History is on display at Port San Antonio, the 1,900-acre industrial development on the former site of Kelly Air Force Base. Visitors can view an array of planes that once protected America’s skies, including a Convair F-106 Delta Dart and an FB-111A Aardvark, both of which sit atop pedestals, their elongated nose cones pointing to the sky.

The Air Force’s future is here too, albeit not on public display. Inside a low-slung beige building alongside a two-lane road badly in need of repaving, airmen are working on a program that could alter the way the armed service trains the men and women who get its planes off the ground and keep them safely in the skies.

Called T3—for Technical Training Transformation—the training, developed in conjunction with civilian technology companies, swaps virtual reality tools for the Air Force’s usual approach, which leans heavily on printed manuals and classroom instruction. T3 launched in 2020, and the Air Force says it has spent $11.8 million developing various VR training tools for those who maintain aircraft. The aim is partly to boost engagement with young recruits who’ve grown up with digital devices in their homes and classrooms and who, because of that, learn differently from those of previous eras.

Major Jesse Johnson, who has led T3 since October 2020, has a doctorate in strategic leadership from Regent University and a LinkedIn bio that boldly proclaims, “I’m out to change the Air Force . . . Try to stop me!” He told me when I visited the off-base facility at Port San Antonio that the Air Force had relied on Socratic-method, lecture-style learning—he calls it “sage on the stage”—for seven decades. But in 2017, Johnson and other officers realized that a major shift had occurred in the way young recruits were absorbing information.

“Take the eighteen-year-olds that graduated this year,” Johnson said, springing to his feet and scribbling his thoughts on a whiteboard in his office. “We know for a fact those eighteen-year-olds didn’t learn the same as we have in the past. So if we don’t start changing soon, the seventeen-, sixteen-, fifteen-, fourteen-year-olds will not come to the Air Force because we’ll be so behind in education and training.”

So Johnson and his colleagues began working on an approach to catching up. That program was, for a time, called Maintenance Next, in deference to its work with those who maintain the Air Force’s fleet. Now called T3, it’s based in San Antonio, where Johnson is stationed, because the service’s Air Education and Training Command is located there. The hope is to eventually meld T3’s maintenance-focused efforts into a comprehensive database of mixed-reality and digital lessons in development elsewhere in the Air Force and the other military branches. Other Air Force VR programs underway involve some of what you’d expect—including flight simulations and combat-readiness exercises—and some of what you might not, such as sexual harassment training.

Key to the new training approach is attracting more enlisted personnel. By the Air Force’s own admission, the pool of new recruits is dwindling. If the Air Force has older technology than the K-12 schools its troops are coming from, Johnson said, “Students will find that less appealing. Then recruiting and retention are going to hurt.”

Add to that the image the Air Force has of itself as the most tech-forward military branch. What happens when the reality doesn’t live up to that reputation? “The Air Force,” Johnson said, “is not going to match the commercials.”

By employing VR tools for all manner of training programs for new recruits, the Air Force hopes to not only modernize its training methods but also reduce some of the dangers for maintenance novices. Sergeant Kyle Ingram, one of the lead VR software testers for T3, told me, “Most kids have never been around a running aircraft, let alone a fighter or bomber. VR gets them comfortable and familiar with the safety protocols. So if VR can make a crew chief already familiar with a task before the first time going out there to perform it, that is now going to be a safer environment.” Therefore, properly training airmen to maintain the Air Force’s complex fleet is literally a matter of life and death. VR could help the service do so more effectively—not to mention save potentially millions of dollars.

The VR maintenance training is underway at both the T3 offices in San Antonio and at a seventy-year-old building with endless hallways attached to a hangar in the middle of Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls. On the day I visited the VR facility there, three airmen were engaged in a simulation that had them changing the tire on a C-130J, a massive airplane. At more than 100 feet long and 38 feet high, the C-130J is big enough to fit a pair of M1A2 Abrams battle tanks inside, and far too big to actually fit inside the building where the airmen were standing. One wrong move with a C-130J’s giant wheels could get a maintenance crew member seriously injured. But in virtual reality, there is no such risk.

In the simulation, Christian Beniquez, an airman from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, along with Airman Evan Clark, from Mesa, Arizona, and Airman First Class Shelby Tyler, from Jennings, Oklahoma, wore VR headsets plugged into a high-powered desktop computer running the simulation that almost exactly replicates repair and maintenance of the C-130J. The three airmen roamed all the way around the plane, operating its hydraulics and even spooling up its four Rolls-Royce turboprop engines, which are powerful enough to lift 42,000 pounds of payload—about the weight of fourteen Toyota Corollas. While they worked, they viewed cross sections of the plane’s electrical and hydraulic systems simply by calling up a heads-up display. They likened it to the view from inside Iron Man’s helmet.

“There are three different types of learning,” Tyler tells me. “Visual, audible, and kinetical. Doing the VR stuff, you’re able to put all three into play. Not everybody learns through books as well as they do hands-on.”

The Air Force says this new style of training has already produced impressive results. In 2020, officials at Sheppard Air Force Base worked with the T3 team to overhaul the traditional Crew Chief Fundamentals Course into a VR experience. As with the crew changing the tire on the virtual C-130J, enrollees in the VR fundamentals course worked with virtual tools to maintain aircraft within a three-dimensional environment. The enrollees were so engaged that they finished the course in just a little more than twelve days—almost twice as fast as in the traditional “sage on the stage” course. The time difference mainly comes from immersing students in their hands-on training right away instead of having them read manuals and then receive instruction on those manuals before heading into the field.

That time savings might someday equate to cost savings, if no one stops Johnson—as his LinkedIn bio challenges them to—and if the Air Force agrees to a broad rollout for the VR training tools being tested in San Antonio. For now, the service isn’t sure how much money it could save, although it recently hired a private company to come up with an estimate. Johnson tells me he expects savings from VR training would be “into the millions per year.”

Joseph South, chief learning officer of the International Society for Technology in Education and former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, said the Air Force’s approach to VR training promises to make learning critical maintenance skills “inviting and engaging through a realistic way of training that’s cost-effective and lowers the danger by a factor of ten.”

But South also says the VR training program comes with risks. Adding gaming-style leveling up, for instance, could be a good incentive, but only if it aligns with what’s being taught, he says. Otherwise, “you’re going to get kids who get really fast at getting [objectives] right, but the rewards are disconnected from the learning.”

T3 does include gamelike elements, but Johnson explained that the end goal is to build competencies, not high scores. He said airmen “still have to go out and be evaluated by real-time human beings, a performer or evaluator to make sure work is done properly.”

The future Johnson envisions is a sort of metaverse in which training modules for tasks throughout the Air Force, including combat training, could connect trainees with instructors no matter where both parties are in the world.  

While VR training could prove revolutionary for the Air Force, civilian VR enthusiasts would likely find what’s being tested now to be rudimentary. In Sheppard’s training room, those testing the software stand a few feet apart inside a bland, tan room filled with large, black desktop gaming computers with LED lights and spinning fans that are visible through transparent side panels. Computers and accompanying headsets line the walls. Monitors face inward in the long, rectangular room, which is the only place in the building where all eighteen of the base’s VR machines can run simultaneously without creating electrical problems.

“The wiring has been done a couple of times by now,” says Major Felicia Wells, who’s been overseeing the VR training at Sheppard since last fall. “So anytime we want to change a cord or something, it’s just a little more legwork than most newer buildings.”

Another challenge is that the building’s reinforced concrete and steel walls make it difficult to transmit wireless signals. For now, that means the training is taking place with headsets that plug into desktop PCs with wired connections. A future upgrade, though, will add fiber-optic internet cables, as well as wireless repeaters, to the building so that Wi-Fi signals can more easily be transmitted, allowing the use of mobile devices and wireless headsets.

VR training lessons have been structured as modules that are scored. Airmen can repeat courses to attempt to raise their scores to 100 percent and better understand what they did wrong. They can also follow along with a virtual “exemplar,” an instructor who demonstrates the correct way to perform a task. And they can compare their performances to the performances of other airmen. “The Air Force is now all about airmen teaching airmen,” says Scott Schneider, cofounder of Houston-based HTX labs, which is one of the Air Force’s seven private development partners for its VR training. “There is a shortage of instructors, just like there’s a shortage of pilots in the U.S. Air Force, and same in the Navy. So our mission is to build the tools that allow airmen to create their own training lessons. This is how you can scale instructors.”

All of that can get trainees out into the field faster and, hopefully, with more depth of knowledge than they might get from classroom instruction alone. The idea, Johnson said, is not to replace classroom training (or in-person training on real-world aircraft) entirely, but to enhance it with new tech tools. A split of 80 percent virtual, 20 percent in person might be the future of Air Force training.

Whatever the eventual ratio, as the Air Force continues its VR testing in San Antonio, Johnson is convinced that VR will play a significant role in the Air Force’s future—for its pilots, its maintenance crews, and the brass in charge of all of them. Air Force leadership “gets it,” Johnson said. “Learning is changing, and our education has to be different in the future.”