The Air Force is expanding its pilot training pipeline to overcome an insatiable demand for experienced pilots for both cockpit and staff positions. This surging demand, combined with newly robust competition for military pilots from commercial airline recruiters, has led to a shortage of Air Force fighter pilots. But USAF is forced to grow its pilot production on the back of an aircraft that is decades old and has little room to modernize—and while the service is prioritizing a new generation of remotely piloted aircraft operators.
The main training aircraft, the T-38 Talon, has trained Air Force pilots for more than 50 years. Air Education and Training Command says it is too old and falls short on two-thirds of the advanced training requirements needed for fighter pilots getting ready to fly the service’s newest fighters: the F-22 and F-35. USAF is placing a large bet on its next generation trainer, dubbed the T-X, and current pilots in training are spending more time in simulators to make up the training capability gap.
“This is a classic case of what a service Chief is faced with, which is, ‘How do I … get the right balance between capability, capacity, and readiness?’?” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said during his June confirmation hearing. “And there are trades that we make. And so when we look at, for instance, bringing on the new trainer aircraft, that’s one of the trades that we have to make to push that to the right, until 2024. And so that’s going to require us to keep the T-38 flying longer. And it’s just one of the inevitable trades you have to do.”
Air Education and Training Command in early 2016 laid out the challenges ahead for training the next generation of pilots.
“Tomorrow’s airmen will have to outthink and outperform our nation’s adversaries,” AETC Commander Lt. Gen. Darryl L. Roberson said in the introduction to the command’s 2016 Strategic Plan. “They will develop innovative solutions for future challenges because of the education and training they earned.”
AETC needs to get “state-of-the-art” capability in the virtual constructive environment, so pilots can train in a high-threat environment and be focused on training so much to the point where they can’t tell they’re “not out flying in the airplane for real,” Roberson told Air Force Magazine in September 2015.
The command is projected to train 1,230 pilots in Fiscal 2016 from about 1,400 entries, said Col. Samuel P. Milam, AETC’s deputy director for intelligence, operations, and nuclear integration. But this isn’t enough. Air Combat Command alone projects it will be short more than 700 fighter pilots by the end of Fiscal 2016.
“The average age for the T-38s is now over 45 years old, and it has very little capability for growth,” Milam said. “The Air Force is getting everything it can out of the T-38C, both in systems capability and training processes. However, until the T-X is in place, the training gaps created by using a third generation trainer for fifth generation aircraft will remain.”
One of the biggest shortfalls is simple mission capability. In Fiscal 2015, just 62.7 percent of the service’s 446 T-38Cs were available at any given time, with just 52.8 percent of the broken ones fixed within 24 hours. The T-38 depot at Hill AFB, Utah, has increased its workload to produce 176 Talons in Fiscal 2015. One of the biggest programs, the Pacer Classic III structural modification, is a $240 million program to extend 150 T-38s to fly until 2029.
“Quite frankly, there’s only one reason we have aircraft still flying after 50 years. It’s because of the quality of the individuals we have at our depots that keep them flying,” Goldfein said during his confirmation hearing, speaking not only of the T-38 but of other aircraft, such as the B-52 and KC-135, in the Air Force’s fleet.
Even with this work, the T-38’s availability is still limited.
Pilots in Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at AETC go through four phases: Introduction to Flight Training, Preflight Training, Primary Flight Training, and Advanced Flight Training.
The first phase is largely procedural training, with 18 hours of flight.
In the next two phases, a pilot flies 86.6 hours in a T-6A Texan II, plus 45.7 simulator hours.
In the last phase, pilots move on to specialized airframes for advanced flight.
Mobility pilots, for example, fly 77.7 flight hours in a T-1A Jayhawk, focusing on refueling and airdrops, with 53.6 simulator hours.
Helicopter pilots fly 105 hours in a TH-1H Iroquois honing skills such as night vision device operations, with 36 simulator hours.
Fighter pilots fly 95.5 hours in a Talon and 39.5 hours in a simulator.
The fighter pilots heavily rely on simulators because of the T-38’s shortfalls in advanced training. The process is broken down into 18 tasks, and 12 of those need simulation because of the gaps in capability of the T-38. The areas where the T-38 is up to the task are basic air-to-ground training, basic cockpit resource management, preparation and planning, mission debrief, energy efficiency, and human systems integration, Milam said.
But the shortcomings are apparent in advanced flying. A fighter pilot cannot use a T-38 to train for a high angle of attack or a higher thrust-to-weight ratio in basic aircraft control. Simulation software is needed for emergency procedures because of a gap in diagnosing emergencies. A pilot needs to simulate normal procedures because a gap in the T-38 learning system “creates negative skill transference,” Milam said. Advanced cockpit resource management training is not possible because of a gap in data fusion and a lack of sensors. Basic air-to-air training is needed in a simulator because of a lack of sustained high-G capability and fly-by-wire controls. Same with advanced air-to-air because the T-38 isn’t capable of “relevant” fourth and fifth generation air-to-air skill sets.
T-38 is Just Too Old
The T-38 cannot handle advanced air-to-ground because it lacks the right data link and it doesn’t meet new FAA guidance system requirements. It cannot fly formation training, being incapable of night formations, formation in all weather situations, and beyond-visual- range formations. Anti-ice deficiencies and high-density altitude takeoff and landing limitations inhibit all-weather training. Lastly, the T-38’s cockpit itself doesn’t fit certain pilot physical measurements, referred to as Anthropometric Cases 1-7. This is all in addition to the limited operational availability of the aircraft.
The need for training experience in high-threat environments and for pilots to be ready to fly fifth generation fighters immediately is driving the acquisition process for the T-X. Roberson, speaking at AFA’s Air & Space Conference in September, said the award for the T-X will not only be based on the flight performance but also on the contractor’s ability to build high-fidelity simulators.
To make sure contractors are ready and able to provide their best entrants for the contest, Roberson said AETC is working to be as transparent as possible on what it wants in its new trainer.
In February, the Air Force responded to about 300 questions from industry on the design for the fighter and the need for simulation. The level of communication was “unprecedented,” Roberson said. The formal request for proposal has not been released for the T-X, but AETC wants to keep industry informed as a way to save costs on the final contract.
“The bottom line now is we are working with industry in a transparent way that allows us to do things and bring costs down, to get the product everyone wants to build and receive,” Roberson said at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in February in Orlando, Fla.
AETC is the lead for the program, and the command wants to “educate Air Force senior leadership” to make sure it remains on track, with a contract award expected in 2017. The service wants to reach initial operational capability by 2024, and AETC needs to establish requirements beyond that day and “the right balance between live, virtual, and constructive training methods,” the command said in its strategic plan.
AETC has built the requirements for the T-X to expose pilots to some skills earlier, but the focus of undergraduate training is still “on events, not tactics,” Milam said. AETC considered the ability to off-load certain syllabus events from the formal training units once a pilot finishes training and is assigned to a unit, but it would not be possible to fully use one airframe, the T-X, to train pilots on skills that could vary based on the aircraft they are ultimately assigned to.
“As an example, the T-X requirements include night vision device capabilities,” Milam said. “The intent is to train night vision basics earlier in the student progression from [undergraduate pilot training] to the [formal training unit], but not to train night vision tactics that will be particular to each follow-on airframe.”
The demand for new and different pilot training for manned aircraft is coming as the service faces a dramatic change in how it is manning remotely piloted aircraft cockpits on the ground. USAF is confronting a large-scale deficit in RPA pilot manning, and AETC has overhauled how it trains Predator and Reaper pilots to fill an insatiable demand for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance across all combatant commands.
In April 2015, the Defense Department limited the number of combat air patrols the Air Force is responsible for—to 60, from 65—to build up the training pipeline. In response, AETC has doubled the number of pilots training to fly remotely piloted aircraft, on track to graduate 290 by the end of 2016 and a goal of graduating 384 by the end of 2017. The RPA pilot class is now 24 students, up from just 12 before the change, Roberson said.
AETC is taking pilots straight from the Air Force Academy and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, with a greater need for RPA pilots than any other aircraft type in the service. Air Combat Command is calling for $3 billion in additional funding to pay the pilots and to allow for continued training once they are assigned to an operational unit. The formal training unit mission itself is moving from ACC to AETC, as the education command is introducing new ways to “attract, recruit, and double production for RPA pilots and sensor operators” to meet the need for ISR.
Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said before he retired recently as Air Force Chief of Staff that he had already seen “dramatic changes” in the RPA pilot career field, with the shortfall of 250 pilots expected to be halved by the end of Fiscal 2016.
Enlisted airmen are also getting into ISR flight, with the first class of non-officers beginning training to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk this September. The first two enlisted pilot classes will be part of a “beta phase” before training is opened to more airmen, ACC Commander Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle said in June.
Alleviating the RPA Strain
The service will eventually have 100 enlisted pilots on the Global Hawk to alleviate the strain on the RPA community, with officers largely focusing on the armed Predator and Reaper fleet.
Weeks before Welsh left office, he went to the US Air Force Academy’s graduation in Colorado Springs, Colo. There has been a stereotype that pilots are averse to flying RPAs, that they would rather be in the cockpit of a fighter, Welsh told Air Force Magazine during an exit interview. But now, “some of the cadets who are going to RPAs just can’t wait to get there.”
“They’re excited about it,” he said. “They grew up thinking about RPAs. We have officers in the Air Force now who have degrees in RPA operations and RPA maintenance. … They are the ones who are going to take this remotely piloted aircraft community writ large and drag it through the rest of the 21st century. Who knows where this is going?”
For more than 14 years, Air Force pilots have operationally concentrated on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions, flying in permissive environments focused on intelligence gathering and close air support. This brought RPAs to the forefront of a new generation’s thought process, but the “international landscape” is changing once again, AETC’s strategic plan says. The current training program, and especially the current training fleet, is falling short of what is needed to counter future threats, such as the rise of China and Russia. The need for advanced training is coming at a time of budget restrictions, encouraging the service to “use technology in new and innovative ways,” such as simulation, AETC’s strategic plan states.
“Whether it’s live, virtual, constructive training that blends actual and simulated flying, or tailored technical training and professional military education concepts, we will identify and use technology to help us succeed,” the plan says. “Our ability to exploit technology to recruit, train, and educate the force will help guarantee our airpower advantage in the future.”
The strategic plan lays out changes the command must make to ensure this is a reality, including possibly starting all over. In the near term, the command is conducting a “clean-sheet” analysis of its flying training enterprise to “identify and correct” gaps in training and to increase pilot production.
The fighter pilots of tomorrow get the bulk of their training in a cockpit built to train pilots in the early 1960s. Raptor and Lightning II drivers are training in the same jets used to train F-4 drivers.
Thanks to the importance being placed on T-X, that shouldn’t be the case for too many more years.