TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – The Air Force’s ability to continue developing a fifth generation fighter aircraft fleet ready to meet the challenges of future warfare, hinges in large part, on a steady influx of capable and trained F-22 Raptor pilots.
Due to major collaborative improvements at the 43rd Fighter Squadron fighter training unit here, the Combat Air Force, or CAF, is set to receive the largest volume of basic course graduate Raptor pilots in the program’s history, with projections to graduate even higher numbers of pilots in years to come. The 43rd FS, along with the 325th Training Support Squadron, are responsible for worldwide F-22 student production.
F-22 B-Course graduations increased from approximately 10 pilots per year on average to 23 pilots during fiscal year 2014. The program expects to graduate 30 pilots in fiscal year 2015. While increased numbers fall short of the 42 B-Course F-22 pilots the Air Staff said are required to meet the overall CAF fighter need, the trend is heading in the right direction.
“We are not declaring victory, but I do think we have turned the corner on our ability to produce more B-Coursers,” said Col. David E. Graff, the former 325th Fighter Wing commander. “We have an F-22 fleet flying better and more consistent than ever; however, I think we’re only at 75 percent of where we should be. We can and will continue to improve.”
Wing officials said a major part of the recent turnaround is due to having more reliable F-22s available for training.
Maintenance improvements and aircraft upgrades made during the last 12 to 18 months are bearing fruit now, as evidenced by the wing achieving the highest mission-capable rates in its history. In addition, the wing recently exceeded its sortie production goals for the first time and doubled the average aircraft available for training missions.
In one year, the 325th FW has seen its student training timeline go from being 32 days behind in March 2013 to seven days ahead in March 2014 and 13 days ahead in April 2014. The 45-day swing is due to improvements and changes across multiple areas, said Lt. Col. R. Travis Koch, the 43rd FS commander.
“There are things happening here that have never happened in the F-22 community,” Koch said. “We are getting more capacity out of our capability and making our training more relevant to the CAF.”
The F-22 basic qualification syllabus is one area that has seen sizable cuts and changes, primarily with the number of sorties B-Course students need to perform to graduate from the F-22 training course. Prior to the adjustments, a B-Course student required 43 sorties to graduate. The number is now down to 38 sorties. Track 1 course pilots, more experienced pilots retraining from other aircraft, also saw a reduction in the number of sorties needed to graduate, from 19 to 12 sorties.
“We have the flying portion of the syllabus down to the minimum number of sorties needed to produce fully-qualified F-22 pilots through ‘rightsizing’ the syllabus and by aligning it better with the CAF mission,” Koch said. “Coupled with more jet availability, we can then increase the quantity of B-Course students while maintaining high level (of) quality. We do have to keep a balance between the need to produce more pilots and developing their skillsets. However, we had plenty of places to make adjustments.”
Another major change added increased academic instruction and simulator missions.
“Virtual training technology has improved to the point where simulators are no longer additive, but rather complement training sorties as an integral part of our comprehensive approach to student training,” said Lt. Col. Jason Costello, the former 325th TRSS commander.
The simulator training has been made even more realistic and reflective of the recent upgrades and modifications being made to the combat-coded F-22 jets in the fleet. However, the upgrades most likely will not be made to the 31 training aircraft in the 43rd FS inventory, so the only place student pilots will see that enhanced capability is in a simulator, he added.
“While nothing can fully replace the realism of flying, the simulators give us the opportunity to add more robust events that they can’t get in the air or with the training jets,” Costello said.
The F-22 simulator facility will be updated and expanded to house eight simulators, during the 2014 summer. It essentially doubles the simulator capacity and should contribute to an increase in B-Course student graduates as well as providing robust virtual training to help the 95th FS meet its combat readiness requirements.
The 325th TRSS is responsible for approximately 71 percent of the academic F-22 B-Course syllabus and 470 hours of the total 660 hours of academic training a B-Course pilot receives.
“We have just as much of a part to play as the 43rd FS and with the maintenance squadron,” Costello said. “Students spend 10 to 12 hours a day for two full months with the 325th TRSS before they are qualified to fly a solo mission.”
The academics and simulator missions are adjusted to be better aligned to the CAF mission needs, he added, and F-22 student pilots are taught by the only government civil service instructors in Air Combat Command.
“We call them ‘Big A’ Airmen—they do just as much of the heavy lifting as our flightline instructors,” said Costello. “Our civilian simulator instructors are known Air Force wide as F-22 subject matter experts. Their detailed knowledge of the F-22 weapons system is as deep, if not more so, than most active-duty instructors, and in some cases, more than the engineers who designed the F-22.”
Raptors need their Talons
Prior to the introduction of the T-38 Talon as an adversary aircraft, the Raptor played the role as an adversary during training missions. This change produces significant cost savings, to the tune of $15.5 million in 2013, as it costs about $18,000 less per flight hour to fly a T-38 than an F-22.
“Bringing adversarial training on board with the T-38 has allowed the majority of F-22 sorties to focus on training and combat missions while additionally supporting training and adversary platforms,” Costello said. “This has also been an economic gain, and it has increased student production while saving hours on the Raptor. The Raptor, like all aircraft, has a limited service life. Every hour spent in an adversary role is an hour we don’t get back for a wartime role. With the T-38, we not only preserve flying hours on the F-22, but we also help to preserve a national asset.”
In addition, T-38s are more realistic as adversary aircraft because the F-22’s attributes of stealth, supercruise and integrated avionics are unique and unmatched by any aircraft in the world.
From a production perspective, the T-38s are putting in work. In 2013, T-38s flew 831 adversary air sorties in nine months, and that number is expected to double in 2014.
Maintenance partnerships and collaborations
The health of the F-22 fleet in the first half of fiscal year 2014 was the best of any half year in the 10-year Raptor history, highlighted by the F-22 meeting and exceeding the 74 percent command mission capable, or MC, rate standard for the first time with an 80.7 percent rate in March. By comparison, the average MC rate from January to March 2013 was 49 percent.
“This was not achieved in a vacuum,” said Col. Curtis Hafer, the former 325th Maintenance Group commander.
Partners such as the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, Virginia, share some of the 325th MXG workload such as in conducting some of the low observable coating maintenance, or LO, which helps the Raptor to maintain its low observable, or LO, stealth characteristics.
In addition, the Langley AFB team assists in performing some of the scheduled packaged maintenance plans, a three-week phased inspection required every 300 flight hours on the F-22.
“The ability for us to fly the jets up to Langley to do the LO work and also leave them there for PMP has given us more capacity and helped tremendously in aircraft reliability,” Hafer said.
Other contributing factors to the improved aircraft reliability and higher MC-rates were software enhancements as well as the availability of quality F-22 parts, he said.
“The whole supply chain, from Lockheed Martin Corporation to the Air Combat Command weapons systems team, increased the parts priority for us. Our partners understand the importance of our training mission and that its success is based on mission capable (or MC) airplanes. It’s been a true collaboration,” Hafer said.
One of the residual benefits of hitting historic maintenance marks is the positive impact on morale.
“Our Airmen are fired up and energized, and holding their heads high with pride of what they’ve accomplished,” Hafer said. “This in turn makes them work harder.”
“We are careful not to ring the victory bell just yet; but, clearly we have a plan for fiscal year 2015 and beyond,” said Col. Max Marosko III, the 325th Operations Group commander. “We are moving closer to the required number of 42 B-Course pilots per year that the CAF has asked of us.”
In its simplest terms, the Air Force needs to graduate 265 new fighter pilots, across all fighter aircraft, per year to meet manning requirements. Of those required 265 fighter pilots the F-22 percentage accounts for approximately 42 F-22 B-Course graduates per year.
While the Air Force still needs to determine if 42 new B-Course F-22 pilots is the right number and is a number that can be easily absorbed into the six combat-coded F-22 squadrons, the consensus is that more new pilots are sorely needed.
“The F-22 program is taking a tremendous step forward by being able to do career broadening that they couldn’t do before,” said John Wigle, an Air Staff Operations Directorate program analyst. “The F-22 should be represented on the staff, at undergraduate pilot training (and) they serve as air liaison officers. We should begin to see the payback of all these improvements in the next three years.”
For the formal training unit to graduate 42 B-Course pilots and meet the CAF needs, it will require continued process improvements, increased training aircraft reliability and possible future syllabus changes, Graff said.
“We’re on the right track,” he added. “We’ve made cultural changes here, institutionalized processes and we have stopped looking at the old ways of doing things. My mindset is that if we can’t defend what we’re doing other than by saying, ‘it’s how we’ve always done it,’ then we need to be willing to rip it apart or shatter it with a hammer.”