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What’s Happening to Air Force Pilot Training

By: Col. Marc E. Caudill, USAF (Ret)

An Airman assigned to the 36th Fighter Wing uses virtual reality during exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Andrew Kobialka)

There is an old saying:  You can’t go home again. Usually, this phrase is associated with the feeling one gets when visiting a childhood home or school, reminiscing and realizing just how much things have changed. For many of us who won the coveted silver wings of a U.S. Air Force pilot in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and most of the 1990s, we too may feel we can’t go home again to our past days of UPT, especially in light of the most recent 21st-century changes and proposals.   

For nearly 30 years, everyone who won their wings went through nearly an identical training pipeline: flight screening program, followed by UPT phase I academics, phase II primary flight instruction in the T-37B Tweet, and phase III advanced flight instruction in the T-38A Talon. How many of us can remember meeting our fellow classmates for the first time, or together, designing our class patch? Who can forget the memories of the intense morning stand-ups, serving to transform young officers with little or no flight experience into skilled and pressure-hardened military pilots? Then, once Tweet complete, “crossing the hall” to master the “white rocket!” One thing is for sure: everyone who won their wings during this time period experienced their “jet age” rite of passage by maneuvering a supersonic aircraft through the sound barrier on the famous “zoom and boom” ride. In fact, I had the privilege of being one of the T-38 instructors for the last UPT class in the Air Force at Columbus Air Force Base in 1997. Back then when you looked at the wings of a fellow air force pilot, you knew exactly what he or she had gone through to earn those silver wings. After 1997, this was no longer the case.   

Beginning with the standup of Specialized UPT (SUPT) in 1992 the traditional pipeline was replaced with a dual-track, specialized flight training system. A student’s performance in primary training would dictate which track he or she would fall under. Those students who were to be tracked tanker/transport would go off to train in the newly acquired T-1A Jayhawk, while fighter/bomber students remained in an enhanced T-38 syllabus. Moreover, between 1994-2013, under a version of Joint SUPT (JSUPT) at Vance Air Force Base, a student tracked for a C-130 following primary training would go off to complete his/her training with the U.S. Navy in the T-44 Pegasus or C-12 Huron never seeing the Jayhawk. In short, SUPT was designed initially to preserve the lifespan of the T-38 while providing more detailed training to those aforementioned flying groups. I remember way back when, in discussions/debates with my peers, noting the tradeoffs of the two programs but, in the end, believing the overall product to be just as good as the original 1960s UPT program—just different. Now, flash forward to today, some 30 years post-J/SUPT, as we progress further into the new century, we see an air force still plagued with budget strangulation; fleets of Cold War-era aircraft long past their prime, and an inability to produce the annual number of required pilots—a deficit of nearly 2,000 pilots per year. If the Air Force is to meet these 21st-century challenges, it must adapt, modernize, and capitalize on the latest technologies in order to recruit, train, and retain the next generation of air force pilots.   

Well, this is what the air force is doing. The newest buzzwords around air education and training command are Pilot Training Next (PTN) or UPT 2.0. In a March 2020 Air Force Magazine article titled, “USAF brings Pilot Training Next to Regular Training in Experimental Curriculum,” author Jennifer-Leigh Oprihany provides us with the Air Force’s insights into this latest innovation to pilot training. To summarize, this experimental program is designed to shift the paradigm from the traditional syllabus-based training to one more focused on producing pilots in an accelerated and more learning-focused manner, reducing dependence on training in the T-1. PTN will capitalize on the newest technologies to improve simulations and artificial intelligence instruction for use on the flight line or—in one’s room! Yes, a student can have access to the virtual training in his/her quarters. There is no question this training will save precious resources of money and time. As an example, cited in the article, two PTN students capitalizing on these new technologies were able to solo in four aircraft sorties, down from the previous average of 10-15 sorties. Moreover, the AETC commander outlined the potential to have a future mobility student graduate in as little as nine months, slashing the time from the traditional 12. Leadership is still assessing how PTN might influence the future of the fighter/bomber pipeline.    

Then there is UPT “2.5.” In March 2021, the first class of 10 students, utilizing the T-6 Texan II, earned their wings in only seven months—five months earlier than the 50-year-old, traditional UPT/SUPT syllabus allows. Employing the concepts of PTN: remote learning, virtual instruction, and immersive training devices, these students will be ready to complete follow-on training sooner than their predecessors, with the end result remaining the same—a shorter more productive course.    

Additionally, the Air Force is exploring the possibility of acquiring more civilian pilots, and after a short indoctrination, a series of evaluations, get them their wings in a shorter time or, perhaps, in some cases, bypass initial flight training altogether. Furthermore, the Air Force is looking to utilize more civilian pilots on the instructor end of the flight training equation by exploring the notion of contract UPT (CUPT), government-owned contractor-operated (GOCO) UPT, contractor instructor pilot (CIP)/contractor simulator instructor (CSI) among some of its other evolutionary initiatives. The result of these combined initiatives could produce an additional 200 pilots per year over five years.   

I began this article with the phrase “you can’t go home again,” but there is another old saying which can apply as well, “nothing stays the same.” For me, completing UPT in 1990 and serving as a T-38IP for most of the 1990s, looking at these experimental training initiatives makes me think about how it used to be and how things have changed. However, I realize that perspective is a bit flawed, because, when you look at UPT/SUPT today, the overall program hasn’t changed very much in 50-plus years. The same pilot training system in place to train pilots destined for 1960-70s Vietnam, 1990 Gulf War, and the 2001 Global War on Terror is still in place today. Yes, UPT gave way to SUPT in the 1990s and brought us the T-1A. It also retired the T-37B and replaced it with the T-6 Texan II in 2008. Since then, there have been modifications to the different syllabi, but the basic training structure and methodology haven’t changed much in as many generations. So, in this case, UPT/SUPT has lasted forever and it is time to facilitate change, or as current Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, has stated, “accelerate change or lose.” 

I think we can all agree what really matters most is the air force must continue to produce the highest quality pilots who can fly, fight, and win the aerial conflicts of today and tomorrow and dominate the 3-D battlespace. Just as my peers and I debated the tradeoffs of UPT vs. SUPT, there will be tradeoffs associated with these new initiatives as well. For example, I will always believe the best training occurs in the airplane, in the real, dynamic, flight environment, but current realities no longer support that training paradigm. If virtual reality and artificial intelligence can supplement what we can no longer accomplish realistically, with the same or greater quality, then we must evolve to that. In the end, we must never sacrifice quality training for the sake of budgetary concerns or expediency, and while the ultimate success of the experimental programs of PTN or UPT 2.5 has yet to materialize. I believe the air force will have sufficient data and analytics to determine the proper way forward.  Regarding assessing more civilian pilots, I offer this:  I came to UPT in December of 1989 with an aviation degree, an FAA commercial-instrument rating, and nearly 300 hours of total flight time and I needed every bit of those 52-weeks to develop the DNA of an air force pilot. This DNA is the sum of all the learning, syllabus training, and totality of all ones’ experiences. I remember learning a great deal about military flying and the air force from the flight instructors with whom I didn’t fly: the former T-33 instructor, the B-57 pilot, the F-4 pilot with experience in Vietnam, and the C-141 aircraft commander. Their experiences, insights, and words were just as crucial to my military pilot development, the formulation of my air force pilot DNA, as the formal syllabus rides and instruction from my assigned instructors. Going forward, I hope we work to preserve our military pilot culture and air force heritage (our air force pilot DNA), regardless of the various proposed initiatives, as we evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century.