A crew chief shakes hands with an F-22 pilot before he departs for a training mission at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in March. The fleet of F-22 Raptors has been grounded since May. (Tech Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth / Air Force)
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Air Force F-22 pilots are losing their training edge as the Raptor fleet enters its fourth month of a grounding.
The stealthy twin-engine air superiority fighters stood down May 3, after suspected problems with their oxygen systems. Air Force sources link the oxygen systems to a fatal crash last November.
Late last month, Air Force Vice Chief Gen. Philip Breedlove conceded that pilots, despite ongoing simulator training, can't maintain their currency in the aircraft.
"Certainly, as we restart training we'll have to regain those currencies just like in any other grounding of any other aircraft," Breedlove said.
The shutdown has disrupted the various F-22 training pipelines, Air Combat Command (ACC) spokeswoman Capt. Jennifer Ferrau said in an email.
Pilots shifting to the Raptor have been told to return to their home stations until the jets are allowed to fly again. B-course students, the young pilots who are learning to fly the Raptor as their first fighter jet, have been limited to academics and simulator flights. Even the elite pilots at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School have been told to return to their home bases during the grounding.
"The [Weapons School] course in session at the time of the May 2011 standdown were able to complete the course," Ferrau wrote. "The four students who started in the July class are returning to their home station and will be rescheduled after the standdown is lifted."
In order to remain current in the F-22, a pilot must each month fly a certain number of sorties, as well as make landings, perform basic fighter maneuvers, practice air combat maneuvering and tactical intercepts, among a host of other skills, said one highly experienced former F-22 pilot.
If a pilot hasn't flown at all in 210 days, he or she must go through the entire training course again, although a special requalification syllabus is being worked up to shorten the time involved.
Each of the F-22 wings are developing such requalification program, which will require approval by their parent major commands. For example, the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base (AFB), Va., falls under the auspices of ACC.
"The requalification program requires current ground and simulator training, an emergency procedures review, as well as a tailored requalification sortie syllabus," Ferrau wrote.
That syllabus will mirror the process being used to stand up the F-35 initial training cadre at Eglin AFB, Fla.
"Once the standdown is lifted, instructor pilots will regain their flying currency first, then train/supervise/evaluate the rest of their unit through a directed requalification flight program," Ferrau wrote. "Once the designated number of sorties have been flown to achieve requalification, all pilots must fly their regular number of monthly sorties and commanders will then declare when their unit is sufficiently trained and ready for various taskings."
Currently, though the pilots are flying in the simulator, only the instrument approach currency can be maintained that way.
"Unlike [Federal Aviation Administration] Air Carrier operations where landing certification can be accomplished in simulators, only Instrument Approach currency can be maintained in the sim," Ferrau wrote.
The instrument events that can be done in the simulator include general instrument flying, trail departures, instrument penetration and approaches, including single-engine approaches.
Simulators are useful for maintaining some of the pilots' tactical skills because they make it easier to create and fly extremely demanding combat situations that can't be replicated on a real-life range, the former pilot said.
The ACC spokeswoman agreed.
"While the simulator is great for tactical proficiency, instrument and emergency procedures, it can't completely replace live flying," Ferrau wrote. "For example, a pilot can make a high-speed, 9-G turn in the simulator and not feel the effects of G forces."
Nor can a simulator's visual system replicate the real world to a level that would be needed to completely maintain a pilot's skills.
"Today's simulator visuals are quite good, but nothing can truly replicate the physiological difficulties of long-range visual pick-up of tactical aircraft or ground targets in the ‘real' world," Ferrau said.
But perhaps the most important aspect is the feel of a real aircraft, the former Raptor pilot said.
Ferrau doesn't disagree.
"The simulator is a controlled environment, while live fly includes the stress of heat, sweat, vibration, G force, blinding sun, motion of 3-dimensional flight, uncertainties while flying in a crowded airspace and maybe most important — mortality," she said. "You can run out of fuel and put the sim on ‘freeze' but you cannot stop live flight to avoid a dangerous situation. Live fly is inherently dangerous and heightens the pilot's awareness to a degree above that in a sim."
The problem of maintaining pilots' skillS is exacerbated by the fact that the Air Force only has two F-22 simulator complexes, one at Langley AFB and another Tyndall AFB, Fla.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska should get its simulator in January. However, the Air Force has yet to decide where it will install two more simulators it has ordered, Ferrau said.
The former F-22 pilot said that although the operational Raptor squadrons will lose some of their readiness during the grounding, he is confident the units will remain effective. The stealthy, powerful Raptor is so grossly superior to any other combat aircraft that even inexperienced pilots who haven't even finished training regularly defeat superior numbers of highly experienced aviators flying less capable jets, he said.
The pilot, who participated in the Raptor's operational testing, said that "we could have been a bunch of buffoons, and the jet would have done well."