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Pilot Training Program Changes

By: LCDR George Sigler, USNF (Ret)

F-35 Simulator. (Photo by: Viper Wing)

Recently the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Brown, made a comment that the Air Force needed to get back to basics, i.e., landing and takeoffs. He noted that accident rates in the landing and takeoff regimes were unacceptable and I might add very costly in machines and lives. Depending on the direction of the political “winds” the F-35 costs in the neighborhood of $80 million per aircraft and about $36,000 per flight hour. 

That might seem an extremely high price for a single fighting machine, but if the machine is instrumental in winning a battle or a war, it is a bargain. There is no doubt the F-35 has unique capabilities in and of itself, and it can utilize its features to aid and assist other less capable combat aircraft on the battlefield to maximize their capabilities.  

So, how does this all relate to flight training? Years ago, my son played a video game in which he was a duck hunter. The game was very realistic as he had to be able to lead the duck so that the shot and the duck arrived at the same position in space at the same time. Shortly thereafter, we had occasion to go skeet shooting with a friend as it was a family tradition on Thanksgivings. My son had never been skeet shooting but turned out he was the best shot in the group — all because of a video game.  

That really opened my eyes to the value of simulation. Now as a former naval aviator, airline pilot, recreational pilot, and one who has owned a flight school for 14 years, and used simulators for years primarily for instruments, emergency procedure, or transitioning training to other aircraft, I certainly understood the value of simulators.  

Let’s for a moment discuss flight simulation. First the advantages of simulation:  

It saves wear and tear on expensive aircraft.

No one has ever crashed a simulator and killed themselves

An experienced pilot can transition from one type of aircraft to another, i.e, even a type rating.

Instrument training can be accomplished far more efficiently, i.e., if one misses an approach fix, just stop the simulator and back up. 

As a follow on to the above the simulator can be frozen so instructor and student can discuss a procedure.

It is the most effective way to teach cockpit procedures; checklist, emergency procedures, etc.

Now the disadvantage of overutilizing simulators: 

There is no inherent fear of death in a simulator. As a carrier pilot I can say with all certainty that no simulator can mimic the sheer terror of coming aboard a carrier on a dark stormy night under IFR conditions.  

Even the best full-flight simulators cannot replicate the emotions and physical stress inherent in flying a real aircraft knowing that any failure on the part of the pilot could end in tragedy. And it is those emotions that translate to a learning experience.  

It has been said that every flight is a learning experience. But that experience comes primarily in flying an actual aircraft. I believe that folks pushing for initial training in simulators have not taken into account the human psyche. Simulators do exactly that: simulate the same thing time and again; they are predictable. An aircraft is not.  

So how does all of this translate to pilot training? A few years ago, the Air Force came out with a Request for Information related to Contractor Undergraduate Pilot Training (CUPT). My company was deeply involved with this project and we gathered a team of highly experienced pilots to analyze how best to approach the training which involved both the T-6 and the T-38. At that time and even today, the Air Force emphasized the importance of proposing the use of virtual reality, augmented reality, and simulators. In conjunction to the electronic simulations, the Air Force was also looking at reducing the syllabus flight hours. The intent was to try and make up the nagging pilot shortage the Air Force has suffered for years. If the training process could be shortened, more pilots could be trained, and the pilot shortage would be solved.  

One of our team members had been a squadron commander of an F-16 training group. His take on shortening the training was based on his experience years before. He shared the fact that when the Air Force experimented with shortening the time spent in the “white” aircraft it resulted in redundant training in the very expensive “grey” aircraft. What may have sounded good on paper did not prove out in reality.  

Now back to General Brown’s statement that, “we don’t know how to take off and land.” Translate the fact that if an operational squadron lost an F-35 at $80 million in a pilot-induced landing or takeoff error, how many flight hours would that have paid for in even an old T-38? The answer: 8,000 hours and 34,800 hours in a T-6.   

When our team analyzed the CUPT project it became obvious why the Air Force needed to contract out flight training: they had run out of production facilities largely due to BRAC. The existing training bases were maxed out. Even with more instructors and more aircraft the existing AETC training bases and air space could not handle more traffic. So, the only solutions boiled down to changing the syllabus, substituting VR, AR and simulators for flight training or finding more training bases. Using contractor instructors for Air Force flight training was not a revolutionary idea. Civilian instructors trained a significant number of Air Force pilots during the Korean conflict.  

After some heated discussions, our group of very experienced pilots spanning both the military and commercial spectrum came to a consensus on how best to accomplish military pilot training, ideas of which translate to the civilian community as well.  

We were well aware of the fact that the Air Force was pushing for more simulator training primarily because it saved time and money. However, our group believed there was no substitute for flying an aircraft. We analyzed the Air Force flight syllabus and came up with some ideas that we believed would reduce the training time while at the same time reduce cost and increase “stick time.”   

Again, our shared experience came from pilots with thousands of hours of flight time both military and civilian. The consensus was that simulators indeed had an important place in training, but not in initial pilot training. We felt that the flight training background of some supervisors led them to believe the use of simulators by commercial airlines equated to pilot training in general. The airlines are not using simulators for initial pilot training, they are using simulators for flight checks, recurrent training, and transition training for pilots that have thousands of flight hours.  

In the CUPT offering, we came to some conclusions that we knew were valid and could save time and money. Most of us who had been military pilots realized that a good deal of the training could be accomplished in far less expensive aircraft while at the same time giving a bigger bang for the buck. Air Force pilots start their careers for the most part flying a simple single-engine propeller aircraft. During our planning it was discovered that the cost of actually flying a real aircraft was far less than the very expensive flight simulators that were being used. Our supposition was based on purchasing the identical aircraft the pilot candidates had already flown and soloed, using those same planes for many of the flight training evolutions that were currently being performed in the T-6. Our plan was to bid on the Air Force IFT program using the Cirrus TRAC which besides having state-of-the-art avionics was equipped with a full plane parachute.  

If the pilot candidates used a plane they had already qualified in there would be a considerable savings in time and money in the next flight evolution. And as a competitive contractor, saving time and money while at the same time producing a better product was the name of the game. So, we proposed using a like aircraft for instrument training. Again, capitalizing on the fact the pilots were already familiar with the flight characteristics of the plane so the transition would be remarkably simple and very cost-effective. It was generally agreed that flying an instrument pattern at 120kt vice 160kt was a non-factor. In fact, I might argue that a flight in a TRAC aircraft would cost less per hour than a flight in a T-6 simulator.  

Our group believed that the pilot candidate could start his UPT (Undergraduate Pilot Training) by first gaining an instrument rating in the TRAC or the Diamond. This training would be augmented with an instrument simulator. Next the student would be exposed to formation flying as relative speed information does not change whether going forward at 400 knots or 100 knots. Next, we would transition to low-level navigation. All of this training could be accomplished with a platform that cost about $170 an hour opposed to the T-6 at $2300 an hour or the T-38 at $10,000 an hour. The only thing we could not accomplish in the TRAC would be formation aerobatics. The T-6 would be used for that training. Utilizing the above scenario would save the T-6’s for what could not be done on a less-expensive aircraft. This would also significantly extend the service live of the T-6. Additionally, those pilots selected for transports would gain little from formation aerobatics.  

I have flown many airframes and it has always been my contention that most fly just about the same. I mean by this that if the airfoil stalls the plane stops flying. They all land about the same. Landing speeds and configurations might change, but all fixed-wing aircraft basically share the same lift over drag formula. In the Navy NIFE (Naval Introductory Flight Evaluation) program we give the students approximately 35 landings and takeoffs in the span of 9 hours. These students gain a lot of experience in this most dangerous realm of flight. When those students transition to the T-6 they will be very comfortable in the landing pattern.  

I don’t think I’ll ever forget one student who was on their first solo flight screaming over the radio that they could not land the aircraft. I stepped outside to observe the pilot as the Chief Instructor calmly got on the radio to talk the pilot down. It was obvious the pilot was flying the Cessna at far too high an airspeed. Once the pilot got the airspeed under control, the landing was perfect. If that pilot had been in a simulator that experience would have been lost.  

Although this discussion is aimed at ways to increase military pilot training in actual aircraft while at the same time-saving time and money in the training evolution the crux of the conversation is the same: nothing can replace actually flying the aircraft in initial flight training.