JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- The 176th Maintenance Group (MXG) opened its innovative Virtual Reality Training Lab here Dec. 4, 2021.
The 176th MXG used squadron innovation funds from ARCWERX to create the lab, which will enhance training capabilities for maintenance Airmen by giving them an interactive way to familiarize themselves with maintenance processes without a physical airframe. The purpose of ARCWERX is to create and foster a lasting culture of innovation in the Air National Guard that builds on the unique structure, geographic distribution and talents of individual Guardsmen.
“This is intended for a trainer to be a safety rep and stand behind him but also to teach while he’s going through the steps,” said Master Sgt. Bryan LoPorto, 176th MXG maintenance training manager. “It enables them to provide training to supplement what they would learn on the aircraft in an environment that’s less stressful.”
So far, there are 18 modules that the lab can access. The controls for the virtual reality program are easy to learn, which allows greater accessibility and helps to streamline the learning process, LoPorto said.
Virtual Hangar uses the same controllers and program available on Steam, a game service that is popular in the online gaming community. The lab only has access to C-130 modules, but the long-term plan is to have modules that focus on the other airframes present at the 176th Wing.
“For someone like me that has zero maintenance experience, I can see how new troops can benefit from this training,” said Tech. Sgt. Esdei Arurang, 176th MXG unit training manager. “It familiarizes you with the steps in the [technical order] and gives insight into the layout of the airframe. It does this without waiting on a part of the plane to break or waiting for that task to come up. Ideally, 100 students can hop on from anywhere in the world, and an instructor can walk those students through the proper steps in real time.”
This virtual reality setup is being used in training locations to help address the issue of trainer shortages across the maintenance career fields. When the lab setup is complete, trainers from across the Department of Defense will be able to give feedback and guidance to students in real time as they go through tasks.
LoPorto said the 176th Wing is one of the first Air National Guard units to have the capability of a virtual reality lab. Through this capability Airmen can familiarize themselves with procedural maintenance that is rare or hard to cover during their drill status.
“Certain tasks are rarely done, for example a C-check is done every 810 days or so” said Tech. Sgt. Michael Decorato, 176th Maintenance Squadron environmental systems specialist. “If a troop misses it, they would miss out on tasks that are specific to that check. An entire check could take a few weeks.”
Although the lab cannot replace the experience of working on an airframe, it greatly enhances training capabilities. The capability to train maintenance personnel in a shorter timeframe without the need for an airframe can help drill status Guardsmen who cannot take weeks at a time to go through a process.
The future capabilities of the virtual reality lab will also greatly supplement the total force as more modules are added, LoPorto said. Virtual reality is just one of many tools Airmen can use to increase their effectiveness and enhance innovative problem solving throughout the Air Force.