U.S. Services Overhaul Pilot Training, But Long-Term Problems Persist
The U.S. military has faced its stubborn pilot shortage head-on over the past few years by overhauling its training program to speed up production and increasing retention bonuses to keep aviators in cockpits. But the shortfall remains.
In addition, the U.S. Navy cannot train students fast enough because of problems with its trainer aircraft and lingering issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Service officials said in September that about 1,000 students are waiting to start training. A top official says the backlog has the service in “crisis mode” as it works to further adjust the training syllabus to increase throughput.
- About 1,000 Navy students await training
- Average wait is about one year, as the Navy looks to speed up its syllabus
- The Air Force has made progress, but lawmakers want more focus on retention
Issues with the Navy’s training aircraft came back to back the past few years. First, pilots experienced physiological hypoxia-like issues while training in the McDonnell Douglas T-45 Goshawk (AW&ST Nov. 13-26, 2017, p. 58). After dozens of pilots refused to fly the jet, a large service-wide effort started in 2017 to find ways to address the problem. Then, as the pilot safety concerns decreased, the fleet experienced ongoing engine problems, culminating with a grounding this October due to blade failures.
The fleet issues and backlog are converging, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Samuel Paparo said at the Tailhook Association Symposium in early September. “It is a problem of our own making,” he said. “It is not a moral failing, but it’s a moral responsibility. . . . It is a shared series of events that has led us to this, and we—and I—have taken my eyes off the ball over the years, [and] that’s led us to where we are today.”
The Navy is pursuing a three-prong overhaul of its pilot training, called Naval Aviation Training Next, to increase the pace and bring in new technology.
The first phase, Project Avenger, is a change in the primary flight-training curriculum to increase one-on-one instruction, including the use of virtual and mixed-reality trainers in addition to flight time in the Beechcraft T-6B. The prototype class started in September 2020 and graduated in April 2021.
Second is Project Hellcat, which had its first class graduate in February. This introduces a new intermediate flight-training phase for students in tactical jet training, which previously had students go directly from primary to advanced training. Navy officials say this will enable students to focus on “foundational principles” of flying in the T-6, with the goal of reducing T-45 flying time in the last phase.
The third part of this new approach is Project Corsair, which recently started its prototype flight-training syllabus for advanced tactical jet pipeline students. One dozen students are in the first class, expected to graduate next March. The prototype syllabus incorporates advanced concepts that would typically come in fleet-replacement squadron training. It also focuses on instructors gauging a pilot’s proficiency for completion as opposed to measuring total hours and sorties—the traditional T-45 syllabus would take about 52 weeks to complete. The syllabus calls for a minimum of one flight per day, plus the use of virtual reality simulators, prerecorded briefs and 360-deg. flight videos to augment cockpit time.
The changes come as the Navy makes long-term plans for pilot training with the retirement of the T-45 and introduction of a next-generation Undergraduate Jet Training System. Central to the planning is determining whether to train future aviators on aircraft carriers. The service is considering switching to lower-cost land-only jets, an idea that is unpopular among many aviators and commanders.
Rear Adm. Rich Brophy, chief of naval air training, says his command is looking “deeply” at the syllabus to ensure it takes full advantage of available technology. The Navy, he notes, needs to look at traditional training plans and flights to gauge whether they add value.
“This is an opportunity for us to look closely at it from a technology standpoint and [ask]: What can we do with the technology? . . . [And] what can we do to produce more capable aviators at a faster rate?” he says. “I think there’s a lot of there there with Navy Aviation Training Next.”
Brophy likens naval aviator training to a conveyor belt, with the backlog waiting to get on. If the conveyor belt were wider in primary training, the service could put more students on it or shorten the process to make it go faster. But if the conveyor belt is unchanged, only so much can be done to speed it up.
“I can fly two times a day, and that’s probably about it, five days a week,” Brophy says. “And so when I look at that, I really ask myself: Where can we make some of the best changes with the resources that we currently have?”
The pilot shortfall is a problem of the Navy’s own making—and one it will need to fix without changing the overall standard of aviators.
“We are going to do what is right, what is just,” Paparo says. “We’re not going to mess around with the standard; we’re not going to mess around with the people who are coming in. We’re going to fix our problems [and] make good decisions moving forward. We’re going to be honest about the resources that we have put to this—and when we don’t have the resources to put to this, I’m going to go to my boss and ask them for more resources.”
The Navy’s fiscal 2023 budget request calls for increased student flying. That includes funding for an additional 19,000 training flight hours and 38,000 more hours for fleet operations.
“This critical investment will support increased student pilot throughput, supporting the recovery of our tactical pilot shortfall,” Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, said during a March briefing on the request.
The Navy was still short almost 100 fighter pilots as of mid-July. The number is much greater for the Air Force, which was short 1,650 pilots as of the end of fiscal 2021, including 1,100 fighter pilots. The numbers for the end of fiscal 2022 are not yet available. The Air Force numbers have been improving—the shortage was 1,925 in fiscal 2020 and about 2,100 in fiscal 2019, when the service established an Aircrew Crisis Task Force to study the problem.
Air Force undergraduate pilot training has increased in recent years, largely because of its Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5 (UPT) plan. The “.5” is an evolution from the current second iteration of undergraduate pilot training, which has students train in the Raytheon T-1 and T-6 and Northrop T-38 ahead of the coming Boeing-Saab T-7A Red Hawk.
The upgraded program includes increased use of virtual reality for initial training, along with plans for remote teaching so that young pilots can learn the basics more quickly in the face of a shortage of instructor pilots. The program was fully fielded across all undergraduate training bases by the end of October and will be fully implemented in early 2023, according to the head of Air Education and Training Command, Lt. Gen Brian Robinson.
“For the past 18 months or so, pilot training bases were hard at work instituting the new curriculum and flowing through their remaining classes that were still using the legacy system,” Robinson says. The change applies new technologies and a different approach to the instructor-student relationship, as opposed to the traditional one-size-fits-all approach, he adds.
“It is [similar] to the professional coach-athlete model in today’s collegiate sports environment. It is not self-paced; it is learner-centric,” Robinson says. “Today’s technologies allow for a much better training environment to support this philosophy.”
UPT was a 52-week program, but the new curriculum graduates trainees in about six months, after which pilots receive their wings and continue training in T-38s or T-1s. Undergraduate training stood at 1,381 students in fiscal 2021, up from 1,263 the previous year. This year’s results are not yet available.
The service is planning to retire the T-1 fleet—pending congressional action—and to have mobility pilot trainees use Air Mobility Fundamentals-Simulators (AMFS) ahead of training on airlifters, refuelers and special operations and surveillance aircraft. Robinson says the initial feedback from the first AMFS classes is that students coming out of the small-group training have been equal to or better than those in traditional training—although a small number have not met the required standard. The command is developing a similar Fighter/Bomber Fundamentals course.
“We will continue to refine the approach as new data becomes available, to ensure we are producing the best pilots possible,” Robinson says.
For helicopter pilots, the service in 2021 stopped having students fly the T-6 and instead focused on rotary-wing training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. This shift increases the availability of T-6s for fixed-wing pilots while decreasing overall training because pilots do not have to move duty stations during training. The command expects to train 90 helicopter pilots per year by 2024, along with cutting costs by 37%.
Air Force officials say pilots want to fly as much as possible and that the key to keeping them happy is to keep them out of staff jobs. The service’s fiscal 2023 budget request calls for a maximum executable level of flying hours, 1.1 million hr. It is also focusing on retention bonuses—although fewer pilots have taken the bonuses than had been hoped.
Lawmakers are looking to address this in the fiscal 2023 defense policy bill, calling for a new demonstration program to improve retention of active-duty-rated officers. The measure calls for the service to guarantee a future assignment location along with an aviation bonus of no more than $50,000 annually.