JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas — Two years after a Japanese air force pilot and his American instructor died in a military jet crash in Alabama, officials are mulling whether a U.S.-run program that teaches English to foreign aviators is partly to blame.
The incident has prompted U.S. Air Force leaders to take a closer look at the quality of the instruction they provide, and consider how to better accommodate foreign students. It has opened fresh discussion of how much time and money the program needs to succeed.
It has also highlighted a breakdown in communication between the Air Force-led Defense Language Institute’s English Language Center here, the organizations that oversee it, pilot training units across the service, and the nations that send their students to Texas.
“The Japanese are nervous because of what happened,” said Terry Harsh, an instructor at the center, in a recent interview here. “They come through here, asking, ‘I don’t want the same thing to happen to me — why did he die? Why did a professional American instructor pilot die with him?’ These are language issues, and they’re very concerning.”
The fatal T-38C Talon training sortie on Feb. 19, 2021, killed 24-year-old 1st Lt. Scot Ames, an instructor pilot at Mississippi’s Columbus Air Force Base, and his 25-year-old Japanese trainee, Capt. Renshi Uesaki.
An official accident investigation concluded that Ames and Uesaki made errors in judgment that caused the crash. Investigators noted that Uesaki struggled with the language barrier despite completing six months of English training in 2019.
That “directly impacted his ability to receive and process instruction as well as listen and talk on the radios,” the report said. “This challenge was exacerbated while flying instrument sorties, which required more frequent communications” with air traffic control.
Uesaki passed his English comprehension test upon arriving at Lackland but needed more time to improve in conversation. He finished the course as an “‘average’ to ‘slightly above average’” student, according to the accident report.
But he continued having difficulty speaking and understanding technical aviation vocabulary, which affected his ability to comprehend instructions and make radio calls while flying. Those communication challenges often overwhelmed Uesaki and caused him to lose focus in the cockpit, the report said.
“The cause of the mishap was [Ames’s] loss of situational awareness on final approach and failure to take timely and necessary actions as a dangerous situation developed,” the Air Force wrote in its accident report. “[Uesaki] substantially contributed to the mishap after becoming task-saturated in the traffic pattern and placing and leaving the throttles in idle.”
Foreign pilot deaths in U.S.-led military training are infrequent, but they do occur. At least four foreign airmen have died in the U.S. in the past decade: Uesaki; two Iraqi pilots, Brig. Gen. Rasid Mohammed Sadiq and Capt. Noor Faleh Rassan Al-Khazali; and a Taiwanese airman, Maj. Kao Ting-cheng.
All but Uesaki were flying F-16 Fighting Falcon jets over Arizona when they crashed in separate incidents in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Foreign deaths account for around 6% of the 80 people who have died in U.S. Air Force-affiliated aircraft mishaps since 2013, according to the Air Force Safety Center.
But losing an American instructor pilot brought scrutiny of the program to a new level, Harsh said. The crash sparked meetings across the U.S. Air Force’s training enterprise and with Japanese military officials to discuss what went wrong — and how to stop it from happening again.
“The Air Force command structure went into a different gear,” said Harsh, a former scout helicopter pilot who has taught at the center for over a decade. “They were like, ‘What do you teach? What’s going on at DLI?’”
Teaching the world to fly
The English Language Center has been the first step on the path to a military air career for thousands of people around the world.
Its college-level aviation program is one piece of the center’s broader security cooperation mission that reaches around 6,000 students from more than 100 countries each year. The school offers a general English curriculum and remedial classes ahead of more difficult courses that prepare troops for military jobs.
Each country picks the airmen it wants to send to the U.S., where they receive a more in-depth education in English — the official language of the skies — than they may otherwise get at home.
To join, people must pass a series of proficiency tests that judge their speaking and listening abilities. They have to score at least a two — meaning they could shop for groceries or rent a car — on a scale where three is fluent, Harsh said.
The nine-week aviation course prepares airmen to hold conversations with pilots in flight, crew members in the back of an aircraft, and air traffic control towers. Anyone from air traffic controllers to flight nurses can attend the course, which offers fixed-wing and rotary-wing specialties.
Around 350 foreigners from about 50 countries go through the aviation program each year, Harsh said. NATO airmen don’t often attend because they tend to be more fluent in English than people from other parts of the world.
Students are drilled on NATO’s “alpha-zulu” phonetic alphabet and the niche vocabulary, acronyms and scenarios that crackle across U.S. military radios — no accents allowed.
“These little differences have led to accidents in the past, and we really want to emphasize the importance of being clear on the radio,” Harsh said.
They take lessons on subjects like crew management and leadership, with occasional time in simulators, while learning from American airmen and their foreign classmates.
The center also tries to work through the cultural differences that can lead to safety issues, like deference to older or higher-ranking airmen. Teachers urge the international students to get comfortable asking questions.
“It’s not really a rank thing when you get in the cockpit,” Harsh said. “If you don’t ask, the instructor pilot is going to assume you know.”
If something seems amiss, he added, “Don’t assume that the IP is not making a mistake.”
“You have the right — it’s your life — to challenge that instructor pilot respectfully,” he said.
The goal is to get students up to speed so they can enter the next phase of training, like undergraduate pilot school, without a significant language barrier.
But Harsh said there’s a big difference between how fluent they need to be to finish the program and how fluent they should be to fly safely. He estimates that airmen need at least another six months of class time to be comfortably proficient, for which the United States or the partner countries would need to foot the bill.
“We’ve tried to emphasize to the military departments, this does not succeed without you,” he said. “You’ve determined the language prerequisites. DLI wildly succeeds in meeting that mark. But that’s not what the students need.”
Nearly everyone who arrives at the center passes, Harsh said. But when they reach their next stop, like undergraduate pilot training, that completion rate falls to around 78%.
“That training gap is a safety issue,” he said. “[The solution is] time and money. And nobody wants to pay that.”
The Defense Language Institute is updating the aviation English program, a process that will take another few years to come to fruition.
One of the biggest changes the English Language Center could make is forging closer ties between military experts, the follow-on training units and the curriculum team, Harsh said.
The curriculum is largely written by civilians without expertise in real-world military aviation, he said. That creates an artificial standard that makes students feel prepared until they reach their training unit.
He argues the solution is to embed military experts in the curriculum department who can act as a liaison between the training unit and the English program. That way, the expert could keep the English program apprised of what instructor pilots need and vice versa.
Harsh wishes the school had a better system in place to collect feedback from its students, like interviews, but acknowledges that it would add time and effort for already busy staffers and stressed students.
Once a year, center staff visits the follow-on training units that take its students to see how well the foreigners do within the first month. That still doesn’t paint the full picture, Harsh said.
He wants more qualitative and quantitative data on how students are faring: Why did someone need to log extra hours in the cockpit? What have their instructors said in post-flight reports?
“That is gold to us. I’ve never seen it,” Harsh said. “Without that feedback loop, we’re shooting arrows in the dark.”
And he wants the instructors that receive the students down the line to be more aware of who they’re getting.
Airmen need to establish “safe words” before they fly, he said. If an international student gets overwhelmed in the air, they can use the safe word to let their instructor know they need to pause to discuss what they’re doing.
Those simple steps can protect the instructor pilots, too.
“Be somewhat accommodating,” he said. “This is incredibly difficult. Imagine going to Japan or Korea or an Arab community to try to learn how to fly.”
Now the Air Force is trying to make clearer how proficient a student will be when they leave the language program, and what should be expected of students who finish it.
In February, Air Force international affairs staffers, flight instructors, and members of the Defense Language Institute, Air Education and Training Command and 19th Air Force — a subunit that manages pilot training — met to review the English language course’s curriculum and how it is delivered, said Air Force spokesperson Marilyn Holliday.
The English Language Center has worked on a rubric for instructor pilots to gauge how well their international students communicate, she said. Instructor pilots are helping the center make videos to familiarize international students with pre- and post-flight briefings, and pilot training bases have also provided the center with scripts so that students can rehearse conversations about take-off, flight patterns and landing.
“The visit … served as a forum to identify and bridge training and academic gaps between English language curriculum and instruction as it applies to international students,” Holliday said. “The working group will reconvene in mid-April to re-engage and assess progress on all tasks.”
The Japanese Self-Defense Forces did not respond to a request for comment on their discussions with American air training officials.
Business as normal
Business has continued as usual after the 2021 crash, said Col. Joe Schaefer, commandant of the English Language Center.
The U.S. Air Force still graduates around 50 foreign pilots each year; Schaefer said the program has maintained its relationship with Japan, a key ally in the Pacific. It retains a Japanese liaison officer who looks out for the country’s students while in the U.S.
On the first anniversary of Uesaki’s death, Schaefer said the Japanese liaison delivered a letter to Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, then the head of Air Education and Training Command.
It was a note from the pilot’s mother: Thank you for caring.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.