The domain of fast jet training is a wide and diverse topic which spans the spectrum of capabilities that the aircraft are capable of. Air forces around the globe are working on ways to get fast jet pilots to operational squadrons quicker, with efforts including ways to identify talent earlier, train students faster and download training to more affordable platforms such as turboprops or lower-cost, more capable jet trainers.
For organisations like the USAF, the process starts with Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) where fast jet pilots are identified before progressing to an Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) course. After this, instruction continues on the graduate side at Flying Training Units (FTUs) – both ends of that spectrum include simulation and live flying.
As one would suspect, training does not end once a pilot receives their wings – there is constant activity at home stations, and at large annual exercises such as the Red Flag series, or the USN Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor programme, popularly known as Top Gun. The key is to maintain combat readiness throughout the pilot’s career.
In many countries, home station and large exercise training is further augmented by adversary air combat provided by organic aggressor squadrons, and more recently through contracted air support – both of which provide operational-level fast jet training through the use of enemy TTP in order to provide realistic simulation of air combat.
Col (Ret) Scott Campbell told Shephard about the core aspects of this type of training: ‘Our initial focus is on the basics of operating high-performance aircraft. We don’t really need to do Mach speeds or super cruise because the main goal is getting used to handling characteristics and not stalling an aircraft.
‘What’s much more important is the ability to deal with all of the information and data that comes into a modern cockpit, especially in today’s fighters. There’s so much available these days when you consider radar, targeting pods or EOTS [Electro-Optical Targeting System], multiple layers of communication, data links, helmet-mounted cueing systems and so forth. So, when it comes to aircraft, I’d say it’s much more about the cockpit and the PVI [pilot-vehicle interface] as opposed to an aircraft’s performance envelope.
‘The USAF has demonstrated that you can take a pilot from the T-6 [turboprop trainer] and put him or her directly into an F-35, and that pilot will perform just as well as those that go through the full syllabus of T-6 and T-38 [supersonic jet trainer]. The student that learned just on the T-6 wasn’t employing the aircraft in any different way, it’s just that their training also leveraged VR goggles and advanced simulators which can be augmented by AI – all of that helps with the learning curve.
‘In some ways this brings up more questions than answers – like do you need the T-7 [the USAF’s latest advanced jet trainer]? I think the beauty of that platform will be its ability to replicate modern fighters, allowing training to be downloaded.’
Maj Gen Craig Wills, Commander of the 19th Air Force, recently spoke about overall pilot training transformation in the USAF: ‘The airmen we put out the other side of the door with wings on their chest have to be better than I was when I graduated from nav school or pilot training… There is an innovation imperative… new lieutenants and the new airmen that come in expect the air force to be who we said we would be – they expect that we’re going to be technologically cutting edge, they expect that they’ll have access to the best tools and resources and the best leadership, and we’ve got some work to do. What I like to say is that there’s a gap between how we currently live and a gap in how we train… We’ve got to make our training programmes keep pace with the world as it is and as it’s going to be.’
A major technological gap that Wills spoke about resides in the 60-year-old T-38 Talon which USAF Air Education and Training Command (AETC) uses for joint specialised undergraduate pilot training to prepare fast jet pilots for frontline fighter aircraft, specifically the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
Not only is the T-38 used by AETC, but Air Combat Command also flies it as a complementary platform to pull down fast jet pilot proficiency training from operational F-22 squadrons at their home stations, for example, and in some instances also uses them as organic adversary air platforms.
In 2018, the USAF announced a $9.2 billion contract award to Boeing for the next generation of fast jet trainers to replace AETC’s fleet of Talons. As the first of the USAF’s eSeries digitally engineered aircraft, the eT-7A Red Hawk will introduce capabilities that prepare pilots for fifth-generation fighters, including: high-G environment; information/sensor management; high angle of attack flight characteristics; night operations; and transferable air-to-air and air-to-ground skills.
Much of the syllabus taught on the eT-7 is being enabled by the aircraft’s embedded training capabilities.
Boeing, along with partner Saab, will deliver 351 eT-7A Red Hawk aircraft – the first of which will enter service in 2024. Along with updated technology and performance capabilities, the eT-7A will be accompanied by 46 simulators and associated ground equipment, and the ability to update system software faster and more seamlessly in both the aircraft and suite of synthetic training equipment.
Transformation in pilot training at the USAF is proceeding in multiple streams. For example, the Pilot Training Next (PTN) experiment has demonstrated that fast jet pilot trainees can receive their wings using more immersive simulation and live flying with the T-6 Texan II aircraft, while fully omitting the T-38 syllabus, as previously noted.
The USAF’s UPT 2.5 initiative builds upon PTN and falls under the broader umbrella of Pilot Training Transformation (PTT), and it is the first step in the service’s push to implement a range of commercial technologies and learning methodologies for student-centric, self-paced, cloud-based training.
Wills explained that ‘the attempt to field those first early lessons from PTN is what we’re calling UPT 2.5. It’s an acknowledgement that it’s a software upgrade of the current pilot training system – it’s not a brand-new operating system if you will – and it tells you that we’ve got some work to do to get where we finally want to go.’
The UPT 2.5 flow expands the T-6 phase II of flight training to approximately seven months, which is equivalent to 90-100h, after which pilots receive their wings. Fast jet pilots then proceed to the six-month IFF track with the T-38 (or eT-7A in the future), or in some instances directly to an FTU as noted previously. Wills added: ‘By this time next year, we feel like we’ll have enough data from the various experiments… where we can make a decision on whether to fully scale UPT 2.5 to all of the bases.’
In August, CAE USA was awarded a contract from the Defense Innovation Unit to support the UPT 2.5 initiative. The company will have responsibility for installation and integration of a cloud-based Learning Management System, which is a key element of the CAE Trax Academy pilot training continuum.
Ray Duquette, president and GM at CAE USA, said: ‘We are excited to be part of the US Air Force’s PTT efforts and offer some of CAE’s training systems integration expertise… We have been focused in recent years on making investments in digital technologies and data analytics that will help our military customers produce pilots faster and more efficiently.’
Advances in the simulator world, including VR and AR, have found their way into fast jet simulators – this makes for highly realistic training platforms in a variety of form factors, from desktop-based to deployable cockpit mock-ups, all the way to sophisticated F-35 Joint Simulation Environment devices.
CAE recently announced that BAE Systems had selected its Medallion MR e-Series visual system for Eurofighter Typhoon full-mission simulators for the Qatar Emiri Air Force.
Phil Perey, head of technology for defence and security at CAE, said the ‘Medallion MR e-Series is a fully integrated system with an extremely immersive high-fidelity visual system that wraps around a single crew cockpit – that can be a fighter or a lead-in platform – and allows a highly immersive sense of the environment in which the pilots are flying. Part of that comes from higher resolution, very high brightness, high contrast and also the ability to do full 3D stereo, which is something that historically hasn’t been available in these training devices.
‘Now you can put on a set of active eyewear and get a full sense of depth for all objects.’ For example, ‘when you do hose and drogue refuelling, you’ll get a very good sense of just how far away the basket is from your probe, and the same applies for boom refuelling. This capability delivers a much higher degree of proficiency for fast jet pilots at a fraction of the cost of being in an operational jet.’
Now you can put on a set of active eyewear and get a full sense of depth for all objects.
Another key player in the field of fast jet simulation training is MetaVR with its Virtual Reality Scene Generator (VRSG), a Microsoft DirectX-based render engine that provides geospecific simulation as an image generator with game-quality graphics. VRSG is used in F-16 simulators at multiple USAF, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard training facilities.
With the F-16 Mission Tactics Trainer, VRSG simulates multiple views: out of the cockpit, embedded head-up display, head-mounted display, real-time streaming protocol in the central display unit, ground mapping radar, targeting pod visual data and Maverick missile displays. Combined with MetaVR’s 3D terrain and models, the cockpit displays with native 4K (4096×2160) resolution that provides combat pilots with an immersive FOV that renders the out-the-window (OTW) virtual environment with near 20/20 visual acuity.
Luke AFB also uses VRSG licences and MetaVR’s Terrain Tools for Esri ArcGIS licence for its F-16C Block 30/40 full-mission training simulators at the Network Training Center facility. Over 400 F-16 pilots are trained per year using this simulator, with a visual display that provides a 360° FOV, for air-to-air and air-to-ground tactics training, and it can also be networked with other simulators.
In Europe, the 309th SMXG European Participating Air Forces programme is integrating VRSG as part of an upgrade to the visual systems of Belgian and Portuguese F-16 simulators. The simulators are being integrated into full-mission training capability systems used for take-off/landing, procedural response training, air-to-air and air-to ground tactical training (including weapon employment) and in customised pilot scenario training configured for use in real-time, immersive environments.
MetaVR has also been the primary supplier of 3D real-time visuals for the A-10 Full Mission Trainer used in the USAF’s A-10 Aircrew Training System. VRSG provides OTW and sensor views for the simulator, which consists of a high-fidelity replica of an A-10 aircraft cockpit, an IOS, a visual system and other equipment which provide trainees with initial and ongoing training for flight, mission and tactics.
The Hands-on Throttle-And-Stick trainer is an A-10C precision engagement functionality trainer used for initial pilot conversion and continuation training. The base configuration uses VRSG to drive an eight-screen display configured to fit within a 2.7m ceiling. Other visual channels are used to provide the sensor views, such as for the Maverick missile and Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod.
Garth Smith, president of MetaVR, told Shephard that ‘VRSG has been delivering advanced image generation for A-10 and F-16 combat aircraft simulators for many years. The continued use of and demand for VRSG is testament to the system’s ability to support a wide range of operational training scenarios. We undertake continuous development of features and content to keep VRSG concurrent and compatible with the A-10 and F-16 platform simulators in their various configurations, in order to deliver a geospecific, high-fidelity training experience for the pilots that operate these aircraft, enabling them to maintain currency in hyper-realistic environments to help ensure mission success.’
Chris VanderWalt, a former fast jet pilot and instructor pilot of 20 years, spoke with Shephard about the notion of competency-based training: ‘If you’re talking about saving money, it may be worth an organisation’s time to look at competency-based training.
‘Part of that equation is the time and investment to select pilot candidates and get them through officer training and initial flight training. If a student then fails in fast jet training, it is a huge loss in time, effort and expense. One could rather adopt a notion of training someone until they are ready, so that means you don’t have an entire class all flying the same syllabus because some may reach the desired standard earlier, while others may need longer. In the end, it would likely all balance out, but the product would be fast jet pilots of a more uniform standard.’
A common thread across here is the effort to download a greater footprint of training capabilities from high-end trainer and operational aircraft to more affordable platforms. CAE’s Perey said: ‘Actual weapons systems are very expensive to fly, so you don’t want to be learning switchology and buttons while flying a $100 million aircraft that may cost $20,000 an hour to operate. If you can do that training in a lead-in fighter trainer that’s a pretty powerful economic argument to pursue. A part of that download of training is not just bringing it into a less-expensive platform, but it’s also bringing it into the ground-based training environment which delivers significant advantages from both a safety and economic perspective.’
Aircraft such as the PC-21 and T-6 epitomise the ability to download training to lower-cost platforms. For example, the Pilatus PC-21 is a next-generation follow-on training aircraft to the PC-7 MkII and PC-9M trainers. The handling qualities of the aircraft bridge the aerodynamic performance gap between traditional turboprop trainers and frontline aircraft, according to Stans, Switzerland-based Pilatus Aircraft. Aimed at meeting future customers’ specifications in terms of capability and life-cycle cost, the PC-21 is designed to allow future fast jet pilots to perform most of their training using the type, thereby allowing operators to make substantial savings.
The PC-21’s integrated training system and embedded mission system make it suitable for air forces that need an aircraft to satisfy a wide training envelope. The PC-21 can emulate the cockpit functionalities of a number of fast jet types and has demonstrated a qualitative training advantage at a lower cost of training mission system operation on current frontline aircraft.
In Italy, Leonardo has also grown its position in training technology through its advanced trainer aircraft and ability to efficiently develop fast jet pilots. ‘The fundamental parameter to manage in today’s training is the optimal balance of real aircraft and appropriate linked simulation, that reduces costs without compromising quality,’ said Emanuele Merlo, SVP trainers at Leonardo’s Aircraft Division.
Leonardo’s integrated training solutions comprise aircraft like the M-345 and M-346 as well as a Ground Based Training System (GBTS) with simulators and instructional devices. The system is designed to transition pilots directly from primary trainers to fighters like the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35, and it is already the backbone of Italian, Israeli, Polish and Singaporean air force pilot training processes.
Leonardo’s M-346 advanced/lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) was conceived from the beginning as a new-generation solution to maximise the teaching effectiveness in developing fast jet pilots destined for current fourth- and fifth-generation combat platforms.
‘The M-346 targets extensive “downloading” of flight hours from the more expensive training phases traditionally carried out on twin-seat fighters [at the operational conversion phase],’ explained Merlo. ‘This provides huge savings and optimisation in the fighter fleet exploitation, leaving as much as possible fighters for their combat tasks. This approach maximises – at the same time – the quality of training with particular focus on developing student pilots’ necessary skills to manage the most complex operational net-centric scenarios.’
The M-346 is arguably one of the most modern LIFT trainers on the market – its Embedded Tactical Training Simulation allows the aircraft to virtually emulate onboard sensors and a range of weapons.
Merlo added that ‘LVC exposes future fast jet pilots to the most complex operational scenarios at the lowest costs and is today the element that draws a separating line between the future and the current-generation training systems’. As an example, he highlighted the International Flight Training School, which was established under a Leonardo-Italian Air Force Agreement aimed at strengthening the training services already delivered by the military.
There are clearly many facets to fast jet training beyond strapping on a jet. Developing fast jet pilots is becoming increasingly complex and expensive, and because of that, the use of modern technology along with an impetus to download training to less expensive platforms is a trend that will surely continue to gain traction.