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  • Writer's pictureFrank Visser

2022 Team XL

For over 80 years Laughlin AFB has played an important role in training pilots. Since 1972 the 47th Flying Training Wing is stationed here and specialized in undergraduate pilot training. Frank Visser visited the base and spoke with its new commander.

Laughlin AFB

Named after Del Rio’s first World War II casualty (Lt Jack Thomas Laughlin) the construction of Laughlin Army Air Field, near the Mexican border started in 1942. In October of that year the field was activated and became a school for bombardiers. During the Winter of 1943 flying training started and the field was re-designated Army Air Forces Transition Flying School and became the first B-26 “Marauder“ pilot school. Soon this name was changed into Laughlin Army Air Field. Just after the war in 1945 the airfield was closed and seven years later it was reopened as Laughlin Air Force Base. The 3645th Flying Training Wing (FTW) was activated and pilot training started on the Lockheed F-80 “Shooting Star”, the T-33 and the Republic F-84 “Thunderjet”. In 1957 the 3645th FTW was inactivated as the Strategic Air Command moved its 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing to Laughlin, with their Lockheed U-2A and Martin RB-57D “Canberra”. The U-2s of the 4080th played an important role in the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Alongside the then called 4080th Strategic Wing, the 3645th Pilot Training Wing (PTW) was reactivated to start training pilots on the Cessna T-37 and Lockheed T-33 trainers. In 1963 the 4080th SW stopped its activities at Laughlin AFB. The 47th FTW was reactivated and redesignated in 1972 at Laughlin AFB, replacing the 3645th PTW. Since that day the Wing has conducted Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) for the USAF on the T-37 and Northrop T-38A “Talon”. In 1994 the Raytheon T-1A “Jayhawk” enter service with the 47th FTW. Nowadays the Wing operates three types of aircraft: The T-1A, T-6A and T-38C.

47th Flying Training Wing

- 85th Flying Training Squadron “Tigers” T-6A

- 86th Flying Training Squadron “Rio Lobos” T-1A

- 87th Flying Training Squadron “Redbulls” T-38C

- 434th Flying Training Squadron “Red Devils" T-6A

- 96th Flying Training Squadron “Willy” * * This is a reserve associate squadron of the 47th FTW, which borrows the T-1A,T-6A and T-38C from the other squadrons.

Main task

In July 2022 Col Kevin A. Davidson took over the command of the 47th FTW, which is one of five pilot training units within the Air Education Training Command (AETC). This wing is specialized in Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) for the United States Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard and allied nation air forces and operates the Raytheon T-1A, Beechcraft T-6A and Northrop

T-38C. Col Davidson explains: “Our pilot training process has gone through a transition over the last

couple of years. The AETC is exhilarating change to produce pilots that are really ready for 5th generation and 6th generation future clients.” Today students receive their wing after completing the T-6A “Texan II” program, instead of completing the whole pilot training course like in the past decades. From there the Wing prepares the pilots for their follow-on training on the T-1A or T-38C. As the students arrive at Laughlin AFB for their UPT, they go through a two months academics and ground training, which is called phase one. They then go to phase two, which takes about five months. Here they learn to fly the Beechcraft T-6A “Texan II”, with an additional 100 hours of academics.

The commander of the 47th FTW is Col Kevin A. Davidson. He has over 2,800 flying hours, including over 450 combat hours. Photo: 47th FTW

Within these 100 hours about 50 hours are done with so-called immersive training devices. After completing the T-6A program the student pilots are rewarded with their wings and become Air Force pilots and are either selected for Mobility Air Forces or Command Air Forces. Students therefore split-up in two different phases of training, which both take about six months. The traditional Raytheon T-1A training is now called Air Mobility Fundamentals.

The Raytheon T-1A “Jayhawk” is one of three aircraft types used by the 47th FTW. The USAF ordered a total of 180 T-1As.

Col. Davidson: ”Pilots that continue this training still fly the Raytheon T-1A, but the emphasis on the T-1A is more on preparing the pilots for next phase of their training as they move to aircraft like the KC-46.” Pilots that move onto the Northrop T-38C still follow a fighter base program, but its less on qualifying on the T-38 and more focused on training the pilots to become a 5th gen fighter or bomber pilot. For this the overall amount of flying hours has been the same over the last years. Although the amount of flying hours for the T-6A have been increased and the flying hours for the T-1A and T-38C have been slightly lowered. Col Davidson: “We are still focussed on the high standard and in fact the syllabus increases not just the numbers of hours of training but also increases the standard level for certain activities. So, we try to produce a competent critical thinking pilot, that has the competence capability for the 5th generation battlespace.” Under the previous syllabus student pilots learned a script they had to fly and essentially students knew what they were going to do, from taxiing all the way to landing. Col Davidson: “Now we teach them to plan for that and we change the plan at the desk or we change the plan in the air.” The student has to adapt and overcome while they are learning the skills that go into that. As 5th generation fighters, like the Lockheed Martin F-22A and F-35A, have been around for some years the Wing has received experienced 5th generation pilots, who have become instructor pilots. They help in shaping some of the requirements of the training program. VR Virtual Reality (VR) training has taken off in recent years. Col Davidson: “The new program for the T-6A “Texan II” trainer incorporates about 65 hours of what we call immersive training devices (ITD). ITD is a VR headset, where the student sits in a cockpit like seat with a stick and a throttle.

Raytheon T-1A “Jayhawk”, with serial 91-0086/XL is painted in these special heritage colours.

The Raytheon T-1A “Jayhawk” has been in service with the AETC for 30 years.

As a Beechcraft T-6A “Texan II” of the 434th FTS “Red Devils” taxies by, this Raytheon T-1A “Jayhawk” of the 86th FTS “Rio Lobos” is ready for its next mission.

This provides the student with some physical feedback and the ITD also gives the student the visual feedback with 360 degrees viewing of the flight parameters. It also gives some multi kind of capability as different ITD’s can be connected so students can fly a mission together and for instance train formation flying or train communications in this virtual environment. Col Davidson: “What we have seen as a product of that is in the previous syllabus it would take five to six rides for a student to be able to land the airplane effectively. Nowadays with ITD it gives the students all the visual references to perform their first landing during their first flight.” ITD also helps students in training formation flying. As students today are more adept to video games, they quickly pick up a lot of those video references and therefore can manage formation flying way better now, than students from the past. Col Davidson: “Last April the first ITD’s were introduced in the T-38 program. This also included very similar training environment as on the T-6. The T-1 program will begin to use the Air Mobility Fundamental Sims as part of their training program.” He continues: “We also connected some ITD’s to Air Traffic Control (ATC), so the students could train with real ATC. We gained some valuable lessons from this, but we have to do some more work on that.”

Student perspective

After completing phase one, the academic phase, all student pilots move to phase two and start flying the Beechcraft T-6A “Texan II”. At Laughlin AFB two Flying Training Squadrons are flying this type. The 85th FTS “Tigers” and the “Red Devils” of 434th FTS. One of the student pilots is Lt Joshua Goodwin, one of 20 students in his class and flying with the 434th FTS. “I am in my second block of phase two. The first block, which takes up to a month and a half to two months we are trained to fly the T-6A and therefore this first block also has around 15 sim flights.” According to Lt Goodwin.

The 47th FTW has two Beechcraft T-6A “Texan II” squadrons. This example is operated by the 85th FTS, called “Tigers”.

After completing the first block the actual flying begins. Lt Goodwin has been flying the T-6 now for over a month. To complete phase two around 50 flying hours on the T-6A are flown, which are split up in training blocks. It starts with a transition block in which the student learns to fly the T-6A on local sorties. It is followed by navigation where they learn how to fly from and point A to B. The last block is for two ship formation flying. In total, phase two takes up to five months of training. “The T-6 is such a cool plane to fly. I experienced it during my first ride, the so-called Dollar Ride. We punched the throttle to max and I was pushed right back in my seat, followed by aerobatics and pulling 4G’s in a loop is super cool.” according to Lt Goodwin. The T-6 is an incredibly safe aircraft and it has a reliable engine. Unfortunately, the whole fleet had to be grounded for six months in 2018, due to hypoxia problems and pilots confronted with a lack of oxygen during the flight. The investigation solved the problem and since then no big problems have occurred.

This Beechcraft T-6A “Texan II” wearing a special heritage color scheme, taxies out of his sun shed to start another training mission.

Lt Goodwin: ”Even with a reliable aircraft like the T-6, we take it very seriously and study energy management and emergency procedures and how to recover if we run into a problem.” He continues: “We are evaluated on every ride that we have and your flight commander and instructor pilot (IP), assesses you on and off the field so to speak.” This makes phase two the most important phase and it decides if you move on to the T-1A or T-38C. Lt Goodwin: “The T-38 is such an unforgiving airplane.

Checklist are finished by the student (front seat) and the instructor pilot (back seat) before the engine is started.

If you get a T-38 spot you really have to be on top of your game.” The last phase, number three is called specialized. Most of the pilots will be selected for the T-1A and only the best three or four in a class will go on to the T-38. Lt Goodwin: “My dream is to become a fighter pilot on a 5th generation aircraft. We compete within our class but also compete between the other AETC-bases as well. When they drop the list the class with the strongest results overall gets the best perverted drops.” During the so-called drop night every student pilot, which passed phase two will hear which type he or she is going to fly in the next phase.

Instructor Pilot perspective

Phase three is the last phase for the students before they graduate. The majority of students go on flying the T-1A, with the 86th FTS “Rio Lobos”. One of around 60 T-1A instructor pilots (IP) is Lt Tristan Kanze. Lt Kanze: “I started my phase three in 2018 and was asked to stay as an IP. To become an IP, I went for three months to Randolph AFB to complete my instructor training.”

An instructor pilot (left) briefing a student for his next T-38 mission.

The IP community at the 86th FTS has two groups. Of them 50% are graduated student pilots like Lt Kanze who stay at Laughlin AFB and become an IP. The other 50% are experienced pilots, so-called Major Weapons System officers, who have flown other aircraft before and came back to become an IP. Lt Kanze: “It works out very well because we only bring what we learned from the book as the experienced IP’s bring another perspective and different knowledge.” Around one of every five graduated student pilots becomes an IP for three years. In the T-6 the IP sits behind the student pilot and with the T-1 it is the opposite, as this aircraft was built on a two pilot concept. Because the student is sitting beside his instructor their communication is focused on how you can utilize the person next to you. Checklists are run entirely differently than on the T-6, where you are focused on the basics and local flying. Lt Kanze: “The T-1 has autopilot and teaching more mission analyses, so what’s my objective and how far is it to fly to. In the T-1 we train the whole pilot concept.” The goal is to combine more elements into one mission, for example navigation and low level and students are therefore stretched more than before. In total phase three lasts about six months and starts with academics, sim flights and some 36 sorties in the T-1. A phase three class normally consists of 10 to 25 students. Just two weeks before graduation, in what’s called drop night, each pilot will hear what type of aircraft he will move on. This will either be an IP on the T-1 or move forward to mobility, where they trained on aircraft like the C-5, C-17, C-130, KC-135, KC-46, etc. The last two weeks of phase three the student pilots already train for their next type of aircraft. Lt Kanze: “I like the T-1 because it has the ability to go across the country. A disadvantage is that it is an old aircraft, but it also didn’t have any major updates.” As the old T-38C will be replaced by the T-7, there are no plans to replace the T-1s in the coming years and the focus now is to get more sim flights and make the follow up training on aircraft like the C-130 a bit longer. Remark: Lt Kanze was interviewed before the full transition to the new UPT syllabus and so he is discussing the previous syllabus.

Near future

The 47th FTW annually executes over 66,000 flying hours and 44,000 sorties and is therefore the largest UPT Flying Training Wing in the US. Col Davidson: “As we transitioned to the new syllabus there was some decrease in the amount of pilots that graduated. Last year we produced 323 pilots and this year we are on track in producing 375 to 400 pilots.” There is a big change ahead and after more than six decades the USAF is replacing the T-38C as a trainer.

From sunrise to sunset training missions are flown. Annually the 47th FTW executes over 66,000 flying hours and 44,000 sorties and is therefore the largest Undergraduate Pilot Training Flying Training Wing in the US.

Its replacement the Boeing T-7A “Red Hawk” will soon enter service. This year Randolph AFB (Texas) will receive its first T-7A, followed by Colombus AFB (Mississippi). Laughlin AFB will be the third base to receive this new type of aircraft. Col Davidson: “My goal is that Laughlin AFB is ready to receive the T-7A “Red Hawk” on time. There are obviously challenges with infrastructure and the systems required to operate a new weapons system, regardless of the type of aircraft it is.” On the infrastructure side improvements are made in the flight training rooms, the maintenance facilities and all the things that are required to operate this kind of trainer aircraft. Besides the transition to

T-7A, Col Davidson is also focussed on the human performance side for the future mission. It’s important for him to defined a way to incorporate a professional health and human performance development into pilot training and pilot instructor process.

The flagship of the 87th FTS is this Northrop T-38C “Talon”, serial 65-10331/XL.

Col Davidson: “From a pilot perspective the base provides some of the best maintenance we can possibly ask for. They deliver more aircraft than we can fly. We also have some of the best weather and the nearby city of Del Rio is very supportive to our students and stationed personnel as well.” And with 80 years of training pilots there is no doubt that this base and the 47th FTW plays an important role and will do so for the years to come!

A full report was published in Combat Aircraft Journal, issue February 2023.

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