AIM HIGH – Air Force Primary Jet Instruction

I wanted to share how I was taught to fly and teach in the USAF.   While a jet vs. glider sounds very different, perhaps much can be learned from Air Force methods.  It had one goal:  produce consistently the best pilots in the quickest amount of time and with the fewest use of resources (on time & budget).

You’ll see indented text like this below.  I’ll use that to highlight the training concept involved.  Couldn’t some of these things be done to train our glider students more quickly and with greater success & satisfaction?

My plane was the Cessna T-37, which was used until 2009.   As a student, this was make or break, were you capable of becoming an Air Force Pilot?    As we were told, “The United States Air Force could teach a chimpanzee how to fly, but you know what — we don’t have the time or money to train chimps!”

As an IP (Instructor Pilot) I also became a Flight Scheduler for our ‘classroom’ of about 13 instructors and 30 students.  The USAF statistics said we’d lose a third of the students. Most would wash out prior to solo.

The T-37, a definitely complex aircraft:  two jet engines, hydraulic systems, generators, inverter, three tank fuel system, UHF radios, transponder, a fully stuffed instrument panel,  explosive charges for the canopy & ejection seat, and pages of checklists and procedures.  Click here for the Dash One (POH).

Training prior to Solo – the book & syllabus

We followed one book & syllabus. They laid out what was expected as training progressed.  We knew what to teach, when, and what the performance standard was.  I don’t have the syllabus, but here is an example of what both students and instructors read.  Interested in what they use for Soaring Instruction at the Academy:  The syllabus and the student manual.

A simple concept, all instructors use the same training manual, techniques, and maneuver standards.  This insures the student isn’t confused and learning interference is reduced when flying with other instructors.  What does your Club do?

There were 12 flights in the syllabus, broken into 4 blocks of instruction, 3 rides each.  Then you had to be ready to go solo.  It was demanding on both instructors and students.  Actually, the ride limit was used to force IPs to decide — can this person solo without getting killed?  It was a benchmark.

I’ve seen many CFIGs fret over whether a student was ready to solo. I can recall just graduating from Pilot Instructor Training, returning to my base, and joining a flight room.  It just happened they were starting a new class and I had three fresh students to solo.  I had a little anxiety at the start, but I just followed the program, insured they met standards, and each soloed on time.  Happy to say I never had a student wash out.

Before the First Flight

Time in the air was precious. Plenty on the ground for memorizing procedures,  maneuvers, how they were performed, ‘chair flying’ at home, table briefs with an IP.

Ground prep. insured the only thing going on in the aircraft (the activity that could ONLY HAPPEN in the aircraft) was the  ‘student practice’ of flying. My role as IP was safety observer and conversation limited to brief comments.

  • Students kept notebooks – I’d tell my studs, “I’ll explain every detail and answer every question.  But only once.  If you don’t have a perfect memory, you need to take notes and I will wait for you to write it down…. then take it home for review & practice.”
  • The preflight inspection or ‘walk around’ –  An instructor takes students out to a parked aircraft and covers everything we looked for before getting into the cockpit.  Students were encouraged to go out to the flight line and practice before they ever flew.

Once we left the flight room and walked out toward the aircraft I just quietly followed the student around.  They took the lead, they made the decisions, they told me the ship was ready and we could hop in.

  • Memorizing checklist procedures and operating limits – there were pages and pages of stuff.  The “Interior Inspection” covered everything in the cockpit.  It had 55 different items and that was just up to “ENGINE START.”  The student was expected to run the checklist from memory with only occasional glances to the printed copy to insure nothing had been missed.  Completion time, a couple of minutes. I can still remember myself going out and jumping into an aircraft and practicing the procedures till it was just reflex.
  • Memorize a ‘choreograph’ of a typical flight –  What works in a dance routine also works in flying! This was one of the first things I’d have my students record in their notebooks.  I talked them thru every single part of a flight, throttle settings, airspeeds, radio calls, ground tracks, checklist procedures, maneuvers.  It took a lot of pages!Then I told them: Take it home, sit down at the kitchen table, with a broom handle between your legs, and ‘chair fly’ the entire flight.  Make the signals to the crew chief for engine start.  For a radio call, move your hand to set the freq on the imaginary radio, say the calls out loud, keep another hand on those imaginary throttles, call out the airspeeds required.

Before flying they knew what they would be expected to do and when. They could describe the steps needed to complete a maneuver or phase of flight.  The only thing left was actual practice.

  • Simulation/Media Center – there were the old LINK trainers (a simulated cockpit and instrument panel) that was good for procedures and instrument training, but no visual.  We then received the full-motion simulators and realistic video.  A much better environment.   A Library type media center had individual tables and slide carousels with photos while the student listened to narration at their own pace.

Before EVERY Flight – briefing

We ALWAYS had time for a full and detailed sit down briefing before each flight (even had a checklist for that!). The students knew what they needed to practice and I could confirm by checking their grade book (no desktop PCs back then!).

The student did the entire briefing of the planned flight profile and I just listened.  If she had questions we’d discuss those items together.  We tried to limit surprises during a flight.

GOTCHAI might question the student about procedures/maneuvers they were required to know.  If I didn’t get the right answer I read them the ‘Riot Act’ on preparation and it better not happen again if they wanted to be a USAF Pilot.  Never had to say it twice.

During Flight – quiet!

The student had briefed the flight and maneuvers we’d perform.  I rarely had to fly and talk thru a maneuver demo more than once or twice.  As the flight progressed my comments were short.  We wore helmets and oxygen masks, the intercom was initially on ‘hot mike’, so we heard each other talking/breathing.  After we had some altitude I’d switch to ‘comm’. I could still hear the student, but he couldn’t hear me.  I’d even disconnect part of my mask.  They knew I wasn’t planning on talking, more importantly, they knew they were doing a good job!

If we were getting outside limits it was just a word:  ‘altitude’ or ‘airspeed’ or ‘groundtrack’ or ‘checklist’ or ‘radiocall’  — that usually got them to correct and didn’t destroy their train of thought.  If they butchered a maneuver and I needed to talk in sentences, I’d take aircraft control and we’d discuss things and/or I might repeat a  demo.  After that, made sure we both knew what was next, and then give them control.

A student is either flying the aircraft or listening to you talk.  They can’t do both. They develop confidence by making their own decisions and completing maneuvers without instructor babbling.  If it’s safe, it’s fine!  When we get on the ground will discuss in detail deviations and how to do it better next time.

After EVERY Flight – grading

Flights were usually a 1.3 and students usually came back exhausted.  There was ALWAYS time for a full debrief.  I would pull out a blank grade sheet and it listed every maneuver and phase of flight starting with “Ground Ops”.

The grading was simple (and perhaps a bit too judgemental  and self-esteem shattering for modern sensibilities):

  • U – The ‘hook’, unsatisfactory (unsafe).  Enough said.
  • F – Fair. The item was completed safely, but deviations were excessive from acceptable standards (we had common standards, e.g airspeed +/- 10 knots, altitude +/- 100 feet, except in the pattern, no minus allowed!).
  • G – Good. The item met standards with minor deviations.
  • E – Excellent.  Just a superb job.

The above items were always graded on an absolute scale, e.g. in first few flights most air work items were UNSATISFACTORY.  But there was a subjective ‘Overall Grade’ at the end, same scale, that compared their progress to other students in the same phase of training.

Redemption!  Good indicated you were proceeding as expected. You could get a bunch of hooks and still be ‘Good’ or even ‘Excellent.’    The United States Air Force has a heart!

Each block of instruction (3-4 flights) had required grades to exit the block and there were no exceptions.  Each item had to meet the standard, e.g. Landing proficiency would progress from U -> F -> G  (you never had to be excellent!).

We talked about each item, even if only briefly.  It’s amazing how much more you remember about flight details when looking at a grade sheet.  It also gives the student feedback on their progress and areas that need work.

After EVERY Flight – EP (Emergency Procedure)

This was usually the last debrief item.  There were a LOT of things that could go very wrong or somewhat wrong with the aircraft, we tried to review all of them.  In a typical session I’d ask the student, “It’s a beautiful day, low winds. Your takeoff from 31 was normal. You just finished contact with Departure Control and are passing 3,000′.  You see a flashing red light in the right engine fuel shutoff T-handle.  What do you do?”

The student would then be expected to talk me thru every thought process and step they would take until the aircraft is back on the ground.  In cases where they needed to know the aircraft’s response to an action, they would ask me.

Sound a lot like the new buzzword ‘Scenario Based Training’… USAFs been doing it for over 35 years and it works very well. Unfortunately, other than in presentations, I rarely see it done on a regular basis in gliders.

Instructor Continuity

This was a big deal. I used to put up the flying schedule, I knew every IP a student had flown with.  The scheduling rule – only two instructors prior to solo. The USAF had a lot of historical statistics and found a very strong correlation between student success and number of instructors they’d flown with.

We kept the number down prior to solo and even after that it was fairly restricted, maybe 4 during all of Primary Jet training.  We’d expand a student’s exposure based on their progress, some with more, some less.  You could learn technique from any IP on the ground, it was controlled in the air.

Reality Check: I’ve heard experienced gliders guys say it benefits a student to fly with different people prior to solo.  If beginning students progressed faster by flying with a bunch of people the USAF would be doing that – but they don’t!  However, I do understand the limitations in only weekend flying, limited instructors.  It should be treated as a necessary evil and managed as much as possible. It is not a plus….

Standards and Evaluation

Back then the USAF had stan-eval, these were the guys that did independent checks and audits and reported directly to the commander.  Nobody likes doing paperwork and properly documenting student progress and evaluations can be a pain.  As we were repeatedly reminded, “The student’s GRADE BOOK is what graduates from pilot training.”

To make any of this work, someone in the Club, reporting directly to the President, needs to conduct checks. Doesn’t even have to be an instructor to check compliance with written procedures.   No need for CFIGs to get mad at this individual, he’s just there to count beans.  He’s not condemning, squealing, or passing judgement, just reporting the results to the President/Board.

Can it work for Soaring Clubs?

I visited the Air Force Academy Soaring program a few years back.  They used similar principles to what I’ve describe here.   Fresh students, with no flying experience, would solo in a glider after 12 flights.

The FAA, “Aviation Instructor’s Handbook” :  Before getting my CFII I had to take the written test.  I read and took notes of FAA-H-8083-9A.  It pretty much calls out most of the items the USAF does, but how rarely it seems to be done in glider training?  It demands a lot of the instructor/school, but it’s an efficient and much more satisfying program.

Class Size:  One?  In Clubs it appears the usual training class size is ONE.  There is a lot of instruction that occurs on the ground and can be just as effectively done with several students.   Having a ‘team’ of students go thru training together increase comradeship and working together (especially with juniors).  A kid (and parents) signing up for a high school sport has to commit to a rigorous schedule of practices/games.  We’re teaching someone how to FLY, shouldn’t we be as rigorous?

Two key things in learning to fly:  You have to come to the field on a regular basis.  You must have been done your homework and be ready to fly.

I’ve watched Clubs in operation and I still scratch my head at first come, first serve flights with CFIGs.  Every club has students who just won’t/can’t devote the time required to make good progress.  They show up maybe once/twice in a month.

I can recall waiting while a kid who made his monthly visit got three back-to-back flights while I and others were still waiting.  Limited instructors/limited resources – apply them first to the people who have made a solid commitment to learning.  You will get them thru the program faster and have more time to apply to others.

In Gratitude: My special thanks to my T-37 IP, Capt. Gregg Larson, he made me a pilot and helped me achieve a dream.  I was the first one to Solo in my UPT class (he was also the scheduler!) and tried to follow in his footsteps as an IP.  How can I ever forget my classmates, UPT Class “80-01” at Columbus AFB.  We cared for each other, even though our class motto was “Every Man An A$$ Hole!”

Your Comments:  Are welcome whether you agree/disagree, please just be polite.  I’ll make sure they appear for others to read.

About John Murtari 2 Articles
John is a USAF Academy Graduate and has a Bachelors in Astronautical Engineering and a Masters in Computer Science from Syracuse University. He was USAF T-37 jet instructor pilot, has a CFII multi-engine, and now really enjoys gliders and is working toward a CFIG. John does contract Software Engineering. He is also very, very involved in Family Rights.

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