Army Aviators Better Trained, But at Higher Costs

By Michael L. Wesolek

ArmyAviatorsA new Army flight-training program has made it possible for helicopter pilots to gain combat proficiency much faster than was previously possible. The expediency of the training, however, comes with a higher price tag, according to recent studies.

The program, called “flight school XXI,” began to take shape about five years ago.

Previously, the Army trained its aviators using the initial-entry rotary-wing (IERW) training program, which required students to move through sequential phases of training in aircraft that were not used in the active duty Army.

The initial-entry rotary-wing training was structured similarly to the flight school XXI program. One major difference is that IERW students did not transition to advanced aircraft while attending flight school. Instead, they flew Vietnam-era OH-58A Kiowa or UH-1H Huey helicopters. Following flight training and being awarded aviator wings, the pilot moved to an advanced aircraft qualification course, which lasted from six to 12 weeks with 20-30 flight hours. The aviator received flight training in one of the Army’s five advanced aircraft: the UH-60A Blackhawk, CH-47D Chinook, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, AH-64A or AH-64D Apache.

The current flight school XXI is designed to give students significantly more training in combat aircraft. The program runs from 34 to 42 weeks.

Students begin by attending two weeks of “ground school” in which they are taught subjects in aero-medical factors, aircraft systems and Army doctrine. During the next 18 weeks, students learn how to fly a helicopter and the art of navigation by aircraft instruments only. After successful completion of the instrument phase, students are taught to navigate using a surface map and a compass during low level flight (10 to 50 feet above the trees).

Students fly their designated advanced aircraft during the “combat skills” phase. The newly assigned aircraft will become their “primary” aircraft.

Both programs incorporate the TH-67 training helicopter during the initial stages of flight training. The basic skills taught in the TH-67 form a foundation on which future flight training can build upon.

The sequence of training in both programs is very similar, with students moving from the contact phase (basic flying skills), to the instrument navigation phase, to the combat skills and night vision goggles phases.

The difference in the two programs is mainly in the aircraft being used to conduct the flight training. Previously, students flew the OH-58A or the UH-1H during the combat skills and night vision goggle phases. Once this was complete, students were trained to fly their primary aircraft by attending an advanced aircraft qualification course.

Flight school XXI students attend the combat skills and night vision goggle phases of training in their primary advanced aircraft, which results in significantly more flight time. Students graduate from flight school with fewer flight hours overall, but have more hours in the aircraft they’ll likely fly in combat.

Under the previous program, the objective was to graduate aviators who met the minimum standards, as set forth in the flight training guide and aircrew training manual for that aircraft.

The goal of flight school XXI is to graduate aviators who have reached readiness level 2. Readiness levels are used to designate aviator proficiency. When aviators are designated as readiness level 1, they are considered to be fully mission qualified.

“The aviator should be able to exceed the standards set forth by the flight training guide and aircrew training manual for that particular aircraft,” said former Aviation Training Brigade Commander Col. Steven Semens. “The goal is to graduate aviators who are substantially more proficient than graduates of the AQC,” which was the previous air qualification course.

The results of a study conducted in mid-2005 found that flight school XXI produces aviators who progress to readiness level 1 in fewer flight hours.

The study included 260 aviators: 65 Blackhawk pilots of the previous program, 65 Blackhawk graduates of the interim flight school XXI, as well as 65 Chinook aviators from the previous program and 65 Chinook graduates of flight school XXI.

The research concluded that the current flight-school graduates progressed through the readiness levels more quickly than graduates of the previous program, with a mean difference in flight hours for the UH-60A of 7.45 hours while CH-47 aviators had a mean difference of 11.22 hours.

Fort Rucker officials estimated that the previous training program was substantially less expensive. However, because fewer hours of readiness level flight training were required for flight school XXI pilots, the cost advantage of the previous program was diminished.

The cost study was based on fiscal year 2005 flying-hour costs provided by the Fort Rucker budgeting office. The hourly operating cost for each aircraft involved in this study are: $942 for the TH-67, $942 for the OH-58A/C, $2,760 for the UH-60A and $6,793 for the CH-47D.

Flight school XXI, for both the UH-60A and CH-47D, begins with initial training in the TH-67, which consists of 80 flight hours. The second phase, basic navigation, consists of 12 flight hours in the OH-58 and is the same for both aircraft. The final phase of flight training is the aircraft qualification and combat skills portion in which students train in either the UH-60A or the CH-47D.

During this portion, students receive either 65.4 hours in the UH-60A or 62.4 hours in the CH-47D. Flight school XXI students receive a total of 157.3 flight hours in the UH-60A or 154.4 flight hours in the CH-47. Because of the increased number of flight hours in the UH-60 and CH-47D, students not only continue to build their basic flying skills but they also learn to fly the aircraft that they will pilot when they report to their first duty station.

The extended training time in their assigned aircraft, the UH-60A or CH-47D, was designed to graduate an aviator who is much more proficient than those graduates of the earlier program.

Trainees in the previous program for both the UH-60 and the CH-47 received 80 hours of flight training in the TH-67 during the initial entry training and 69 flight hours in the OH-58 for the combat skills and night vision goggle portion. The final phase of training consisted of 23 flight hours for the UH-60 or 30 flight hours for the CH-47. This equated to a total of 172 flight hours for UH-60 students and 179 flight hours for CH-47 students.

Flight school XXI students, in contrast, receive more flight hours in their assigned aircraft. The average UH-60 student gets 14.7 fewer flight hours overall, but receives 40.3 more flight hours in their assigned aircraft. Similarly, CH-47 students get 24.6 fewer flight hours overall, while receiving 32.4 more flight hours in the CH-47.

Although both programs have benefits, cost is an ever increasingly important factor in a time when government budgets are shrinking, and the military is being asked to do more with less because of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This raises the question of whether the cost is worth the fewer hours required to train an aviator.

The cost of each program can be calculated by simply multiplying the average number of flight hours by the hourly operating cost for each aircraft.

The results reveal that flight school XXI training for the UH-60 has an average cost of $265,236 while the UH-60 initial-entry rotary wing course has an average cost of $202,398 per student. This equates to an average difference of $62,838 per student.

To fully examine the cost differences between the UH-60 training programs, readiness level progression rates must also be factored in. The data for this study indicated that flight school XXI graduates progressed to a fully mission capable status for both day, night, and night vision goggle operations in an average of 7.45 fewer hours. The reduced number of flight hours required for flight school XXI graduates equated to savings of $20,562. When this savings is subtracted from the increased expense of the training program, the average cost is $42,276 more per student than the initial-entry rotary wing and aircraft qualification courses.

The cost comparison data for the CH-47 revealed similar results with a larger cost gap between the two programs. The readiness level progression rate data for the CH-47 indicated that flight school XXI graduates required an average of 11.22 fewer hours to become fully mission capable pilots. The savings amounted to $76,217.46.

The total cost to train a student in the CH-47 flight school XXI program is $508,891.20 while the cost to train a student in the CH-47 initial-entry rotary wing and aircraft qualification courses is $342,708. When the savings associated with the fewer hours required to progress to a fully mission capable status is subtracted from the increased expense, the average cost of the training is $89,965.74 more per student than the previous program.

As of October 1, 2005, the Army transitioned from an interim to the final version of the flight school XXI program. The updated version incorporates state-of-the-art simulation technology, which likely will lead to reduced costs.

By early 2005, the Army already had graduated about 400 UH-60 and 250 CH-47 pilots from the interim flight school XXI program.

The Army Research Institute is expected to soon begin a long-term analysis of flight school XXI.


Dr. Michael L. Wesolek is a research analyst at the Army’s Air Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Rucker, Ala.

Topics: Aviation, Army News

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