, were not measured against traditional primary flight students. But the Navy tracked training time and flight-related data such as number of approaches and flights, and the Navy will continue to track their progress as they move through advanced training and out into the fleet.
The service plans to expand upon this modernized approach to other phases of flight school beyond primary training — all falling under the Naval Aviation Training Next program umbrella. That includes Project Hellcat, a T-6B strike intermediate syllabus, and Project Corsair, an advanced T-45C Goshawk strike syllabus, along with programs for the other aviation pipelines.
Ideally, shortened training times will become evident in those later phases, Calhoun said.
Ultimately, Calhoun said, Project Avenger will become the standard training for student naval aviators in primary flight training. But a few more iterations of the program are needed before the Navy puts its final stamp of approval on Project Avenger as the best method to train future naval aviators.
“Eventually, we’re going to figure out what the right answer is, and this is just going to become or bleed into the traditional primary syllabus. … I think we’ve got a couple of iterations before we get it right enough,” he said.
“We certainly didn’t get there with round one,” Calhoun said. “We’ll make improvements, we’ll go to round two. We’ll see what happens with round three, and then we can move forward and see if we can make Project Avenger our standard syllabus.”