A thesis written by Major Michael D. Hays and presented to the faculty of the School of Advanced Airpower Studies, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, in June 2002 for completion of graduation requirements (Distribution A: Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited). Click HERE for a copy of the entire thesis.
Editor’s Comment: Frequently, we hear comments like “we should conduct pilot training the way the military does.” Implicit in this statement is that military pilot training simply emerged one hundred years ago in its present form and has never changed. Obviously, this is not the case. As we seek solutions to the current challenges of pilot training in general, perhaps we should examine how military pilot training continues to evolve in order to meet future pilot requirements. Particular attention should be paid to the role of the flight instructor, candidate selection, and Instructional Systems Development (ISD) in this process.
This study analyzes strategic issues in [U.S.] Air Force undergraduate pilot training (SUPT). After describing the key variables that determined pilot training’s historical development, the author assesses what type of training system, generalized or specialized, produces the best ratio of cost to effect. The conclusion is that the current specialized system is more responsive to disparate operational needs, better matches training media to task, and generates large cost savings for the Air Force. Next, the writer evaluates recent structural changes to SUPT and analyzes the pilot training systems of the US Navy and Israeli Air Force. Several broad conclusions emerge from these inquiries: the need to stabilize the still-maturing SUPT system; the potential benefits of improved candidate pre-selection methods; and, finally, the pivotal role of the instructor pilot in any training program’s success. The final chapter synthesizes the study’s findings and implications to suggest an optimal course for future Air Force pilot training.
At its outset, this study posed several strategic questions concerning the Air Force’s pilot training system. This concluding chapter summarizes and synthesizes the answers to those questions and describes their implications for what is arguably the Air Force’s most important training program. The conclusions fall broadly into the three categories identified in the study’s alliterative title, “Men, Machines, and Methods for Training Military Pilots” (of course, the term “men” in this case represents the gender-neutral, human element of pilot training).
Regarding method, in its turbulent first 50 years, Army and Air Force pilot training established a long-standing precedent of and preference for specialization. Diverse roles and missions for aircraft, such as pursuit and bombardment, emerged very early in airpower’s history. These missions required aircraft with increasingly specialized designs and performance characteristics. Pilots, in turn, needed specific skills and training in order to operate them. Determining the optimal point along the training continuum to begin mission-specific training was problematic but necessary and perhaps inevitable. Also, the World Wars’ staggering production demands necessitated that new pilots be deployable shortly after earning their wings, thereby requiring a deeper specialized taproot.
The availability of suitable training machines, however, largely determined the method used and the degree to which a specialized system could actually be implemented. In fact, the lack of a suitable heavy trainer to replace the TB-25 was actually a significant factor in the Air Force’s late 1950s decision to implement generalized, all-jet UPT. Similarly, SUPT’s early 1990s implementation was contingent on the Air Force’s acquisition of a new transport-type trainer, the T-1A. More recently, the services’ common need to replace their T-34C and T-37 primary trainers led to the joint acquisition of JPATS and the introduction of joint training into their respective programs.
As described in Chapter Three, the arrival of UPT’s generalized method was nearly coincident with the Air Force’s adoption of ISD as its official construct for designing training programs. Underlying tension between ISD and generalized UPT, T-38 life cycle concerns, and the potential to realize large cost savings eventually led the Air Force to acquire the T-1A and establish SUPT. This study concludes that specialized pilot training more closely aligns with ISD principles, saves the Air Force money, is inherently more capable of satisfying the disparate needs of gaining operational communities, and does not adversely affect force structure flexibility. SUPT is still a young system, however, and in the short time since its inception, its maturation process has been interrupted by a series of structural changes precipitated by external events and conditions. Chapter Four examined the genesis and effect of significant changes to two areas in particular: the flight screening process, and the composition of the SUPT instructor force.
After grounding its entire T-3A fleet in the aftermath of several mishaps, the Air Force screening program was in disarray for over one year. This study did not judge the soundness of the Air Force decision on the T-3A, but rather traced flight screening’s evolution in the Air Force, described its effects on pilot training attrition, assessed the efficacy of the current Introductory Flight Training (IFT) program, and determined whether a change was needed. Direct statistical correlations between various screening programs and pilot training attrition rates are difficult to establish (due to the multitude of variables involved). Nevertheless, this chapter concluded that flight screening programs, in general, have a positive effect on attrition and are a wise investment for the Air Force.
The IFT program itself was found to be a simple, effective, and low-cost replacement for the T-3A’s more demanding EFSP construct. In an ideal world, the Air Force would have a military-operated enhanced screening program in a more capable trainer. However, the added benefit of such a program does not presently warrant an effort to re-acquire a fleet of enhanced trainers or to re-train a cohort of military instructors. Too, that which originally gave impetus to the EFSP concept—the idea of making the student’s track determination before SUPT—was never instituted. IFT costs less than 40% of what EFSP did. The Air Force should invest a portion of these savings to improve its pilot recruitment and selection programs. Finally, preciously scarce military instructor pilots could, at present, be more profitably used to address manning problems in SUPT itself.
These same pilot-manning problems catalyzed the recently implemented ARC program, another significant structural change to SUPT. This creative initiative has, in fact, captured the experience of many separating active-duty pilots for at least part-time duty and mitigated the impact of the pilot exodus and manning crisis. This study found the Air Force, however, largely dismissive of this program’s less beneficial aspects. A large population of part-time instructors not under the command of the flying squadron commander causes continuity problems and a more disjointed training atmosphere. Active-duty instructors with recent major weapons system experience are pivotal in the process of mentoring and molding military pilots. Presently, part-time reservists and First Assignment Instructor Pilots (FAIPs) represent the majority of T-37 instructors. There is virtually no fighter presence in SUPT’s T-37 squadrons. While perhaps understandable given present manning constraints, cuts in these areas have an associated price. The Air Force has begun turning the corner with its pilot shortage. As that situation improves, Air Force leaders must make the strategically hard, but wise decisions to improve the composition and operational focus of the SUPT instructor force. If reservists are to remain a part of that force, only experienced, full-time Reservists should be used. The role and importance of dedicated, experienced instructors—the men—in SUPT’s future success cannot be overstated.
Findings in Chapter Five reinforced this conclusion. This chapter broadened the analytical scope by analyzing the US Navy and Israeli pilot training systems. Both of these systems provide additional examples of long-standing, effective specialized systems. The Navy’s program developed separately, but in parallel with the USAF system under similar contextual influences. Significantly, this separation ended recently with the introduction of joint pilot training (JSUPT), and the joint procurement of a common primary trainer, the T-6A. After analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of JSUPT, this chapter determined that the program’s benefits can be realized at its current, modest scale, and that operational pilot exchanges would be a better method to improve combat interoperability. Furthermore, any additional changes to SUPT must be balanced against the preferability of keeping students at a single training site, and the need to stabilize what is still a maturing system. Finally, the T-6A will be an excellent replacement for both services’ primary trainers, providing a solid training platform well into the 21st century.
An analysis of the IAF’s system also illuminated several valuable insights. Two areas emerged—both relating, again, to the importance of men in the training equation—as particularly relevant to the USAF. The rigors of Israel’s pre-selection process ensures only the very best enter training. That same process regards leadership potential at least as highly as a candidate’s aptitude for flight. The Air Force should invest some of the savings generated from IFT and SUPT to improve its own pre-selection mechanisms—the door to SUPT is also its primary leadership entrance. The IAF understands this fact quite well. Their instructor force, consisting solely of operationally-experienced pilots, recognizes and rewards leadership and initiative at all levels of training. They also strive to imbue their students with the warrior ethos. Of course, geopolitical necessity and a very proximate external threat fuel this process. While not sharing the same contextual imperatives, the USAF could only benefit by applying some of the IAF’s training principles to SUPT.
With recent T-38 upgrades, and the acquisition of JPATS and the T-1A, the Air Force has a solid fleet of training machines to support SUPT’s specialized method well into the future. The single most important factor in SUPT’s future success, however, is not machines or methods, but men. Indeed, the quality of pilot candidates and the character of SUPT instructors will largely determine SUPT’s success. If led and managed properly, the Air Force’s most cherished training program will continue to produce superb pilots and leaders to ensure its dominance well into the 21st century.
About the Author
Major Michael D. Hays is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University and was commissioned through Officer Training School in 1988. Graduating from Specialized Undergraduate Navigator Training in 1989, he was assigned to the EC-130 in Germany and participated in the Gulf War. In 1992, Major Hays was selected for Undergraduate Pilot Training. Earning his wings in 1993, he went on to fly the F-16 at Hill AFB, Utah and later instructed at Luke AFB, Arizona. At the time of this thesis, Major Hays was a senior pilot with over 1300 hours. He has a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in Military Art and Science from Air University at Maxwell AFB, Al. Major Hays was assigned to the USAFE staff after completing SAAS. He retired from the USAF as a Colonel in July 2010.