Flight Evaluation App Aims to Reduce Pilot Shortage
There is a pilot shortage in the United States Air Force right now and part of the problem affecting pilot retention is the current evaluation process. It can take up to three months for a student pilot’s evaluation to be submitted after their evaluated flying time. Should the world’s most dominant air power be shackled to a keyboard or forced to wait on improving their aviation skills because of an outdated evaluation process?
Both evaluators and students are delayed by a prehistoric evaluation process that the Air Force uses while training pilots. What if there was a solution that got pilots more time in the cockpit and less time behind a keyboard? A computer science capstone team at USAFA plans to revamp the antiquated method of pen to paper to database evaluations with a flight training application called Optimis.
What is the Problem?
The Air Force has exacerbated its own deficit of pilots by continuing to use an old evaluation method. Once solved, students can go from waiting weeks for their evaluation to just one day. Currently, evaluators grade students by taking notes on paper both in the air and after their flights. Evaluators then head back to the office and hand over the evaluation to a middle man who inputs the details into a web platform database. Unfortunately, this process can take months, which allows aspects from the flight to be easily forgotten by the evaluator while the student is left stagnant and unable to advance their skill set, which includes 'use it or lose it' knowledge.
Removing the primitive evaluation method and replacing it with a 21st-century solution will give student pilots the ability to move through the pilot pipeline faster than ever. The capstone team will streamline the evaluation processes with an iPad app that allows the instructor to evaluate the student in real time. When the instructor finishes the evaluation, they will submit the data to the cloud while retaining the ability to edit it in the future if needed. Once completed, the student pilot will be informed of their feedback and begin planning their next steps in training.
The Optimis team has found a local mentor with Mind Rocket’s President, Michael Larson. Mr. Larson helped with the workflow, design, strategic overview, division of tasks, configuration management, and process to code for the app. Additionally, the capstone team has conducted user research with their main stakeholders, the pilots of the 21st Airlift Squadron at Travis AFB. These interviews taught the team about the current process and the areas for improvement at Travis AFB.
While beta testing the application, the team utilized a group of Lieutenant pilots that had recently been students and were training to become evaluators. The Lieutenant pilots role-played as both the students and evaluators using the app. Getting the chance to watch them interact with the application in person was crucial for the team. They learned about the little details which can really make or break the success and usability of an app. Some features that needed to be addressed were button push lengths and zooming in and out by “pinching” the screen. Getting the chance to see people who have never interacted with the app really impressed upon the team the app’s functionality.
Other research has included a trip to a VR lab and an information session on how to program the application, which included both framework and coding. The team looks forward to performing more user research when they visit Travis AFB later this semester in Sacramento, CA.
The Future Solution
The task load of written evaluations will disappear with the aid of Optimis, a real-time app that will solve a significant time efficiency problem. This app will free up time from administrative tasks and speed up the evaluation process for both students and evaluators. The collected data will also give the evaluators the chance to pool information together and learn where knowledge gaps exist for students. The implementation of Optimis will move a huge backlog of pilots forward with their training.
Performing in-flight evaluations with Optimis will allow the 21st Airlift Squadron to promptly grade students and create an influx of trained and ready pilots. After implementation, Optimis will better prepare the US Air Force for combat by reducing training wait times. Creating an application that will provide more man hours to dedicate to critical mission efforts is just one way our teams are designing the future of the Air Force.