As Taylor Harkley pushed the throttle of the T-6 Texan II aircraft, the plane seemed to lurch forward. She pulled up on the stick too late and the plane lunged downward, smashing into the ground.
It wasn’t her first crash in the flight simulator, and it wouldn’t be her last.
Harkley, 17, is one of 21 high school students participating in the Air Force Academy’s early access program for pilot training. The three-week program aims to give high school students exposure to basic aviation skills using virtual reality technology.
The Air Force is suffering from a shortage of pilots, and studies from the RAND Corp. show that the problem will only worsen in coming years with a shortage of about 1,000 pilots by 2022.
Community outreach programs, like the early access program, are an attempt to recruit students who are considering a career in aviation, said Capt. Joshua Thomson, the flight instructor for the program.
“I hope they walk away with a better understanding of military aviation and flight,” Thomson said. “And hopefully some motivation going forward to look into pursuing a career in military aviation.”
Thomson said flight simulator training not only gives high school students and cadets flight exposure earlier, but the technology can provide repetitive practice that wouldn’t be possible in a real plane.
“I could teach you how to do a loop and we can go practice in the airspace,” Thomson said. “I don’t have to worry about weather, other traffic, gas, how to start the aircraft, how to take off and land, but I could just teach you how to how to do a loop.”
The benefit of the simulators used in the Air Force Academy’s early access program is that they can meet a higher demand of training needs at a lower cost, an option that has only been available with technology in the last year and half, Thomson said.
For students like Harkley, the program opens the doorway to lifelong dreams. Her dream is to attend the Air Force Academy and become a pilot. The academy’s early access program gave her exposure to military flying in addition to her 60 hours of civilian flight experience.
“It’s a really unique experience,” Harkley said, “Not only am I developing my skills that I need now for civilian stuff, but I’m also getting a glimpse into the future, into what I hope to do.”
On a Friday afternoon, Harkley and her classmates flew their final flight of the program, putting together weeks of learning loops, barrel rolls, traffic patterns, stalls, spins, and how to fly in inclement weather.
Another student in the program, Tai Green, said she loves the chance to fly with the virtual reality simulator because the risks are removed.
“Instead of doing basic maneuvers, like turns and maybe a stall or two, we’re doing loops and crazy maneuvers,” Green said. “It just really made me see that military flight is so exhilarating.”
But Green said the program has also proved to be difficult.
“It’s been really challenging,” she said. “Because civilian flight and military flight are not the same; the only similarity is that you’re flying planes.”
Despite the steep learning curve, Green said the program has helped solidify her decision to pursue a military career at the Air Force Academy.
“I always kind of had an idea that’s what I wanted to do,” Green said. “After being here and seeing what military flight is all about, I learned that I really enjoy it.”