Lt. Col. John Block told a story not long ago that illustrates what the Air Force’s undergraduate pilot training (UPT) is all about. He was reminded of it as he watched student pilots at Reese AFB, Tex., take off and land over and over in their T-37 Tweets and T-38 Talons, “smoothing out the runways” to the tune of 300 sorties a day.
It was a story about something that happened years ago, back when Colonel Block, now the Assistant Deputy Commander for Operations at Reese, was a young instructor pilot there.
He was airborne in a Tweet alongside a student pilot who was on his first flight. The beginner had the stick when bad weather came up suddenly and caught them well short of the airfield. The instructor had to take over and bring them home on instruments amid turbulence and almost no visibility.
The experience left the trainee limp. “After we landed,” Colonel Block recalls, “he put his head in his hands and said he’d never be able to do that. He said it would be too much for him. He was ready to quit. I suggested that he give the course a chance one step at a time.”
The student did so. On his last flight in a T-37 during primary training, he and his instructor pilot Block were caught in the same situation, blanketed by bad weather. This time, though, the student kept the controls. Applying his lessons, he calmly brought them home to a perfect recovery and landing, eventually graduating into fighters and becoming a first-rate driver of an RF-4C reconnaissance aircraft.
The moral of this story is the same one that comes through whenever the men and women of Air Force Air Training Command draw on ATC’s rich folklore for anecdotes about airmanship: UPT does a solid job of developing flying skills that become second nature to students by the time they pin on their wings and report to the so-called gaining commands.
Besides Reese, ATC bases devoted to undergraduate pilot training are Columbus AFB, Miss.; Laughlin AFB, Tex.; Vance AFB, Okla.; and Williams AFB, Ariz. Some undergraduate pilots are taught at Sheppard AFB, Tex., as part of the highly successful EuroNATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) program there.
ATC trains instructor pilots at Randolph AFB, Tex., where the command is headquartered. Some of the best of each UPT graduating class are selected to go straight into the instructor-pilot course and are called FAIN (first-assignment instructor pilots) on emerging from it. Most FAIN eventually become fighter pilots.
There has never been any question that ATC produces pilots who are competent at worst and superb at best. They can fly. They have had a minimum of eighty-one hours of primary training in the T-37 and 109 hours in the supersonic T-38, a fairly hot and unforgiving airplane.
“If you can fly the T-38 you can fly anything in the Air Force,” goes the saying in ATC.
But the UPT graduates are not as prepared as they could be to mesh with the flying machines and methods of the major commands that they join. Each of those commands would like its new pilots from UPT to become a bit more adept at its particular brand of flying more quickly than they are now.
Switching to Dual-Track
Military Airlift Command is a case in point. According to ATC officials, MAC would much prefer newly graduated pilots to have learned transport-type flying and multicrew management to a greater extent than is possible in T-38s.
MAC is not alone. As the Air Force “Trainer Master Plan” published earlier this year puts it, “ATC has been unable to find a training formula that fully satisfies all its customers. Significant trade-offs and compromises have been necessary.”
This is why ATC is preparing to switch from generalized, single-track UPT to the dual-track, specialized variety called SUPT (specialized undergraduate pilot training), in which students will be trained to fly either tankers and transports or fighters and bombers. ATC officials believe that SUN’ will cost less in the long run.
The first order of business will be to buy an off-the-shelf, twin-engine business jet for the projected Tanker/Transport Training System (TTTS). ATC plans to acquire 211 such aircraft and associated training systems for about $1.5 billion.
But the TTTS aircraft is only the beginning. Looking ahead to the three new types of aircraft and associated training methods that it will eventually need for SUN’, ATC is also pondering big changes in the ways it trains would-be pilots of high-performance aircraft. Changes being contemplated come under the heading of keeping man in the cockpit—making sure that fighter and bomber pilots are here to stay and that unmanned aircraft do not come to dominate by default the combat squadrons of tomorrow.
In recent years, a great deal of the work in USAF’s research and development community has been pegged to two main purposes: (1) making combat aircraft more maneuverable and all-around capable while (2) giving their crews the automated tools needed to fly them, use them well as weapon systems, and survive.
The need to help pilots handle the flying and fighting work loads imposed on them by today’s and tomorrow’s hot fighters—even bombers—prompted such innovations as head-up displays (HUDs) and TV-type displays instead of dials in cockpits, computers that steer planes in response to voice commands, helmet-mounted sights, computerized voice warnings to crews in case of dangerously low altitudes, and the “pilot’s associate” subsystem, in which computers programmed for artificial intelligence will serve in effect as copilots.
The Air Force has also been working on what it calls “new ways to fly.” In this, fast-acting fly-by-wire digital flight controls are teamed with advanced aerodynamic control surfaces and electronically controlled propulsion systems to enable fighters to slip and slide around the sky in unconventional attitudes that do not crush aircrews under unbearable G-loadings.
The Advanced Tactical Fighter that USAF is developing toward deployment in the mid-1990s is expected to exemplify such supreme —but relatively unstressful—maneuverability.
All well and good. Much is being done to make high-powered aircraft less forbidding to their human flyers. But what about the flyers themselves? Can the Air Force do a better job of acclimating its pilots to such aircraft
Replacing the T-38
The answer is probably yes, and the place to begin is Air Training Command’s undergraduate pilot training. Lt. Cot. T. Patrick Flanagan, ATC’s Deputy Director of Requirements, addressed the question in the context of ATC’s plan to acquire a new aircraft for the future Reconnaissance/Attack/Fighter Training System (RAFTS) in SUPT. This aircraft would replace the T-38 around the year 2005.
“One thing we could do better is to train students to operate under fighter-sustained G-loads,” Colonel Flanagan says. “So one of our goals is to have the RAFTS airplane provide us with that capability. It’s a capability that doesn’t exist in our trainers today.”
New aircraft would make a big difference. But so would new training techniques on the horizon.
Student pilots now pull fairly heavy G-loads while doing their mandatory aerobatic maneuvers. But those loads are fleeting. The reason is that the maneuvers are flown vertically as a matter of course, and the Gs come and go in accordance with aircraft ups and downs.
“Our pilots learn to fly under rather benign G conditions,” Colonel Flanagan says. “We’re thinking of flying some maneuvers, like the Cuban eight for example, horizontally instead of vertically in order to sustain the 0-loads for fairly long periods.”
This, he says, would accustom student pilots to “thinking under the stress of their [added] weight, their helmets pushing down on them, and their vision coming in on them.”
The way the training is now carried out, student pilots must put off learning to fly in the grip of unrelenting G-loadings until they proceed into fighter lead-in training at Holloman AFB, N. M., and from there into operational fighter and attack squadrons in Tactical Air Command and the tactical air forces.
By then, it could be too late. Blackouts have become bad news in the operational fighter community. All too many pilots and planes have been lost in recent years to crashes resulting from loss of consciousness under G-loadings at unrecoverable altitudes. Loss of consciousness or of situational awareness due to a dimming of the senses is often lethal at the low altitudes at which attack aircraft routinely are flown so pilots can practice evading enemy radars and missiles.
“We can teach our students to operate under G-loadings, without interfering with what the gaining commands will teach them to do,” Colonel Flanagan asserts. “They’ll be better able to learn how to drop bombs and defend against attackers—how to apply their aircraft as weapon systems—if they don’t have to unlearn the benign G environment in which they were trained as pilots.”
Extra shots of physical conditioning may also be in store for undergraduate pilots, who do a lot of it already. TAC is said to be putting more emphasis on such training, too, and is considering subjecting its fighter crews to sessions in centrifuges—a la the space program—to let them feel what it’s like to verge on blacking out in order to help them resist the phenomenon in flight.
The Straight-Arrow Airman
The physical and mental rigors of becoming and remaining a pilot of today’s high-tech, high-performance aircraft have brought about what might be called the straight-arrow airman.
In ATC circles and in the air-combat fraternity at large, there is widespread agreement that today’s fighter jocks are a self-disciplined and sobersided lot compared to the free spirits in yesteryear’s fighter cockpits. Contemporary combat pilots are said to take far better care of themselves in off-duty pursuits—including much less drinking and late-night carrying on—as a matter of sheer survival.
Today’s gut-wrenching, mind-bending airplanes do not mix with, and are unforgiving of, hangovers and lack of sleep.
Colonel Flanagan, who flew F-4s at a time when flamboyance was more fashionable infighter pilot circles, believes that the trend has been and will continue to be “toward persons who don’t wear big watches and stay out having a good time at the bar on weeknights, who can do well with mental arithmetic and with managing the flows of information” on which their flying and fighting have come to depend so heavily.
Maj. Denny Grady, operations officer of the 64th Student Squadron at Reese and a fairly recent returnee to USAF after ten years in civilian life, has seen many a pilot come and go. He believes “the students of today are more serious and more dedicated than I’ve ever seen them. They’re here because they really want it. They’re the best ever.”
Talks with a score of student pilots and instructor pilots at Reese tended to confirm the thesis that self-discipline is now the off-duty order of the day. Even so, said one instructor pilot: “I think pilots today are just as crazy underneath as they ever were. We just show it in ways that don’t affect our everyday operations. We can do that because we’re a very controlled group of people. We know that if we make a big mistake, we won’t walk away from it.”
Undergraduate pilot training takes fifty-two weeks. That’s three weeks longer than the course covered as recently as Fiscal Year 1987, when high attrition rates convinced the Air Force that the undergraduates needed more time to work out their problems in the course.
ATC expects that about twenty-two percent of students will wash out each year. In Fiscal Year 1987, the rate was an alarming 36.9 percent, which reduced the number of pilots produced that year to 1,447—422 fewer than should have been the case.
ATC officials say the attrition has been turned around and will be back down to about twenty percent in this fiscal year.
The lengthening of the course receives major credit for the turnaround. The additional time—fifteen training days—is just enough to enable borderline students to hang in there, surmount difficulties, and become good students.
Specialized undergraduate pilot training will first take effect at Reese. The first ATC dual-track freshman class will report there in June 1991. Fittingly, Reese is where SUPT once ended, in effect.
SUPT was the accepted way of doing things until the late 1950s, when the Air Force had no choice but to abandon it. In 1957, a severe hailstorm struck Reese AFB and all but wiped out the whole ATC fleet of TB-25s parked there, a fleet that USAF had been using for specialized training of student pilots slated for tankers, transports, and bombers. There were no multiengine jet trainers available to replace the TB-25s and no funds to develop any.
So USAF settled for a single-track program of general UPT in which Cessna T-37s and Northrop T-38s would soon be used, as they are to this day, to train all undergraduates, no matter their individual airborne destinies. Those trainers replaced the T-28 and the T-33, respectively.
In the second coming of SUPT, all students will still go through primary training in the T-37 or the new subsonic trainer that USAF expects will replace the Tweet in the mid- to late 1990s. Undergraduate pilots headed for tankers and transports will take advanced training in the business-jet TTTS aircraft that USAF is in the process of selecting.
Students tapped for fighters and bombers will progress from primary training to the T-38 or the RAFTS aircraft that the Air Force foresees supplanting the T-38 around the year 2005.
New Lease on Life
The new TTTS aircraft will take a big load off the T-38 fleet, which has amassed about nine million hours in flight since the first Talon trainer went operational in 1961. The business-jets-turned-trainers will relieve the T-38s of their tanker-transport training, which amounts to about half their present training load, and give them a new lease on life to last beyond the turn of the century.
“SUPT is going to change the way we think about pilot training in many ways,” asserts Lt. Col. Dan Fucci, chief of ATC’s Pilot Training Division at Randolph AFB.
To make ready for the TTTS aircraft and training, ATC is working up new ways of screening and selecting students and is originating a TTTS syllabus. Also involved will be changes to both the T-37 primary syllabus and the T-38 advanced syllabus to be used by fighter/bomber students only.
The basic categories of primary training will remain the same in SUPT. Instrument flying, formation flying, and navigation will still be emphasized. There will be but slight variations in numbers of T-37 sorties and flying hours.
But some training will be quite different. For example, TTTS primary students will spend more time in formation flying, because they will have little time for such flying in the TTTS aircraft later on. They will concentrate instead on such things as getting into position to rendezvous and refuel, handling the airplane under asymmetric thrust, taking off in low visibility, managing information from sensors and computers, mastering cockpit resources, and coordinating crew assignments and work loads.
All this should make MAC happy. As the Air Force trainer master plan notes, today’s advanced UPT centered on the T-38 is “essentially a fighter lead-in program” pegged to only about twenty-five percent of the trainees, the ones headed for fighter-type aircraft.
In consequence, says the master plan, “UPT does not address many of the specific needs of the approximately sixty percent majority [of students] bound for multicrew, multiengine aircraft.”
When SUPT is in full swing, tanker/transport trainees will go through the mill at Reese AFB, Columbus AFB, and Vance AFB. Williams AFB and Laughlin AFB will be devoted to students on the fighter/ bomber track.
According to the Air Force, fighter/bomber trainees will concentrate on “advanced aircraft handling; mission information management; three-dimensional situational awareness; advanced formation, element, and flight management; and mission-oriented low-level skills.”
ATC officials claim that the T-38 will suffice for all that, but they leave no doubt that they itch for its successor all the same. In the opinion of many, UPT is being updated and streamlined not a moment too soon—and the new, modern trainer aircraft to keep all flight-instruction phases abreast of the times are needed more urgently than the corporate Air Force will acknowledge.
One reason for USAF’s reticence may be its experience with the next generation trainer program, which resulted in the development and subsequent abandonment of the Fairchild T-46 trainer a couple of years ago.
On the bright side, that experience led to the TTTS program and to carefully laid plans to procure off-the-shelf primary aircraft training system aircraft and reconnaissance, attack, fighter training system aircraft to begin replacing the T-37 and the T-38 in 1999 and 2005, respectively, or thereabouts.
The RAFTS airplane could turn out to be the F-16, the F- 15, or even the ATF, which will have been an operational air-superiority fighter—if all goes as planned—for ten years by the time of the RAFTS trainer’s planned introduction. It is far too early to tell about this, however.
Meanwhile, as expressed in the trainer master plan, “The challenge is to remold a [training] system from one that was adequate in the age of the B-52 and ‘Century Series’ fighter to one that will be equal to teaching the piloting skills required in the age of the Advanced Tactical Fighter, the [B-2] Advanced Tactical Bomber, and the Advanced Technology Transport (ATT)—and several generations beyond.
“The technology and training capability that was adequate in the 1950s is proving inadequate to the challenges facing ATC in the twenty-first century.”
ATC officials point out that contemporary UPT graduates are the pilots who will fly the ATF, the B-2, the C-17, and the ATT if all those planes do indeed pan out.
How Much High Tech
A big question before ATC is how much high technology to put into its new trainer aircraft of the future. Its goal is to keep such technology in “the heart of the envelope” rather than at the leading edge. The command is putting a much higher premium on the reliability and maintainability of its new trainers than it is on their technological sophistication. This is especially true of the TTTS business-jet trainer, which will take quite a pounding.
Maj. Michael Thomas, chief of curriculum in ATC’s Pilot Training Division, declares: “The guy flying the F- 16 may have fantastic technology to deal with, but if it breaks, he’ll have to revert to basics, and that’s our job—to teach him those basics, teach him how to fly.”
Adds Colonel Fucci: “Our hard part is drawing the line, deciding how far we can let new technology come into UPT. For example, what should we do about HUDs, if anything?”
Head-up displays are now commonplace in modern fighters. UPT graduates encounter them only after they enter fighter lead-in training and begin learning how to use their aircraft as weapon systems. One school of thought maintains that trainees should become familiar with HUDs a lot sooner than that and that SUPT should see to it.
“Maybe we will put the HUD in toward the end of the fighter training track,” Colonel Fucci says. “We’re examining the need for it. But there are different kinds of HUDs in [operational] aircraft, and if we teach our students to use a generic HUD, they’ll have to unlearn it anyway. Also, HUD technology is going to take leaps and bounds over the next ten years.
“It may be that, until the Air Force gets standardized on HUD technology, we won’t be able to teach the HUD. This is part of the larger question of how much technology we let come into UPT. We’re here to teach the students how to walk before they run, and if we try to teach running, we could make a big mistake.”
Another way of saying this is that the teaching of nighttime navigation of a fighter at low altitude is best left to TAC.
The HUD issue is being addressed in ATC’s appraisal of what its RAFTS aircraft will embody when it enters the inventory around 2005. ATC has contracted with General Dynamics, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas to analyze RAFTS.
That system, says the Air Force trainer master plan, “may entail a limited amount of developmental work—more to assemble the available technologies into a single, integrated system than to explore the possibility of incorporating leading-edge technologies.”
ATC expects aircraft entries in the RAFTS program to include trainers newly in production around the turn of the century and updated variants of modern trainers now in service, such as the McDonnell Douglas/British Aerospace T-45 Goshawk to be used by the US Navy. USAF intends to explore the possibility of jointly procuring RAFTS with the Navy, in fact.
How best to use—and not overuse—simulators is another major question that always confronts ATC and that will continue to loom in the streamlining of undergraduate pilot training.
The Air Force began going in big for simulators in the late 1970s in the aftershock of the oil crisis. They were expected to enable USAF to cut back drastically on flying time on all fronts—not just in ATC—and thus conserve fuel, cut the need for aircraft spare parts then in short supply, and save wear and tear on airplanes in general.
UPT flight time took a terrific beating. Each student lost forty hours in the air, or one-fifth of the previous total, over forty-nine weeks. All instrument training was done on simulators save for the final instrument checkrides. Those had to be done in the air.
The results were horrendous. The student pilots did so poorly on the checkrides that ATC was aghast. It moved swiftly to recapture flying time, which has been on the upswing throughout this decade. But only about half of the lost hours have been restored, fourteen of them in just the past two years.
Limits on Simulators
ATC may not be able to convince the political powers-that-be to give it any more flying hours. But it is determined not to relinquish any that it has. The command believes it has taken simulators as far as they can go.
Using them to teach instrument flying “proved rather less than successful,” says Major Thomas, because “the real world is so different from the simulator.”
ATC has found out that simulators are more valuable by and large for experienced pilots than they are for students. In fact, they can be a .handicap for students in some ways.
“An experienced pilot can get a lot out of a simulator mission because he’s seen the real world,” says Major Thomas. “It’s difficult for a student to do that because he’s never flown in the real world. In a simulator, he’s in a very controlled environment. He doesn’t have to worry about traffic in his airspace. He doesn’t have to talk to the rest of the world.”
Colonel Fucci sums it up thus: “If a student in a simulator in an instrument environment gets a call that there’s traffic at two o’clock at two miles, he doesn’t have to really worry about it because the traffic isn’t really there. But if I were flying an airplane, I’d be concerned. And because I have flown an airplane, when I’m in a simulator, I am concerned.
“The simulator will always land you where you took off from, and you know you’re going to get home safely.”
At the same time, Colonel Fucci and Major Thomas at Randolph AFB and instructor pilots and student pilots at Reese AFB were quick to give simulators their due as valuable tools for teaching basic aircraft control procedures and techniques, cockpit familiarization, and even, in some instances, situational awareness.
ATC’s Singer-Link simulation systems, each featuring four T-37 cockpits or four T-38 cockpits, are credited with a great job of schooling pilot trainees in such intricacies as making the transition from instrument approaches to visual landings. ATC officials praise a new day-night computer imaging system recently acquired from Rediffusion.
Withal, stick-and-rudder skills will always be the sine qua non of ATC—skills that must be taught and tried out in the air and that will now be sharpened more keenly in the contexts of the particular airplanes in each SUPT student’s future.
Specialized pilot training seems to make better sense than the generalized variety in view of the way USAF assigns and uses its operational pilots. There was a time when they were switched from fighters to transports to bombers or whatever. But such switching began going out of style about the time that the Vietnam War wound down.
At that point, says Colonel Fucci, “The need for universally assignable pilots began to diminish, and there was less money for UPT and follow-on training. The Air Force decided that it would be cheaper in the long run to train a pilot for exactly what he’s going to fly and keep him doing it for a long time. If we’re not going to reassign rated personnel from weapon system to weapon system, we might as well give them more specialized training from the very beginning.
“You may see a pilot go from one fighter to another or—now—to a high-performance bomber. But you won’t see him go from a fighter to a C-141 or a C-5.”
At Reese AFB, Col. Jerry Deakin, Deputy Commander for Operations, touched on something subjective about UPT that cannot be quantified, analyzed, or programmed, but that is clearly important nonetheless.
Said he: “When I went through pilot training in 1966, all the instructors and everybody in charge had been through Vietnam. Now, on this base at least, there are only a handful. Pretty soon, no one.
“So we’ll just have to see to it that these young people continue to understand what made their predecessors successful—and why they’re doing and learning these things here—before they go on to the weapon system commands.”