In recent news, the Department of Defense informed Congress that it was facing a shortfall of more than 3000 pilots. The majority of this shortage is with the fighter pilots, where the shortfall is about 1000 airmen. Although this shortage may be filled up gradually by recruiting fresh airmen, the force is finding it difficult to come up with an immediate solution to this problem as this shortage may take more than two decades to fill.
There are two issues that need addressing. The first issue is that the USAF is having a difficult time retaining their highly qualified, experienced aviators. One of the causes for unnecessary attrition is that highly qualified pilots are required to spend significant time in the scheduling shop, performing administrative tasks, leading to poor work life balance. The second issue deals with training new, inexperienced pilots. The USAF is unable to get an adequate number of new pilots through training programs in a timely fashion. This is mainly due to the shortage of training resources, and complexities of scheduling.
Pilot training is a resource intensive process involving aircrafts, instructors, maintenance personnel, simulators, airspace, tankers, all of which are major constraints in scheduling the training program. Additionally, the uncertainties of weather and other unforeseen incidents, scheduling the training is no less a nightmare. The responsibility of such complex scheduling and rescheduling falls on the shoulders of the pilots, which require many man hours, and is done via whiteboards or excel sheets. Oftentimes, this tedious scheduling work is required after their routine sorties are completed, resulting in suboptimal outcomes. As the US Air Force tries to address the quality-of-life issues of its pilots, such disgruntlement comes in as a concern. Another major concern is the extended time to train the new pilots due to the lack of sufficient flight time per pilot.
OpsLab undertook a project with the U.S. Air Force to solve this problem as part of a SBIR Phase 2, starting in Fall 2021. The primary focus is to automate scheduling of flying squadrons for 56th Fighter wing at Luke Air Force Base, training F16 and F35 MDS. The problem of scheduling is far from new, most of the training in the forces is scheduled on whiteboards and excel sheets. In the name of automation, the schedulers still work on 30-year-old legacy systems which are only glorified databases and lack any optimization/automation tools. This means that there is no intelligent planning, and schedules are far from optimal. Also, the problem is exacerbated when there is an abrupt disruption in the schedule due to weather conditions, sick pilots, or aircraft breakdowns. Today, no tools exist within the U.S. Air Force to intelligently reschedule the training plan when such disruptions occur but to get back to the whiteboard, adding to the woes of the instructors and the pilots. This is where OpsLab pitches in with its platform, a solution to schedule the entire training process at the touch of a button and automatically reschedule the process as and when disruptions occur, saving valuable time and effort for the aviators involved.
The platform developed by OpsLab is in production in the commercial airline industry where similar problems exist, albeit with different sets of constraints like availability of reserve crew members and scheduling commercial flights. The outcomes may vary for commercial airlines as it amounts to cost saving, whereas for the U.S. Air Force it means faster training, deployment, and better pilot retention.
Automation is the core of this project where OpsLab’s intelligent platform will not only handle the planning process, but also take care of disruptions making sure that the training process is still completed as per schedule. This is a crucial aspect of the project as manual rescheduling not only taxes the instructors, but it also delays the training schedules and batch graduations.
OpsLab’s platform is being piloted at Luke AFB for the Formal Training Unit (FTU) Squadrons. The platform is being extended to handle continuous training and Upgrade Training at the CAF/Ops Command wings for ACC and Global Strike Command MAJCOM wings.