The squadron in charge of training Air Force Special Operations Command gunship crews is adapting training methods to accommodate increasing numbers of newly winged airmen.
AFSOC used to be the second or third stop in an airman’s career. But now 65 to 70 percent of the airmen are coming directly out of undergraduate pilot school and basic training because the demand for special operations forces is so high, says Lt. Col. Dag Anderson, commander of the 19th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
In 2000, the squadron was training about 990 students annually. This year, the number of students will be pushing 4,000. On top of that, instructors have to continue conducting refresher training courses for experienced CV-22 Osprey and MC-130 Talon aviators.
To keep up with demand, the squadron is shifting to computer-based instruction with an emphasis on interactive gaming, says Anderson. “Going through the PowerPoints or a slide carousel is like going through digital flash cards,” Anderson says. The drill becomes more of a memorization technique than learning.
The squadron is moving away from PowerPoint presentations in favor of interactive lessons. For example, student pilots who are familiarizing themselves with a new cockpit can click on virtual switches to learn what functions they perform. Previously, they had to sit in actual aircraft on the flight line running through the same drills with instructors. Now more than half their training is embedded in simulators. The school ultimately wants to make materials available on iPods and iPads, says Anderson.
Freshly winged pilots proceed through five to six months of training with the squadron. Because they have to be ready for combat within weeks of graduating from the class, graduates do not have time to exercise or go into operations “gently,” says Anderson.
To underscore the point, he shows a video that was shot during an actual gunship operation overseas. The grainy infrared footage, sanitized for public viewing, shows an aerial view of a field filmed from an AC-130U aircraft flying above six Navy SEALs who were ambushed by four enemy attackers. One SEAL has been shot in the face. The gunship crew is told that they are cleared to fire on the enemy in close proximity to the friendly forces who are struggling to pull their casualties to safety. The infrared sensor operator, who was on his first deployment, keeps his crosshairs firmly on the enemy targets. The radio calls between the navigator and crew proceed calmly as the rounds take out the enemy.
Students receive 100 hours in simulation training that is broken down into four phases. The training squadron has linked a flight simulator to stationary crew station trainers so that pilots and engineers can fly missions in the cockpit with navigators, fire control officers and sensor operators manning their positions and chatting on the radios.
The sensor operators are the most challenging to train because they are often the most inexperienced crewmembers and they have to use older technology to accomplish their tasks. “It’s hard to keep track of orientation, of where they are looking with respect to the ship,” Anderson explains.
Gunship loadmasters, ground and maintenance crews train in a decommissioned C-130 aircraft from Little Rock Air Force Base. On a late spring morning, students were conducting rapid off-loading and on-loading of trucks, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles.
Back inside the schoolhouse, Anderson welcomed reporters to the mission rehearsal observation center. The room contains several computer workstations facing a wall of displays.
In a training exercise with Australian forces, ground troops in the Outback transmitted coordinates to a gunship crew flying in a simulator here. The crew was able to communicate with the Australian joint terminal attack controller who helped guide the gunship to virtually destroy a building next to ground troops there.
During the Emerald Warrior exercise in the States, tactical controllers located at Fort Bragg, N.C., called in a strike by a live F/A-18 fighter flying on a military range and a gunship crew flying in a simulator here at the school. It was the first integration of a live fighter with a simulated gunship, says Anderson.
In the coming months, crews will conduct such training on a daily basis. The room will convert into a mission center with students sitting in the auditorium seats learning as they watch.
“It’s an exciting shift in training,” says Anderson.