Diana Stancy Correll, Air Force Times

 Staff Sgt. Kenneth Renfrow, a maintenance qualifications training instructor with the 19th Maintenance Group, uses a virtual reality headset at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., Dec. 19. (Airman 1st Class Aaron Irvin/Air Force)

The Air Force is working to create a virtual reality platform for teaching airmen how to maintain C-130 aircraft. The effort aims not only to facilitate the training process but also to minimize the diversion of Hercules and Super Hercules aircraft from their missions.

The process now requires weeks or months of advance notice to ensure a C-130 is available for the mandatory maintenance training.

“We request an aircraft to be down three days a week in order to train our students,” said Master Sgt. Nicholas Massingill, a 19th Maintenance Group development and instructor section chief, in an Air Force news release. “When we do that, we are taking aircraft away from the mission. While VR will never replace hands-on training, it will help bring familiarization to the task, so the instructors can speed up the process when conducting hands-on training.

Air Force Headquarters, along with the Air Mobility Command and Air Education and Training Command, has partnered with contractor Mass Virtual to develop a virtual environment based on the C-130H Hercules and the C-130J Super Hercules, according to the Air Force.

Additionally, airlift wings from Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, Yokota Air Base in Japan, and Ramstein Air Base in Germany have formed working groups to help craft the virtual reality platform, and they have the ability to conduct certain tasks in a virtual hangar, including propeller, tire and brake replacements.

“We pulled together with other wings to develop work tasks that would be most beneficial to invest in for airmen — allowing us to establish a VR platform with a focus on the C-130,” Massingill said.

Master Sgt. Gary Armstrong, a maintenance training management section chief with the 19th, said employing virtual reality will be particularly helpful among younger airmen because the use of technology “will appeal to their learning styles.”

“When we are teaching tasks, we are teaching proficiency,” Armstrong said. “The only way you gain proficiency is by doing it over and over, that’s how you get instinctual mechanical skills. Being able to use this virtual environment shows the possibilities are limitless.”

Service officials plan to finish the virtual reality platform by summer 2020, according to the release, Nearly 230 airmen from the 19th Maintenance Group will undergo training using the virtual reality platform each year.

Broadening virtual training within the service for maintainers and pilots has long been a goal for the Air Force.

For example, the Air Force’s Pilot Training Next program that launched in 2018 uses virtual reality systems along with biometrics and artificial intelligence to help train new pilots. Airmen are placed in a virtual cockpit using VR headsets, while artificial intelligence monitors their biometrics and customizes the simulation for them.

The third class of Pilot Training Next students kicked off training earlier this month out of Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas.