October 1, 1995
By Alton K. Marsh
Alarm clocks at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, blast Flight Screening Program candidates from a deep coma at 4:45 a.m. The night was a short one.
Study and practice sessions had lasted until 11:30 p.m. The students marched — chain-gang style — around a traffic pattern taped on the floor, reciting checklists and radio calls. A crude simulator helped to rehearse stall recoveries; so crude, in fact, that it has a plumber's helper for a control stick, a drawing of an instrument panel taped to the wall (improved and handed down from previous classes), and a pair of Nomex fire-resistant gloves (to get used to wearing them). Their real aircraft is the all-composite, British- built Slingsby Aviation T-3A Firefly, the U.S. Air Force's new pilot screening aircraft — a replacement for the aging fleet of T-41s (Cessna 172s).
The Air Force teaches more stalls than you can shake a plunger at during the three-week screening program. There are power-on stalls, turning stalls, break stalls, nose-low and nose-high stalls, landing and no-flap stalls. Students must memorize the procedures for all of them. They will solo twice, the first time after 14.4 hours of training (plus or minus .3 hours), and demonstrate aileron and barrel rolls, loops, Immelmanns, chandelles, and a split S. All that in just 20.5 flight hours. It's like getting a solo course, complex sign- off, and aerobatic course combined, as fast as possible. "If civilian pilots were taught this way, they'd quit," one student joked.
After breakfast, an Air Force bus takes them to the Hondo (Texas) Municipal Airport, 30 miles to the west of Lackland, and the 3rd Flying Training Squadron. It's time to demonstrate what they learned last night. Every flight counts. The three-week program is solely a screening operation, a weeding out. Students are here only for an audition.
Those who quit, such as the student who discovered his claustrophobia the first time the canopy was closed and another who hated flying upside down, are called SIEs (self-induced elimination). Almost 90 percent make it. Eleven women have entered the program in the past year; only two failed, according to Capt. Barb Watkins, an instructor. Civilians are in charge of deciding who stays and who is eliminated.
While the Air Force oversees the program and conducts 10 percent of the flight checks, the bulk of the training is done by Doss Aviation under contract. While it sounds like an FBO, it is solely an aviation services and training company formed to win military and civilian contracts. James M. Campbell, Doss' general manager, said poor landings and pattern work are usually the prime causes of washing out. Campbell says that he detests having to tell a student, "'Oops, I don't think you can do it.' The student has had this as a goal for years and years." Those who pass the screening program win an all-expenses-paid one-year flight training program to become an Air Force pilot.
Some of the 40 lieutenants and officer trainees on the bus today might not even make it past the morning preflight briefing. Before each flight the student is called to attention (to simulate the pressure of an emergency) and asked to recite an emergency checklist from memory. Most begin with, "I would maintain control of the aircraft, and, ah...." After that, no amount of ad libbing and fibbing can substitute for the correct answer. Those who fail can be grounded for the day.
The bus slows at the Hondo city limits where a sign, the town trademark, reads: "This is God's country. Please don't drive through it like hell." To this, a 1986 graduating class retorted on a classroom ceiling tile: "This is hell. Please fly through it like hell." (Each class, by tradition, leaves a pearl of wisdom on one of the tiles. Another says, "We can't fly. You can't make us.")
Contrary to popular belief, it's not easy to get into hell. Candidates must have a college degree, pass rigorous physical and psychological testing, and do well on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test, a battery of scholastic aptitude tests. It also takes career planning, such as that done by officer trainee Robert D'Alto, 25, crew chief on an Air National Guard F-15. "I used the crew chief job as a means to get to where I am," he said. To improve his chances, he also obtained a private pilot certificate and joined the Air Force ROTC program while in college studying aviation management. He expects to fly a Boeing KC-135 aircraft "...when I make it through, not if." This is a confident group.
But the first step is getting through Hondo. A week of academic training is behind them now, with most scoring 95 percent on the 75-question written test. Just identifying the parts of an airplane and its engine correctly provides a dozen correct answers. Others are tougher for beginners: "How should you trim the aircraft to increase speed during a descent?" (Nose down.) "What is the best way to cure hyperventilation?" (Talk to your instructor.) And, where exactly is the airspeed indicator on the Slingsby Aviation T67M260?
The latter question is not as easy as it might seem. The student's station is on the right side of the two-seater, because the Air Force wanted the throttle in the student's left hand as it will be in all jet trainers and fighters. More important, the Air Force didn't want the student to change hands on the stick to operate the flap lever, located between the seats. So the instructor sits on the left, and has a separate throttle on the left cabin wall. The airspeed indicator is in the upper right corner of the instrument panel near the right cabin wall. Modifications to the basic T67 like those — plus the addition of the Lycoming AEIO-540 engine and air conditioning (at least in the Texas-based aircraft) — drove the price to $302,000.
The 260-horsepower engine was needed for a nearly identical T-3A screening program at the high-elevation U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Hondo and the Air Force Academy combined will operate 113 T-3As when deliveries are completed this year. The Firefly, used as a trainer by several air forces since the mid-1980s, is also powered by 160- and 200-hp engines.
Preflight briefings begin a few minutes after the bus hisses to a stop outside the neat, two-story flight screening building. At- attention emergency checklist drills mark the briefing's end. Doss Aviation instructors are kind today; nobody is grounded. Taken together, they have instructed in every aircraft the Air Force has, except the F-117 stealth fighter and the B-2 stealth bomber. The instructors include Glen D. Estep, 66, who stopped logging flights at 20,000 hours and probably has 28,000.
Today, the last day of February, is the first flying lesson ever for Lt. Andrew S. A. Shobe, 24, of Decatur, Illinois. This course was designed for him, a zero-time pilot with only 10 previous flight hours — all of them as a passenger in a Cessna 182 with friends.
The instructor pilot (called an "IP") takes Shobe to 2,300 feet to tour the training area and identify landmarks. Each student is assigned a specific practice box and must follow an exact route to it, usually marked by narrow rural roads. Then Shobe flies the aircraft back to the airport, making all the military-style radio calls ("Ridge Control, Rebel 15, base.") and enters the pattern. "Ridge Control" refers to Doss Aviation's non-radar approach and departure control. "Rebel" means the aircraft is in the south practice area. And "15" is the IP's code number. The IP demonstrates a straight-in landing, not the madcap tight pattern normally used — and then it's Shobe's turn. With the instructor's assistance, he makes his first landing.
Later that night, Shobe will phone his dad, who also entered the Air Force and waited for a training slot that never opened. Shobe — impressed by the flying background of other students — asks the IP if he has ever trained a zero-time pilot. "Yes, and they all went to UPT [undergraduate pilot training conducted at several air bases, the next step after Hondo]," the IP reassures him. (Shobe graduated in March.)
While the Flight Screening Program is designed for zero-time pilots, at least some flight experience is recommended. "More and more people are coming here with their private," said Doss general manager Campbell. "It is to their advantage. The syllabus is more complex [than in past Air Force training]." Lt. Scott Phillips found five hours of civilian flight training before coming to Hondo to be "the best investment I ever made." Lt. Shawn A. Vaughn, a CFI with 1,100 total hours, said the learning pace is "...like a firehose in your mouth; a torrent of information."
The pace literally has trainees talking in their sleep. "One guy woke up saying, 'Checklist complete,' " Vaughn recalled. Even though he was a civilian CFI during college, Vaughn was surprised at his own improvement. (He also passed the program in March.) Jeffrey Vissepo of Puerto Rico came to Hondo with 650 hours and experience as copilot of a DC-3. "It doesn't help to have flown a DC-3," Vissepo said. "I feel like I have zero time."
While Shobe was on his first flight, others were learning the military break — a quick arrival at the home airport that is used in combat to limit exposure to enemy fire. Students flog their sporty white glass-reinforced-plastic Fireflies upwind, called "initial," at the pattern altitude of 800 feet agl and 120 knots. As they pass over the first 3,000 feet of runway, power comes back and a 45-degree banked turn is entered towards downwind. Ninety degrees into the turn, power comes up to 15 inches of manifold pressure. At the 180- degree point, the aircraft is rolled wings level on a tight, "inside" downwind, with the speed at 85 knots.
Altitude is maintained until the touchdown point is 45 degrees behind the wing, a position called the "perch." The checklist to get off the perch is, "flaps, pitch, power, roll." (IP Les Davis uses "Flipper," a mnemonic device for flaps, pitch, power, roll, radio. None use GUMP.) The aircraft is pitched down to a four-degree glidepath (the windscreen will show two-thirds land, one-third sky), power is brought to idle, and the aircraft is rolled into a 30-degree bank towards the runway. The goal is to judge the wind so well that a constant 30-degree bank will perfectly intercept the extended runway center line. Pretty complicated for a student, but they don't know that; they think it's fun.
Speed is reduced over the threshold to 70 knots, and the aircraft is landed on the main gear only; then it is time to go around. The Firefly leaps into the air even before full power is reached, sometimes distracting students and causing them to stop throttle advancement — a no-no.
Once airborne, one of the IPs tells his student, "Let's get some smash for the monster closed." In English, he wants the student to build the speed (smash) to at least 120 knots, using a low rate of climb, then roll 30 to 60 degrees towards downwind while executing a three-G (monster) pullup. The aircraft reaches (closed) pattern altitude at 85 knots. The pattern is so tight that the runway appears to intersect the wing's mid-point. The student performs a touch- and-go this way every two minutes.
Despite the hectic pace, most progress rapidly. Every student, of course, must pass a final checkride. That ride can be taken with a civilian evaluation instructor such as Greg Baldasarri, who might well be called The Terminator. He has the highest flunk rate in the squadron: 40 percent. "I don't cut them much slack," Baldassari admits. (Those who fail have a second chance with an Air Force pilot.)
The Terminator gives tough but fair checkrides, better than the one taken in 1959 at Hondo by retired Air Force Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, former Air Force chief of staff. The Hondo training base was closing, and flight instructors were scrambling to find new jobs. McPeak's instructor decided to drop off a job application at another Texas air base during the checkride. It was late in the day, and the employment office would soon close. The instructor, a civilian, ordered McPeak to violate one regulation after another, including excessive power settings, things McPeak had been taught not to do. McPeak got angry and devised a plan to get even: He decided he would land, stop the engine, chock the wheels, and coldcock the instructor. But after landing, the instructor got out early — in front of the employment office. "That is the only thing that saved my career in the Air Force," McPeak recalls. Years later, when he flew with the Thunderbirds, McPeak looked for that instructor in the crowd so he could say, "That's me up there, you dummy."
McPeak's training plan called for him to return to Hondo solo: the instructor switched to another student. On the night flight back, McPeak fell permanently in love with flying. "It was night, almost other-worldly. It was just me and the stars. That feeling is what flying has meant to me over the years," he said. Perhaps today's graduates, one of them possibly a future chief of staff, will leave Hondo with the same feeling.
Late this year Slingsby Aviation will decide whether to offer the general public the Firefly, which has gained a strong foothold around the world as a military trainer in the past decade. The first civilian aircraft, probably powered by the same Lycoming AEIO-540 used by the U.S. Air Force, would be available in 1996 if the decision is positive. The price has not been determined.
Several transient civilian pilots visiting Hondo Municipal Airport, Texas, have toured the Firefly assembly facility just 100 yards from the Air Force Flight Screening Program building. Most have begged to be put on a waiting list, even after learning the Air Force's cost of $302,000. But employees of Northrop Grumman, Slingsby's partner in the Air Force contract for 113 aircraft, aren't taking any names. Not yet.
Why would anyone want to pay that kind of money for a relatively slow two-seater? Because it can do it all: It can teach pilots not only to fly, but to roll, loop, spin, hammerhead — all the basic maneuvers (or manoeuvres, as it says on cabin placards). To find out what the Firefly can do, Pilot decided to kick the tyres (again, a British placard) and literally take it for a spin.
Spins and stalls were not permitted on the day of the flight, pending an accident investigation at the Air Force Academy. A student and instructor, killed in a Firefly two weeks before Pilot visited Hondo, were thought to have been practicing stalls or spins just before the accident. Ceilings were from 1,800 to 2,300 feet on the day of our demonstration flight. Training is strictly VFR, so "Rebel 15," the aircraft assigned, became the weather ship for the squadron. Reports from our aircraft by Capt. Dave Kelly resulted in restricting all trainers to the pattern that day. The end result was a 60-mile tour of the training area and demonstrations of steep turns and military procedures in the pattern.
There is no question of the aircraft's value as a trainer. The Firefly literally flies loops around the non-aerobatic T-41 (Cessna 172) it replaced. The T-41s have all gone to happy retirements at Air Force aero clubs from Texas to Japan. But would those interested in formal aerobatic competition be interested in a Firefly? Perhaps not those above the "basic" beginner level.
During the flight the roll rate seemed slower than the Bellanca Decathlon I had recently flown. Slingsby officials said the roll rate — as determined by FAA testing criteria — is only 60 degrees per second. "But you can flick roll [snap roll] it at 120 degrees per second," a Slingsby official in England said. Those in Hondo who know the airplane well agree that the faster rate is possible. "If the wings were just a little bit shorter, it would roll better," said one. Fins on the ailerons add stability, especially at slower speeds, such as when landing — just the sort of stability needed by a flight trainer but not by an aerobatic trainer. The Firefly is a good compromise between the two missions. For now, those close to the Firefly claim only "graceful" aerobatics, not snappy ones. Tail slides and vertical spins are prohibited.
But how about normal spins? Beginning aerobatic students must not only spin during formal competition, but spin to a heading. Therein lies the problem with the Firefly. Some Firefly pilots in Hondo said it could be spun but not stopped on a heading. "Rubbish," said a Slingsby official in England. "The aircraft is used by flying clubs here and has won the national standard [beginner] title." An Air Force pilot who helps supervise the training program, the Slingsby official claimed, can spin it to within a few degrees of a desired heading.
It took a few more interviews, however, to discover why there is disagreement on that point. The Firefly doesn't enter a fully developed spin for one to two turns. Pilots who say they come out on a heading actually fly it out during the first one or two turns, without using anti-spin control positions. Those who spin the aircraft for more than two turns can bring it out easily enough but say they have no idea what the final heading will be.
As a cross-country airplane, the Firefly is, well, a trainer. Instructors who are allowed to take it cross-country on weekends to maintain their proficiency say they flight plan for 130 knots. Visibility is unequaled, an especially important trait for an Air Force trainer that may share the pattern with 10 other aircraft (and 10 more using the parallel runway). The pilot has a feeling of being "outdoors," with visibility limited only by the twisting ability of the human neck.
Issuance of earplugs by the Air Force prior to the demonstration flight at first appeared to be overly cautious, especially since each aircraft is equipped with headsets. Those who spend several hours a day in them say they are as noisy as a Cessna 172, at least in the cabin.
The strongest selling point is the aircraft's power, the marriage of the 260-horsepower engine to the all-composite airframe (or glass-reinforced plastic, as Slingsby calls it). One student spoke admiringly of blasting through a thin cloud layer in a vertical climb. (Watch it. The operating handbook says zero-G maneuvers, vertical climbs, and knife-edge flight are limited to 10 seconds.) It feels like a jet, and that makes it fun to fly.
The second-strongest point is the non-corrosive, tough airframe. One of the aircraft at Hondo returned from an aerobatic training flight with 8 Gs registered on the G meter. The aircraft, which is placarded for six positive and three negative Gs, was inspected and found to have no damage. Circulating in Hondo are reports of pilots in England who intentionally exceed the 195-knot VNE speed by 30 or 40 knots for better control during aerobatic flight, with no damage to the airframe — at least for now. The aircraft is G-limited when the structural temperature, read on a cockpit instrument from sensors in the left and right wing roots, reaches 131 degrees Fahrenheit.
Maintenance problems appear to be minor. There were problems with engine cooling last summer, but engine baffling mods made by Sierra Industries of Uvalde, Texas, may be the cure. Engines were overheating, causing vapor lock and stoppage of the engine during taxi. Also, at least a half-dozen fixed rudder trim tabs have fallen off in flight, but mechanics merely glue new ones on. Rudder pedal stops come off frequently, because there is no metal frame on the cabin floor to hold them properly. Flap handles were brazed, not welded, and one broke off. The Air Force is welding them. "Those were pretty much growing pains, and we have eliminated those now," Kelly said. But those are minor problems, and student said they like the aircraft.
What an advantage it would be for those who dream of an Air Force career to rent the very same aircraft at their local airport. For now, the only way to ride in one is to call your friendly Air Force recruiter.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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