Rebuilding the Forge: Reshaping How the Air Force Trains Fighter Aviators

Pilot Training Next edited

The U.S. Air Force’s pilot training system has long been the envy of air forces around the world, but for the past several years it has failed to keep pace with increasing production requirements. Furthermore, the current training model is facing a widening gap between the capabilities of our primary training aircraft and the advanced fighter aircraft our pilots now employ. To close this gap, the current system has required the use of retraining programs and extended formal training courses that increase both the duration and cost of a new fighter pilot’s training.

New capabilities, such as the broad proliferation of airborne data links, and dramatic improvements in aircraft sensors, have seen the pilot’s role evolve from that of heavy equipment operator to a system manager, aerial tactician, and team leader. Given the magnitude of Air Force pilot production shortfalls, and the opportunity presented by a new trainer that will finally replace our half-century old T-38 trainer aircraft, the Air Force has an opportunity to radically overhaul its entire pilot production paradigm. My team and I have been working on a fighter aviator-training paradigm that will produce a larger number of better-trained pilots, and ultimately build a readier, and more lethal fighter force.

For context, the Air Force has consistently under-produced fighter pilots for the last two decades and is now well over a thousand short of requirements. In addition to pilot production shortfalls, retention rates for fully trained pilots have been beneath Air Force targets for years. Even aggressive enhancements to the past two rounds of incentive payment programs and changes to assignment and development processes are still failing to meet retention targets. In short, we are not making new fighter pilots fast enough, and we are not keeping enough of those we do make in the force.

Retention shortfalls have multiple contributors and this review only touches the most prominent. First, since the end of the Cold War, the Air Force’s combat forces have gotten smaller and smaller, and the forces that remain have faced continuously increased operations tempo to satisfy increased mission requirements.

Second, the major airlines are in a hiring surge and can offer financial compensation and family stability that the military cannot compete with. Finally, combat squadrons are operating at high tempo when not deployed (multiple squadron surveys show fighter pilots have average “work weeks” of between 50 to 60 hours per week). This is necessary to receive and train large numbers of inexperienced pilots, while still accomplishing the advanced tactical training required to prevail against the advanced threats posed by Russia or China.

In our all-volunteer force, a challenging retention environment combined with production shortfalls is a sure-fire recipe for a manning crisis. Solutions to this crisis should address both fighter pilot production and fighter pilot retention because these issues are inextricably linked. To be effective, a solution must address production, and the seasoning process, and allow front-line combat units to attain a higher quality of training at a more sustainable operations tempo.

The Air Force needs to approach how it produces, develops, and sustains fighter pilots differently. It needs to harvest the potential offered by technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality to train better. The Air Force needs to insert technology that emulates advanced mission systems (radars, datalinks, and electro- optical targeting devices) into the early stages of fighter aviators’ training so that they can develop the skill sets they’ll need to help them succeed. Where possible, the Air Force should shift skills and training events from expensive combat aircraft into a less expensive platform so that new aviators can train more at a lower cost. And we need to do all of this while ensuring that it all contributes to a more ready and lethal Air Force.

Taking advantage of the new T-X trainer — which is so much more than simply a pilot trainer replacement for the aging T-38 Talon — and the lessons being learned through the Air Force’s “Pilot Training Next” experiment, it’s time to rebuild the forge that produces fighter aviators, particularly pilots, from the ground up.

Figure 1: The two production-representative prototypes of the Air Force’s new T-X trainer that will enter operational service in the early 2020s (Image: Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs)

The Legacy Pipeline

The way the Air Force trains aviators has its roots in the training architecture that was built to churn out aviators in World War II. Pilot training in the 1930s lasted 12 months — and, despite the proliferation of GPS, glass cockpits, autopilots, and digitally aided flight controls — it still lasts 12 months today. All aircrew earn their wings through Undergraduate Flight Training. Whether they will fly a fighter, bomber, transport, tanker, or rescue aircraft, all student pilots go through 12 months of training. They begin with two months of “Phase I” ground training, ranging from aerospace physiology to aircraft systems to weather. Then all pilots move on to “Phase II” where they spend five months learning basic aircraft and formation handling in a T-6 Texan II, a two-seat turboprop used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marines for basic pit training. At that point, pilots assigned to fighters and bombers go on to “Phase III” training for another five months, essentially re-learning and refining the T-6 course of instruction in higher performing, supersonic T-38s. Pilots bound for other aircraft go on to a representative lead-in aircraft such as the T-1 Jayhawk or a helicopter for Phase 3. Upon successful completion of Phase III, all pilots earn their wings. Aircrew assigned to Undergraduate Navigator Training follow a similar path to multi-seat combat aircraft.

Figure 2: The T-6 Texan II (left) has been training student pilots since 2001 with modern avionics and a glass cockpit. The T-38 Talon (right) has provided a high-performance trainer — with no modern avionics — since 1959. (U.S. Air Force photo/T-6 and T-38 Fact Sheets)

The Texan II is decades newer than the T-38 Talon, which is more than twice the age of the average student flying it. When it was produced, the Talon’s similarities to the fighter planes it trained pilots for made it an excellent pilot training platform. Compare the legacy Talon cockpit with a contemporary fighter of the 1960’s — the F-105 “Thunderchief, or “Thud.” The Thud pilot’s job was to fly a high-performance aircraft with aeronautical characteristics similar to a Talon, navigate, and manage confederated aircraft sensor and systems without automation to reduce pilot workload. A pilot graduating from the Talon to the Thud had to learn new skills, but would only have to learn a few electronic systems such as the AN/ASG-19 radar. The leap from the supersonic trainer to the supersonic fighter was therefore a manageable one. Today’s fighter pilot must leap from the same supersonic trainer to a 4th or 5th generation fighter with flight characteristics very different from a T-38 and requires them to manage dozens of new tasks, from new sensors to smart weapons employment. The magnitude of this transition drives costs by reducing the carryover from basic to advanced training and forcing more of what could be learned in basic training into expensive advanced fighters.

Figure 3: A T-38A Talon cockpit (left) and an F-105 Thud cockpit (right). The prominence of navigation instruments is apparent in both, with the F-105 also adding a radar scope for the pilot to manage. (U.S. Air Force photos, T-38 credit Tech. Sgt. Javier Cruz)

Only a decade after the Talon became the standard trainer for future fighter pilots, fighter tactics had become complex enough to warrant an additional training phase sandwiched between receiving wings and beginning training in a fighter. Since 1969, fighter aviators have accomplished an Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals course after completing undergraduate flying training. Consolidated introductory training is conducted in separate squadrons, and perhaps separate bases, than undergraduate pilot training, requiring an additional move for a student and family. Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals currently employs the T-38C, an upgraded Talon that provides a slightly more capable and reliable trainer aircraft but is still only capable of introducing students to the most basic fighter tactics.

In this course, students execute syllabi tailored to the aircraft the student is headed towards — the syllabus for an F- 15C Eagle or F-22 Raptor-bound student is different than the multi-role F-16, F-35 or F-15E syllabus, which is different from the A-10 course. The Talon performs more like a 1950-s era fighter than a modern fighter and is unable to present a student pilot with any of the systems, sensors, or weapons that modern fighter tactics are based on. In fact, learning to manage the many sensors, radios, and data links required to fight as part of a team provides most of the challenges that new fighter aviators must master to become effective.

Those systems and sensors, once so expensive that they could only be hosted on fighters, can today be emulated aboard the T-X for a fraction of the cost. Comparing the cockpit of a T-X to an F-35 Lightning II illustrates the changes. Today’s aviators employ their aircraft through Hands-on-Throttle-and- Stick (HOTAS) controls, menus and integrated displays. The airplane does not fly itself, but the preponderance of the fighter pilots’ job is operating their aircraft and systems rather than just flying it.

Figure 4: A T-X cockpit (left) and an F-35 Lightning II cockpit (right). Navigation and system monitoring are greatly simplified by automation, leaving the pilot free to operate either “virtual” sensors in the T-X or actual sensors in the F-35.

Beyond Fighter Fundamentals: Years of Churn

When today’s student aviator completes IFF, they can expect to relocate their families again for between six and eight months of training — finally in their fighter — at a “Formal Training Unit” (FTU). FTUs put brand new flying training graduates through a “basic” course, some six to eight months in length, producing qualified but inexperienced fighter aviators. FTUs also run shorter “transition” courses, where experienced fighter aviators learn a new aircraft or return to a fighter after some time outside of a flying assignment. The FTU enterprise represents a massive service investment that assigns around a quarter of all Air Force fighters to non-combat training squadrons.

After the aircrew completes FTU, they pack and move again to their new combat squadron as an inexperienced wingman. They are not yet qualified to go to war. To become “Mission Ready” for combat, they require an additional one to three months of local training. Most combat squadrons receive batches of new FTU graduates every three to four months, which requires a constant squadron training focus on the basic mission qualification syllabus.

After an additional year of seasoning, these wingmen will undergo a training “upgrade” from wingman to “flight lead” to command a formation of two aircraft, with a second upgrade months later preparing them to lead a four aircraft formation. This steady churn of basic qualification and upgrade training dominates the peacetime schedule of a fighter squadron.

Further increasing the training burden are the “direct support” sorties that require squadrons training for aerial combat to provide their own adversary aircraft. While some F-22 squadrons use T-38s as dedicated adversaries, and the Air Force is investing over 100 million dollars annually to rent adversary jets from private contractors, most squadrons must allocate a number of their own fighter sorties to role-play an adversary force for squadron mates to spar with. Every direct support sortie flown is one less sortie available for advanced training.

Figure 5: Two F-22 Raptors and a T-38 Talon from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, fly together during a 43rd Fighter Squadron Basic Course training mission Oct. 7, 2013 over Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. J. Wilcox)

With such a high demand for sorties to qualify and upgrade new wingman, it’s hard for squadrons to find the time required to focus on the advanced tactics that will give them the edge in a fight against the emerging threats presented by China or Russia. A typical fighter squadron spends about 25 percent of its allocated sorties on upgrade training and an additional 40 percent flown in “direct support,” either acting as adversaries or as the additional formation members required to support training of new or upgrading pilots. That means that most of a fighter squadron’s time is spent repetitively training in basic tactics, limiting the time available to dedicate to advanced tactics.

Enter the T-X

Before the T-X, this was simply a fact of life for the Air Force’s training methodology. The Talon couldn’t replicate modern systems and sensors, so students had to get their first taste of those things in the only place they could — modern fighters. The inefficiencies in this paradigm are clear. Because trainer aircraft did not evolve to keep pace with fighters, fighter aircrew had to learn elements of their craft sequentially — in three different aircraft and three different training programs — rather than simultaneously.

The breaks in training and expense of shifting a new pilot across five squadrons at three bases also takes a toll on the quality and pace of pilot production. For every three fighters the taxpayer buys to meet our defense commitments, they must buy another to support introductory training that our dedicated training aircraft can’t provide. Of the fighter forces that are available for combat, around two thirds of their time is spent on basic training rather than the advanced training required to ensure our aircrew are the best in the world. This is incompatible with our imperative to become readier and more lethal in fights against peer adversaries.

The pending introduction of a new fast-jet trainer provides an opportunity to change. The Boeing/Saab T-X that won the Air Force competition to replace the T-38 brings capabilities that the Talon never had. The Talon was conceived as a pilot trainer. The T-X is a mission trainer that will employ software to emulate some of the advanced sensors and systems that modern fighter tactics depend on. This allows the Air Force to keep the T-X continually refreshed with capabilities that allow a student to carry relevant skills learned in the T-X to their fighter.

This technological leap offers a truly unique opportunity to accelerate aviator production while directly contributing to more — and readier — combat units. With the T-X, a student doesn’t need to sequentially learn how to fly a high-performance aircraft and then learn sensors, systems, and tactics. They can forego a training syllabus that is an accumulation of compromises performed in a dated aircraft in favor of direct entry to tactical training in missions such as air combat maneuvering, close air support, surface attack, defensive counter air, and support to search and rescue.

The Proposal: Rebuilding the Forge

The re-forged model would repurpose Phase III of UFT, awarding pilot wings earlier after a phase II built on the lessons AETC is learning in UPT-Next. Phase III, essentially the first step of an apprenticeship into fighters, would occur after a new pilot gained wings. After learning to fly the T-X at the same training base, fighter-bound students would be re-assigned and enter tactical training in the T-X at a fighter base. IFF would be eliminated and students would proceed directly to a more robust apprenticeship in the T-X that qualifies them to execute realistic fighter tactics, first as a wingman, then as a flight lead, and possibly as an instructor in the last year of a tour in the T-X.

Having gained exposure and experience in each of the tactical missions, and having opportunities to both follow and lead, they will not need a long, costly transition into their eventual frontline fighter. This would allow the FTU to forego its “basic” course and convert all new pilots through a shorter transition course syllabus, and might allow us to forgo all FTU training and replace it with local aircraft checkouts at operational bases. Because the T-X can absorb, or “left-load” so much of the FTU syllabus, conversion courses will only teach the elements that are absolutely unique to the fighter itself. The T-X pilot will not need an introduction to night vision goggles, air refueling intercepts, or building-block tactical missions, having become proficient in each of them already as both a wingman and a flight lead.

In addition to flying and leading “blue force” sorties that accelerate fighter aircrew seasoning, the T-X can take over providing some or all of “adversary” aircraft requirements for nearby fighter units, allowing operational units to invest far more of their own sorties towards blue force training. This accelerated seasoning and increased adversary air sortie generation is possible because the T-X’s lower operating cost — presently expected to be less than half the cost per hour of a 4th generation fighter, and perhaps a fifth the cost of a 5th generation fighter — allows the pilots to train more for the same, or less, cost. Finally, because new fighter aircrew will arrive with more hours and more qualifications, the fighter squadron can shift its training emphasis away from basic qualification events to focus on countering advanced threats.

The model presented is well validated by other Air Forces, Israel and Finland among them. Finnish fighter squadrons don’t just have fighters — the 21st Fighter Squadron at Tampere had F-18C/D fighters, but also basic trainers (the Valmet Vinka & Aermacchi M-290), utility aircraft (Piper Chieftain) and Mk. 51 Hawk fast jets for fighter lead in, advanced training and adversary air. The Israeli Air Force employs the Leonardo M-346 to achieve similar efficiencies. That model provides flexibility and efficiency not currently matched by the U.S. Air Force, and provides personnel stability through long assignments to a single base. Instead of moving from UFT to the FTU, and again from the FTU to a fighter squadron, students and families would only move once from UFT to the T-X squadron that is down the street from their fighter squadron. This will provide more stability for families, better employment and education options for spouses and children, and accelerate the aircrew member’s integration into the tempo and culture of a fighter squadron.

Figure 6: A comparison of the traditional fighter development timeline with the proposed path. Note one less break in training. Also, time to “deployable” increases, but time to “experienced” decreases. This reflects a generally more experienced fighter force composed of forced more able to focus on high-end training (Author’s work).

We expect the new process to save time and reduce the number of front-line fighter aircraft dedicated to FTU training. As the T-X allows FTUs to offset much — or perhaps all — of their basic course, the Air Force has an opportunity to convert FTU squadrons back into combat squadrons. Considering the number of aircraft presently invested in FTU squadrons, if only half of the basic course instruction was left-loaded into the T-X, the Air Force could convert four fighter and attack squadrons from training-coded to combat-coded, helping to reverse the decline in combat force structure and build toward the Air Force we need.

Making it Work

The T-X program is well postured to enable this shift in training paradigms. Software can allow the displays and system functions to mimic those of the co-located fighter, radically easing a pilot’s conversion back-and-forth. With options already considered in the T-X design and contract, the T-X can provide the live, virtual constructive training that provides both a true mission trainer and a viable adversary aircraft for our fighters. This paradigm shift doesn’t require significant new investment because it does not disrupt the program of record design for T-X or eliminate T-X at training bases. There may be some cost required to spread the T-X role beyond centralized UFT activities; costs that can be reduced with advanced planning.

By following a version of this proposal, the Air Force can radically reshape the way we train, season, and support the Air Force fighter enterprise, producing more and better pilots by reducing the time between the day a new student shows up for flying training and the day that former student is mission-ready in a front-line fighter aircraft. By consolidating and streamlining the training path, new students can spend more time flying combat-relevant training missions and less time shifting between bases and relearning basic functions in new aircraft, all while flying more at lower cost. By taking advantage of the new capabilities inherent in the T-X, we can make a larger leap to reshape the entire fighter training enterprise and rebuild the forge in which we temper the world’s greatest combat aviators.


Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes is the commander of Air Combat Command, responsible for over 158,000 total force military and civilian personnel operating 1100 aircraft in 1371 units at more than 315 operating locations worldwide. He was previously the vice commander of Air Education and Training Command and has commanded both an undergraduate flying training Group and a formal training unit Wing. Gen. Homes is a graduate of the Air Force Weapons Instructor Course and is a command pilot who has flown every variant of the F-15, accumulating more than 4000 hours and 530 combat hours over Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Sean M. Worrell