Training and simulation advances have been revolutionary since the U.S. Air Force bought its T-38s starting in the 1960s. With an average age of 43.5 years, service officials are looking to begin a replacement program as soon as possible. How soon depends on debt reduction efforts in Washington, whether the Air Force has the money to start a new program and how high a priority the service will put on that effort. With major advances in training and simulation technologies taking place since the 1960s, the forthcoming T-X procurement could allow the Air Force to entirely overhaul how it trains its pilots for the F-22 and F-35 missions, possibly offloading much of the work to immersive ground-based sims.
But uncertainty in Washington that hasn’t stopped would-be T-38C replacements from cropping up. BAE announced it would team with Northrop Grumman as its manufacturing lead for a Hawk 128 variant – dubbed the Advanced Jet Training System -- in September at the annual AFA conference outside Washington. Alenia North America is searching for partners to propose its M346-based option called the T100 and Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries is pitching the T-50.
As far as marketing in the U.S., though, the British have invaded. This summer and fall, BAE brought two Royal Air Force Hawk T Mk2s stateside for what the company dubbed the national road show tour, including flight demonstrations at seven air shows in the states. The tour wrapped up with a stopover at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach and as luck would have it, I was invited to take a backseat ride Nov. 3 in Hawk ZK020 with BAE Test Pilot Andy Blythe to see close up how new simulation technologies work in the cockpit.
Our Hawk was programmed to emulate the Fulcrum while that of Blythe’s wingman, Test Pilot Steve Long, was emulating a Typhoon. While this allows pilots to have proper indicators, symbology and stores management, the actual controls and aerodynamic performance of the plane is not altered to mimic the aircraft.
During the 85 min. flight, Blythe demonstrated the use of datalinking technologies to emulate an onboard radar – complete with accurate radar returns – without the presence of a radar. The flight included five scenarios, most focusing on the beyond-visual-range air-to-air threat given that is the way the Air Force hopes to fly with its F-22 and, eventually, F-35 fleets. The use of the emulated data and radar technologies allows for pilots in the cockpit to get real-time kill indications – both successful and unsuccessful. This allows for instructors to retrain instantly when a student misses the mark, Blythe said.
With each scenario, Blythe and Long upped the complexity. The first began with an Amraam-like medium-range missile engagement. During the second, Blythe demonstrated a crank maneuver – turning at roughly 60 deg. to keep the target just inside our radar field of view. Each aircraft trashed the others’ missiles and then turned to face each other again.
During the third pass, Blythe simulated the dispensing of chaff as our opponent fired his medium-range missile. During the re-engagement, we conducted a 2-3 G turn while our opponent positioned for an IR missile shot and air-to-air gun engagements. Dispensing flares defeated some of the IR missile attempts. In the fourth scenario, we flipped roles, with Blythe setting up for IR and gun shots.
Finally, Blythe demonstrated simulated SAM engagements, including basic tactics such as “beaming” where a pilot keeps the threat at 90-deg. from the aircraft.
Throughout the flight, Blythe was handicapped a bit flying a journalist trying to take it all in, while Long was flying a Hornet pilot instructor eager to take the aircraft through its paces. My host was a complete gentleman about being such an easy target.
Being a child of the Atari generation (truth be told, I had a TI-99), I had an expectation of “real-time” assessment. But, in reality, pilots training today in the T-38C lack that capability. Typically, they find out if a kill was made only after a flight during a briefing. Blythe explained that with real-time simulation technology in the cockpit, instructors can better link the basic aviation work, maneuvering instincts and muscle memory lessons together for a student. Robert Wood, BAE’s T-X capture campaign executive, says that this will never replace the post-flight briefing. But, it allows for real-time cockpit learning that has been absent from the USAF fleet despite the fact that the T-38C is now the lead-in trainer for the F-22, which contains the most sophisticated sensor technology of any fighter.
Training pilots to handle the amount of sensor data being piped into the cockpit is one of the requirements of a modern system – owing to advancements that allow for unprecedented amounts of data to go directly to F-22, and eventually, F-35 cockpits.
Aside from seeing the real-time simulation technology at work, I would be lying if I didn’t say that the close formation takeoff and touch-and-go weren’t a highlight. Finally, the pair touched down at Oceana at about 115 kts. and taxied past a nest of Hornets back to their parking spots.
This in-cockpit simulation or “emulation” – as BAE officials call it – technology is available in variants in each of the competitors’ proposals. At issue for the Air Force, however, is to determine how much actual flying is needed to train the pilots of the future versus how much ground-based simulation work can be done on the ground at a reduced cost. The cost of buying a T-X (one former senior Air Force official says the aircraft should cost no more than $25 million) and operating it will weigh heavily in whatever path the service takes.
But, Col. Kenneth Griffin, chief of flying requirements at Air Education and Training Command, says simulators could contribute to a reduced cost to train the average pilot. “If you put together a product with a lower amount of flight hours [needed], enabled by the latest technology and high-fidelity simulators, ... in a future state, you spend less dollars per pilot coming through,” says Griffin. But the graduate is “a more capable, highly trained pilot.” Some skills that could be taught mainly in a high-definition simulator are basic formation flying, night-vision goggle use and flying low-altitude routes while other skills obviously require time in the cockpit.
Though T-X has been put on hold, Griffin says that way forward will become clear in the Fiscal 2013 budget release expected in February.
Read Aviation Week’s cover story out today on new technologies that could go into T-X for a more indepth look as well as an update from my colleague, Graham Warwick, on stall training for airline pilots.