The U.S. Air Force is gearing up to make a critical investment in new training systems for pilots and aircrew in a decision that will shape flight training for decades. As competing concerns help mold the decision-making process, we must ensure pilots’ training needs are prioritized.
The Air Force is planning to replace Northrop Grumman’sT-38C Talon, in use since 1959, with advanced training aircraft and training simulators. Initial funding is expected soon for a contract that could total $17 billion, say some estimates.
The investment will be made through the Air Force’s T-X program, officially titled the Advanced Pilot Training Family of Systems Program. Air Force officials have begun meeting with industry about how the program will proceed, and various top companies are expected to bid for the contract.
For those unfamiliar with Air Force flight training, pilots and aircrew undergo rigorous training on flight simulators and training aircraft before they get in the cockpit of the actual tactical aircraft. The T-X program will provide new training systems to prepare pilots to fly F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and other tactical aircraft, such as the F-22, F-15 and F-16.
As a former naval flight officer, I understand how critical it is that pilots’ training be fully addressed in flight-training systems. Whether it takes the form of knowledge of aircraft instruments, basic flight maneuvers or in-flight refueling, training must fully prepare aircrew for whatever a flight may bring.
Yet a draft version of requirements for T-X bidders, released by the Air Force in October, raised some questions. This draft required bidders’ aircraft to be capable of sustaining 6.5 Gs for no less than 15 seconds using no more than 15 degrees nose low attitude. That’s the technical way of indicating the intensity of G-forces a pilot may undergo in a given aircraft.
However, this seems inadequate given that pilots are preparing to fly planes — including the F-22 and F-35A — capable of subjecting pilots to much higher G-forces. The actual jet can subject pilots to as much as 9 Gs in a level turn. It would seem that the sustained G level in the draft requirements — known as key performance parameters and key system attributes — fall short of what pilots truly need to be exposed to in training.
It is understandable that there would be hesitation over setting the sustained-G requirement at9 Gs. Setting too high a standard for the training aircraft could exclude some manufacturers from bidding for the contract, which would limit essential competition in the bidding process.
But we cannot be satisfied with tailoring the requirements to what aircraft manufacturers can provide, because that could leave pilots in the lurch. After all, pilots not adequately prepared to withstand G-forces are at risk of losing consciousness in the cockpit.
The good news is that there is a simple solution to ensuring pilots will have access to adequate training systems, while preserving competition in the bidding process. It requires only that we discard an outdated mentality: that all tactical training requirements must be met by means of an aircraft.
The reality today is that ground-based flight training systems provide training capabilities some training aircraft cannot offer. We should be open to the possibility that certain parameters can be met by motion-based flight simulators, which can enhance combat readiness by complementing training aircraft. High-sustained Gs and G on demand, for example, can be done in a ground-based system. The cost benefits of flight simulators are already well-established: The Air Force estimates it could save $1.7 billion over five years by reducing flying hours by 5 percent and downloading more flight training to simulators. The Air Force will acquire flight simulators as part of the T-X program, gaining lower-cost training hours as well as training capabilities for certain procedural skills.
Fortunately, members of Congress are beginning to recognize that the benefits of advanced flight simulators go beyond cost efficiency. The National Defense Authorization Act passed in January included language instructing the Defense Department to provide a study of ground-based trainers capable of sustained-G flight training. The study is expected to focus on not only cost and safety benefits, but also benefits to readiness. The Congressional Modeling and Simulation Caucus now has more than two dozen members.
As the T-X program moves forward, officials will hear from many voices about how to best proceed. We must find a way to ensure the 9-sustained-G capability is part of the training requirements, since that is what pilots truly need. Ensuring pilots training needs are met should be the top priority.
Ken Ginader is director of business development for Environmental Tectonics Corporation, which makes high performance motion systems for tactical flight training. A retired U.S. Navy captain and F-14 Tomcat aviator, he was an instructor at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, TOPGUN.