“Just like the simulations”: veteran instructor pilots shape next gen American airpower

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Austen Jarboe
  • 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Wouldn’t it be nice if life came with a reset button? You could decide against gas station sushi at 2 a.m., recall that angry email to your boss and even find the right words to get the prom date you always wanted. If only you could learn from your embarrassing mistakes in real time and be given a second chance to redeem yourself.

That reset button does exist for the pilots studying with the 12th Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

Flight simulators provide a risk-free environment for pilots to experience a wide range of maneuvers and emergency situations without ever leaving the ground. The wrong choice, which could have catastrophic implications in the air, can be easily rewound to give student pilots another chance to develop their skills.

“A simulator can range from a desktop computer with a joystick and a keyboard to something you sit down in and fly, and there’s everything in between,” said Lt. Col. John Platt, 12th TRS director of operations.

The 12th TRS simulators feature fully functioning cockpits with wrap-around visuals for the optimal training experience.

The high-definition quality of the simulator experience helps to immerse the pilot in the scenario they are executing.

“When you’re in there flying, sometimes you feel like you’re moving even though you’re not,” Platt said.

The flight simulators at the 12th TRS provide safe and effective training solutions for pilots while lowering the overall costs of flight training.

“There is no substitute for actually flying an airplane,” Platt said. “However, the more training we can do on simulators, the more money the Air Force can save on flying aircraft.”

The 12th TRS simulator shop supports every airframe currently flying at JBSA-Randolph.

“T-1, T-6, T-38, and Intro to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) are the four disciplines that we teach here,” said Frank King, 12th TRS simulator lead.

As the Air Force faces pilot shortages across multiple airframes, the training pipeline is full of pilots eager to train.

“If you look at our ops tempo in the last couple of months, we are just blowing everything up with the number of sims and academics that we’re teaching,” King said. “We’re at the highest ops pace that I’ve seen, and I’ve been here since 2010.”

The simulator mission is essential to producing quality aviators of the future; however, the instructors at the 12th TRS face the same manning issues that affect flying units across the Air Force.

“I have 50 instructors, but I’m down two in IFF, down two in the T-6 and have a guy about to retire in the T-1 at the end of the month,” King said. “So quick math, five out of 50, I’m 10 percent undermanned right now and in the coming year, we’ll probably see some more people retire.”

The instructor pilot shortage is exacerbated by the high salaries and big opportunities offered by the civilian sector.

“The people that we want to hire here are now going to the airlines and they’re going to the airlines in big numbers,” King said. “As long as the airlines are hiring, we are going to be in a battle for manning here.”

The ideal candidates the 12th TRS covets have a unique skill set that makes them valuable to any organization that needs veteran pilots.

“Every one of us has been an instructor pilot in the Air Force, you can’t do this job if you haven’t been an instructor,” King said.

The wealth of experience currently within the simulator shop is what makes them an exceptional cadre.

“I’ve got guys that have flown B-1s, B-52s, F-15Cs, guys that flew Aggressors at Nellis, C-17s, KC-135s, C-5s, really every aircraft in the Air Force inventory,” said King. “The only thing we don’t have is an instructor who flew the SR-71.”

Civilian airlines can sometimes offer larger pay and other benefits, but nothing compares to the impact the cadre at the 12th TRS has on the future of the force.

“As a foundation, what we do here echoes throughout generations of the Air Force,” King said.

Much of the mission is focused on training new instructor pilots who will teach the next wave of Air Force aviators.

“The instructor pilots that we help mold here, we’re the first people that they come in contact with, so we set an example as an instructor, by our knowledge, how we present ourselves,” said King. “That carries over to the flightline and whatever we’ve given them, they’re going to now teach to that next generation.”

The instructor pilots at the 12th TRS can have an almost exponential impact on the future of the Air Force.

“Truthfully, there’s pride associated with that, that we’re teaching pilots who will teach the next pilots who will eventually take our place,” King said.

Perhaps even more important than the high-definition visuals and advanced technology of the simulators are the thousands of flight hours and countless stories shared by the seasoned instructor cadre.

“If the students come over here and want to talk about something, we’re glad to share our experience with them,” King said. “We can really provide not only the ’what,’ but the ’why’ behind flying in the Air Force.”

As it ventures deeper into the 21st century, the Air Force needs to retain all the knowledge and experience it can from its veteran pilots. Hopefully, the opportunity to shape the future of thousands of new pilots will be a strong enough draw to retain the homegrown talent of these experienced aviators.

The future of American airpower is at stake and, much like flying a real aircraft, there is no reset button if things do not go as planned.