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Cutting-edge technology takes flight at Career Enlisted Aviator Center of Excellence

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – A new virtual training course is blazing trails at the 344th Training Squadron, Career Enlisted Aviator Center of Excellence. Distinguished guests and aviators came together Dec. 11 for the Virtual Reality Laboratory ribbon cutting ceremony to witness an innovative training frontier.

Retired Master Sgt. Khristine Farmer is joined by Master Sgt. Ryan Stark, center, and Master Sgt. Andrew J. Gajkowski at the Virtual Lab ribbon-cutting at the Career Enlisted Aviator Center of Excellence, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, Dec. 11, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Agnes Koterba)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – A new virtual training course is blazing trails at the 344th Training Squadron, Career Enlisted Aviator Center of Excellence. Distinguished guests and aviators came together Dec. 11 for the Virtual Reality Laboratory ribbon cutting ceremony to witness an innovative training frontier.

Two Career Enlisted Aviator candidates try out the new virtual lab at the Career Enlisted Aviator Center of Excellence, 344th Training Squadron, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, Dec. 11, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Agnes Koterba)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – A new virtual training course is blazing trails at the 344th Training Squadron, Career Enlisted Aviator Center of Excellence. Distinguished guests and aviators came together Dec. 11 for the Virtual Reality Laboratory ribbon cutting ceremony to witness an innovative training frontier.

What started as a simple concept developed into something more when a group of Career Enlisted Aviator (CEA) instructors joined forces to change the traditional approach to teaching. Previous squadron leadership – Lt. Col. O.C. Chavez and Chief Master Sgt. Jim Hessick – began by forming a team to address modernizing teaching methods. Master Sgt. Kyle Anderson, Loadmaster; retired Master Sgt. Khristine Farmer, Flight Attendant; and Master Sgt. Justin Nissen, Special Missions Aviator, worked collectively to bring ingenuity to the forefront of aviation training. As a result, Project Icarus took shape, lending its name from Greek mythology as inspiration for what lay ahead.

“Today is a great day for our Air Force,” said Maj. Jordan B. Clark, who became the 344th TRS commander in July 2019. “What began as an idea by a single CEA to improve localized training has matured into an effort that transformed how all current and future enlisted aviators are developed. ITP delivers a true paradigm shift that provides enhanced familiarization for students before they ever see their first operational aircraft.”   

Farmer recalled roadblocks and opposition were not uncommon, but this did not stop her from making Icarus a simple possibility to a realized reality. Though receiving approval was not an easy road, Farmer faced the challenges with her teammates and persevered.

“Obviously, Icarus didn’t survive but our Icarus did and grew exponentially,” Farmer said.

With the help of John Brooks and his team at Mass Virtual Incorporated and the Air Education and Training Command Force Development Division, spearheaded by Col. Raymond Platt, Masoud Rasti, and Richard Robledo, the virtual reality platform soon gained ground and Icarus became the Integrated Technologies Platform. Masoud made it clear that virtual reality allows career enlisted aviators to apply their “… proficiency and exercise as often as possible even though the aircraft availability might not be there.”

Farmer finds that the benefit of using virtual training allows students to learn “… with virtual aircraft where students can get familiar and make mistakes in a virtual environment. That way when they get on the aircraft they are now familiar and do not make the same mistakes.”

Master Sgt. Andrew J. Gajkowski, Section Chief, Special Programs, said the VR modules bring great value to the student’s learning environment and the Center of Excellence.

“The VR Modules allow us to instruct so much more than the basic facts and terms in a modern way,” he added.

Career enlisted aviators will now have the advantage to grow, learn, and train in multiple capacities without restriction to time and place. 

“This technology is vital in bridging the gap between yesterday’s PowerPoint and study guides, to tomorrow’s learning environments,” Master Sgt. Antonio Hallums said during the ceremony. “We find ourselves with new capabilities as instructors, armed to teach guided lessons within the virtual realm, enabling our students to learn faster, apply better, and remember longer.”