Learn Like They Live

Sept. 8, 2014
The U.S. Army is using a digital approach to training to keep soldiers motivated and entertained

United States Army Aviation isn’t going against the current in training up young maintainers, it’s moving with it – the virtual current that is – reaching them in the digital world in which they live.

“The soldiers of today are really bright,” says Mark Jones, a retired Army maintenance officer, who’s now deputy to the commander of the 128th Aviation Brigade at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. “The challenge is keeping them motivated … While we educate them, we have to entertain them as well. You’ve got to keep their interest.”

Real-world basics

While conceding Millennials possess “great thumb skills,” skills honed on iPhones and video games, Jones says the Army Learning Model starts off in the real, not the virtual, world. In a traditional instructor-led conference “We teach them what [the] common tools are … Most of them don’t know an open-end wrench from a box-end wrench. They haven’t worked on cars or bicycles like my generation did.”

After instructors present basic concepts, concepts reinforced via dual-screen computers fed by a common server that perfuses curriculum changes throughout the system then, “We go into … an ‘immersive environment,” says Jones.

Battle buddies

Army maintainers learn in pairs, with "battle buddies." Case-in-point: armament/avionics technician trainees for the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. The setup consists of an Apache cockpit with a screen in front of it. While one student gets in the cockpit and runs through fault-isolation procedures, his or her battle buddy is outside the cockpit with the screen, on which are arrayed the aircraft’s systems. The student also has an interactive electronic tech manual.

So armed, the soldier tackles the intricacies of the armaments bay, the virtual bay arrayed on the screen. The tech manual might call for him to replace a box. He chooses the right tool and replaces the component, first mastering the task in the virtual world. All the while the battle buddy is back in the cockpit running through a complementary task.

Then it’s out to the hangar floor to “bust their knuckles for real,” says Jones, where a slew of Apache training devices are lined up. That’s where students do the deed for real. Pulling a box from a bay on a screen is one thing, actually “pulling a box out above their head that weighs 3 pounds,” adds heft to the lesson, says Jones.

Virtual training technique

The virtual angle has the added advantage of saving wear and tear on gear. “We remove and install things on our training devices,” says Jones. On a given device, representing a particular aircraft type, that might be 300 times per year. Doing it virtually first eases the strain on real live equipment.

How’s emphasizing the digital dimension working? Although Jones says he doesn’t have data, “We’ve noticed the [first-time] pass rate seems to be higher.” The technique doesn’t shorten the training time so much as it “compresses the time” so the Army can “insert more critical tasks.”

In this case, training a ‘15Y’ Apache Avionics/Electrical/ Armament Technician takes 23 weeks. It’s one of the longest courses taught at Langley-Eustis. The Army’s shortest course for aviation maintainers is 13 weeks.  

Tests are open-book affairs. “We don’t want students to memorize torques, or anything else,” says Jones. The Army wants them to refer to the book. That’s because changes come at maintainers “so fast that sometimes we can’t keep up with what’s in the field.”

Computer game to reinforce training

Subtly supplementing all this formal training is a computer game that reinforces what students learn in compelling fashion. They’re given a mission to recover a downed aircraft. Virtual characters on the computer screen have to draw heir tools and weapons, and check with the maintenance unit’s production control office. On their way to the helo at base they find the bad guys have breached perimeter security. There’s a firefight, mimicking “the shooting games kids play now,” says Jones. Finally, they head out to recover the aircraft. Competition is keen among young soldiers. “I don’t know of anyone who has gotten to the highest level.”

Right now the game resides on desktop computers. The 128th Aviation Brigade is working with its parent unit, the Fort Rucker, AL-based United States Army Aviation Center of Excellence (USAACE), to try to migrate the game to tablet computers students can take with them back to barracks.

And so it is that the games go on, and – the Army hopes – the learning process as well.

“It’s part of Training and Doctrine Command’s (TRADOC) initiative to use … technology in our training,” says USAACE spokeswoman Lisa Eichhorn. “These kids are coming from the digital age.” Eichhorn cautions that training is not all fun and games. “That’s not the point of it,” she says. “Our goal is really to teach this generation the way they [are accustomed] to receiving information.”

According to TRADOC spokesman Major Harold Huff, the Army has 18 different aircraft maintenance and technician jobs, or MOSs (Military Occupation Specialties). As of mid-July 2014, some 23,652 soldiers were in the Aviation Career Management Field altogether.

About the Author

Jerome Greer Chandler

Jerome Greer Chandler is a two-time winner in the Aerospace Journalist of the Year competition's Best Maintenance Submission category; he won in 2000 and 2008. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2017 Aerospace Media Awards in Paris, France. His best-seller 'Fire and Rain' chronicles the wind shear crash of Delta Flight 191 at DFW.