Your connection with the sky

Expanding the Envelope: What GA Pilots Can Learn from USAF Proficiency Flying

I know what it takes to stay current and proficient in the aircraft that I fly.  And I work hard at it.  I fly two similar kinds of aircraft for the Civil Air Patrol.  I fly them frequently, both looking out the window and with a view-limiting device to hone and maintain my instrument skills.  And I fly tail-dragging aerobatic aircraft upside down.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. But I wondered what it was like maintaining currency when your flying has a little bit more riding on it than mine usually does.

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It struck me some time ago that the US Air Force has many exotic platforms that are expensive, difficult, or both, to fly.  Because of that, the Air Force uses “companion trainers.”  A companion trainer is an aircraft other than your primary platform that you fly to maintain proficiency.  Sometimes that proficiency is in the things that are the same in your primary platform.  Sometimes the companion trainer is almost nothing like your primary platform.

The US Air Force has more than its share of exotic platforms.  From the legendary U-2 Dragon Lady to the ghostly B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.  These are great platforms for their purposes, but they’re expensive to fly and they require a lot of ground and other crew to operate.  So the pilots who fly these platforms also fly companion trainers.  Like the T-38 Talon.

The T-38 looks like an aggressive lawn dart.  It’s pointy and it’s rated to fly supersonic.  It has about 140 sq. ft. of wing area.  That’s less than the Cessna 172s that I sometimes fly, yet the T-38’s wings lift five times more than the wings of those Cessnas.  It’s built for speed.  It set several records when it first flew. 

Want to talk about a pointy and slippery airplane?  If the engine dies in a Cessna 172, you pitch for an airspeed of 65 knots, which is the best glide speed for that airplane.  And you get something like 1.5 to 2 miles of glide distance for every 1,000 feet of altitude.  If you lose the engine in your T-38, you pitch for – get this – 260 knots.

Some affectionately call the T-38 the “White Rocket” after the early paint scheme that the model usually wore.  Today, it flies in NASA white, military gray, and even a stealthy-looking black.

It’s used for advanced training of Air Force pilots who are on the fighter-bomber track.  NASA operates several of them and you can often see the T-38 as the chase plane escorting the Space Shuttle orbiter to landing.  And, like I said, it’s a companion trainer.

I wanted to see what it was like to fly in this legendary aircraft, so I headed out to Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, California to ride along on a T-38 sortie with LtCol Gary MacLeod of the Air Force's 9th Reconnaissance Wing.  LtCol MacLeod is an experienced U-2 driver who, like others in the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron, flies the T-38 for proficiency.

The 99th RW is an amazing operation.  It consists of more than 3,000 airmen around the world that provide accurate, fast, and persistent information that supports decision-making for everything from combat strategy and tactics to humanitarian relief.  If you’re thinking Cold War -style intel and Francis Gary Powers, you’ve got it partly right.  But you don’t have the whole picture.  The 9th RW also flew crucial reconnaissance missions over Haiti in the days after the January 2010 earthquake when the nation’s ground infrastructure was impassable and high-resolution airborne operations were the only real way to conduct critical damage assessments and decide how best to direct humanitarian relief.

The 9th RW’s primary platforms are the U-2 Dragon Lady and the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

With a wingspan of 103 feet and a length of only 63 feet, the U-2 is essentially a turbofan-powered glider.  It gets off the runway in only 400 feet.  I know, I saw one launch just ahead of my flight.  It’s designed to fly high reconnaissance missions at 70,000 feet, where the difference between the speed at which the aircraft stalls and the speed at which the wings come off is only about 12 knots.  (And you thought airspeed control was important in the pattern!)

On the flight, I mounted three cameras in the airplane and had a fourth in my flight suit pocket for hand-held operation.  After an examination by the flight surgeon and a several hours of training on the aircraft’s systems and emergency procedures, LtCol MacLeod and I strapped in and went out for a 1.2 hour demonstration of the aircraft’s capabilities.

A full description of the flight is beyond the scope of this post, but I’m editing the video and several interviews for a video episode of Airspeed, my podcast.  I’m hoping to release the episode in January.  It’ll have full details and lots of in-flight footage.

Suffice it to say that we flew along the California coast, did some aerobatics in the nearby Military Operations Area (or “MOA”) and made it almost to Lake Tahoe on the other side before returning.  We pulled something like +5G/-1G and peak speed was Mach 0.94 (520 knots indicated).  I got to see a good portion of the airplane’s flight envelope.

But I also got to see a good portion of LtCol MacLeod’s flight envelope as well.  He's a senior Air Force officer whose primary platform is a huge black glider that’s one of the fussiest aircraft that any pilot ever landed.  The T-38 is about as different as an aircraft can be from the U-2 while still having fixed wings.  But he had complete and authoritative command of the T-38 at every moment from start-up to shut-down.  Not that I ever doubted that he would, but the experience brought home for me both the breadth and depth of his skills – and the skills of any Air Force pilot.

And there’s a lesson there for general aviation pilots.  We need to expand our envelopes well beyond what we usually experience in our primary aircraft.  If the Air Force thinks it’s important for a U-2 driver to go crank and bank in a T-38 (and if that U-2 driver gets and stays needles-painted-on steady in the T-38), that’s all the convincing I need.

I’m not saying that we all need to got get rated in every manner of aircraft.  There’s a point where your attentions get so divided that you’re no good in any of the aircraft that you fly (believe me – I’ve been there).

But I am saying that it behooves all of us to obtain (and keep obtaining) relevant experience in parts of the envelope where we don’t otherwise spend a lot of time.  That might mean flying some light aerobatics.  It might mean doing upset recovery where the instructor says “your airplane,” you open your eyes, and you’re upside down with the stall horn blaring and the engine sputtering.  It might mean getting up in a seaplane and learning what stalls are like when there's a lot of draggy junk hanging off the bottom of the airplane.  It might mean getting a couple of glider sorties under your belt.  It might mean going out and practicing engine-outs until you honestly feel that your ability to get the aircraft down in a beanfield is more then just a crapshoot.  It might mean flying something a lot bigger, smaller, faster, or slower than what you normally fly.

Whatever it means to you, it’s a good idea to sit down with a qualified instructor and talk about new experiences would make you a better pilot. 

And this advice isn’t just for experienced pilots.  It goes double for students.  There’s no reason not to go get dual instruction in something completely different from the aircraft in which you’re training.  Unless it’s really exotic, it’ll still count toward your certificate and it’ll almost certainly make you a more fully-rounded candidate when you head to the airport for your checkride.

In any case, you’ll only have to take my written word for it for a little while longer.  The video episode from the T-38 ride will be out soon and you’ll get to see for yourself what it’s like to strap into a T-38 and launch into a cobalt-blue California sky.

If you're interested in learning more about the 9th RS and the 99th RS or about the Air Force, please head back through this post.  I've included lots of links to good information.

3 Responses to “Expanding the Envelope: What GA Pilots Can Learn from USAF Proficiency Flying”

  1. Danny T. Wallace Says:
    January 26th, 2011 at 1:44 am

    I love this article. It brings back a mindset I’ve had deep down all the time before I read it. My background is as a former military helicopter pilot. Now since I don’t fly as an employee, it’s all recreational or business. I'm still working on my fix wing add on which I just never got around to finishing. In instrument flying, the difference between rotor wing and fixed wing is the ability to keep the aircraft stable. We all know airplanes want to fly, once trimmed out the work load is much less than with a helicopter. I feel instrument practice in the helicopter develops instincts that you rely on to keep your passengers happy and safe while you are under the hood or in the clear in both aircraft.

  2. Awesome...It's nice share that, thanks very much!

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