The evolution of RAAF fast jet training from the F/A-18A/B to the F-35A
By Andrew McLaughlin
This article appeared in the Jan-Feb 2020 issue of ADBR
The RAAF’s fighter pilot and engineering workforce training responsibilities are evolving with the transition of No 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU) from the Boeing F/A-18A/B ‘classic’ Hornet to the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II.
The transition was marked by the final operational Hornet sortie by 2OCU on December 11, when the squadron flew a 10-ship of Hornets around the Newcastle area near its home base of RAAF Williamtown in a ‘2’ formation. Coincidentally, on the same day, 2OCU’s first three F-35As arrived at Williamtown as part of a seven-ship ferry from Luke AFB in Arizona.
The final flight marked the end of a remarkable 35 years of Hornet operations by 2OCU which was the first RAAF F/A-18A/B unit, with the first six pilots having taken delivery of its first two jets in the US in late 1984 before ferrying them both, A21-101 and -102 non-stop from Lemoore in California to Williamtown in May 1985. To this date, that marathon ferry flight, which included 13 air-to-air refuellings, remains the longest non-stop flight by any Hornet of any marque.
Tasked with converting pilots to and upgrading pilot qualifications on the Hornet, 2OCU had trained every RAAF fighter pilot since 1986. The squadron graduated its last group of new Hornet pilots with the return of the graduating class from Exercise High Sierra to RAAF Williamtown on December 4.
“2OCU’s critical role in preparing generations of classic Hornet fighter air crew with the skills and competency to engage in fighter combat has laid the very foundations of RAAF air power capability since the introduction of the platform in 1985,” the former commanding officer (CO) of 2OCU, WGCDR (now GPCAPT) Scott Woodland said in a December 12 statement.
“Operational conversion has been at the cornerstone of the strength of the classic Hornet platform’s contribution – taking graduate Hawk 127 lead-in fighter pilots and testing and challenging them under the most gruelling of conditions and toughest air combat scenarios,” he added. “The result has been the delivery of highly-trained, focused personnel to frontline squadrons, performing with excellence at home and abroad on operations in defence of our national interests.”
The F-35 ferry flight which arrived on December 11 was led by CO 3SQN WGCDR Darren Clare, while the new CO of 2OCU WGCDR Jordan Sander was one of the ferry pilots. The seven jets comprised five aircraft that had been withdrawn from the multi-national F-35A ‘schoolhouse’ run by the USAF’s 61st Fighter Squadron (FS) at Luke AFB in Arizona, and two newly-delivered aircraft.
The seven aircraft flew to Williamtown from Luke via overnight stops at Hickam AFB in Hawaii and Anderson AFB in Guam, and were supported by two RAAF KC-30A MRTTs. The new aircraft joined the six F-35As already in service with 3SQN at Williamtown, bolstering the strength of aircraft to ramp up the all-important Australian-specific validation and verification of the jet’s capabilities towards a projected initial operational capability (IOC) later this year, and to reinforce the in-country pilot and engineering training efforts.
“We welcome the commencement of the next phase of pilot conversion training for the F-35A,” GPCAPT Woodland added. “This represents a fundamental shift for 2OCU; one which we are fully equipped and ready to continue to deliver a superior warfighting capability – supported by highly professional, highly skilled aircrew – performing with strength and focus when called upon by government.”
The Christmas reduced activity period provided 2OCU with an opportunity to bed down its new headquarters within Williamtown’s new secure ‘JSF precinct’, and to give its new members time to post in during the annual posting cycle.
As the RAAF’s newest F-35 squadron, 2OCU conducted its first flight in the aircraft on February 6. Despite its pilots previously training on the aircraft, most of them flying at the 61st Fighter Squadron (FS) at Luke AFB, this was the unit’s first official operational sortie.
The following week, on Thursday 13 February, technical maintenance crews from 2OCU, 3SQN, BAE Systems Australia, Lockheed Martin and Marand at Williamtown conducted the first removal of an F-35A engine by an RAAF unit.
Like their Hornet brethren before them, new pilots converting to the F-35A will continue to come to 2OCU from 76SQN, the unit tasked with developing the RAAF’s fast jet pilots.
After completing basic flying training on the new PC-21 at RAAF East Sale and then qualifying for their ‘wings’ with No2 Flying Training School (2FTS) at Pearce also on the PC-21, those pilots streamed onto fast jets complete a conversion on the recently-upgraded Hawk 127 at 79SQN, also at Pearce.
After converting to the Hawk, pilots remaining in the fast jet stream move to 76SQN at Williamtown to learn combat and weapons tactics on the Hawk 127. Upon graduation from 76SQN, pilots are posted to 2OCU for an operational conversion course on F-35A, or to 1SQN or 6SQN at RAAF Amberley for the F/A-18F Super Hornet or EA-18G Growler respectively.
Previously new pilots completed basic flying training on the piston engined CT-4E at Tamworth before progressing to the PC-9/A, and then the Hawk 127. But with the retirement of the CT-4E and PC-9/A in 2019, the PC-21 offers much higher fidelity and performance pilot training supported by modern synthetic training devices.
Unfortunately, reports indicate ongoing problems with the PC-21 training courseware being supplied by industry through the Project AIR 5428 Pilot Training System, and this has reportedly caused a backlog in training throughput and the need for unspecified “work-arounds”.
But the PC-21 isn’t the only new training platform for new fast jet pilots. Following an extensive upgrade conducted under Project AIR 5438 lead-in fighter capability upgrade (LIFCAP) program by BAE Systems Australia, the RAAF’s 33-strong Hawk 127 fleet have received state-of-the-art avionics, training systems and other upgrades to provide better situational awareness and fidelity to prepare pilots for the F-35A.
These upgrades include three new high fidelity simulators, desktop training devices and simulator mission debriefing systems, all of which are supplied and operated by CAE at Pearce and Williamtown.
Changes to the aircraft itself include new mission computers and operational flight program (OFP), a traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS), mission simulated datalinks including radar, weapons, chaff/flares and radar warning receiver, the ability to carry an ACMI pod, a new IFF system, new joint mission planning system (JMPS), and a comms/audio management unit (CAMU).
During the upgrade, structural upgrades were also conducted on the Hawk to ensure it meets its planned life of type into the early 2030s.
But if we go back to when the Hornet first entered Australian service in 1985, the RAAF was still flying the Macchi as its advanced jet trainer until 2001, nearly half of the Hornet’s service life. The Macchi was designed in the 1950s when 2nd and 3rd generation fighters like the Sabre and Mirage were in service, so it was a massive step to go from the Macchi to the then ultra-modern 4th generation Hornet.
“The data absolutely shows that the graduation rates at 2OCU with Macchi were far lower,” WGCDR Sander told ADBR. “When they turned up to the Hornet from Macchi, they jumped from that ‘steam-driven’ World War II cockpit, which is almost what it was! And then when Hawk came along, all of a sudden the pass rates were much better.
“So it’s clear the success 2OCU has had with the students and the pilots that we’ve been graduating is partly attributable to Hawk,” he added. “When we bought Hawk, the RAAF had a lot of input into designing its pilot interface to make it similar to that of the Hornet. So suddenly they had liquid crystal displays and a head-up display, and that was a big step up from the Macchi.
“But there were also no Hornet simulators back then either,” WGCDR Sander added. “So to step them up to the more advanced aircraft through that basic jet trainer I think was really, really important back then. I think Air Force has left that culture behind now, and I’m sure when Hawk gets to its end, with the quality of simulators and the potential of live virtual constructive training, we might just look at ourselves and ask, ‘What is the future of fast jet pilot training? Do we still need an interim aircraft, or can we go straight to the fighter?’
But WGCDR Sander was quick to defend the Macchi too. “I think the Macchi had enough performance to teach people the BFM (basic fighter manoeuvres) basics,” he said. “If you’re talking visual manoeuvring, I think the Macchi was okay for that, and I don’t think speed was a huge factor because, to me, speed just comes back to time.
“If a student is coming home from a mission to land back at Williamtown, they need to have a list of things and checks done. If you’re going faster, you’ve just got to do it further out, but it’s still the same amount of time to go through that process.”
And even though LIFCAP was only completed in 2019, experience suggests the quality of students coming from 76SQN to 2OCU since they started flying the Hawk LIFCAP is higher still.
“The Hawk can now replicate radar intercepts and it can replicate threat reactions and other things,” Commander Air Combat Group (ACG), AIRCDRE Tim Alsop told ADBR. “Even though it’s all digitally emulated, it doesn’t matter because all you’re trying to do is give someone a certain set of information in a certain context, then work with them to get through decision points and to make sound tactical decisions, and then enact them safely. And if you can do that 50 times before you get to a Hornet course, then you’re already up on the standards.”
“The junior pilot we get out the other end now is so much better than when I went through, as far as being able to go and do the job,” he added. “Even before LIFCAP we proved that with Operation OKRA where we were confident our D-CAT mission-qualified air crew are ready to go into combat, and they performed magnificently. It is great to look back at the way that system evolved and the fact that a lot of very smart people had influence and input into that, and I think they really got the most out of that unit and that process.”
OPCON THROUGH THE HORNET YEARS
What won’t change much between the classic Hornet and the F-35A is the length of time the OPCON takes. With recruitment rates expected to remain constant, and with fighter squadrons limited to the number of bograt pilots they can safely accommodate at one time, the pilot throughput of an F-35-equipped 2OCU will be similar to that of the Hornet.
“What hasn’t changed much is the length of the time that we devote to it,” WGCDR Sander said. “So that will remain at about six months, and I think we’ve got that about right. But because the airplane has changed, the ‘customer’ operational squadrons have had to modify the skillsets they want their graduating pilots to have.
AIRCDRE Alsop pointed out that the OPCON course was always evolving even through the life of the Hornet as new capabilities were added. “I started flying the Hornet in January 1996,” he said. “But even then, the jet was in transition. I started as it was leading on to one of its interim software updates, and the vibe even then was one of great excitement because we were going from, by today’s standards, quite a simple mission system to a real step up in the way the jet worked and the number of functions that the mission computer could complete.
“If we look at the jobs the Hornet does now, it’s 10-fold, and the capability it brings is probably 100-fold what it could do back then,” he added. “This is because smart engineers and smart operators took us down a digital path when we did upgrades – to me, the sum of the parts is so much more than the whole. That’s a cliché I know, but it is so important.
“So it’s the core of that kind of thinking that is exactly what we need to take into F-35. That is about being part of a system that is quite astounding when you put capabilities together and you take the advantages of each of those, and you mitigate the disadvantages of any of them. And so the mindset we’re giving to the OPCON trainees is different. You may not go into the same amount of depth on certain topics, but you don’t need to because you’ve got to cover a lot more.
While the RAAF intends to retain its category rating system for fighter pilots, there are indications the qualifications required to attain each of these categories may need to change.
“We are going to maintain D-CAT, C-CAT, B-CAT and even A-CAT, in a way that is not dissimilar,” WGCDR Sander explained. “I think the word picture for a B-CAT is what we call ‘highly proficient’, and where 81WG would call that person a four-ship flight-lead and things like that. A C-CAT would be that person who would be a pass flight lead for D-CAT’s. There will still be an A-CAT for that individual who has had a significant impact on the Wing and on the FEG, and it’s awarded by the Commander.
“That’s a system that, in my mind, is tried and true” AIRCDRE Alsop said. “While the definition of each of those levels is completely up to us, it’s a very effective way for us to not only monitor progression, but also to monitor supervision and the way we grow the junior recruit. It also allows us to actually measure the predicted health of a squadron.”
But with pilots graduating from 76SQN to 2OCU having and requiring different skillsets due to the higher fidelity of training required for the F-35, there will be likely be differences in the competencies required for each Category. “I think academically what we’ll expect our people to know now – things like the RF spectrum – was previously considered B-CAT or even FCI knowledge,” WGCDR Sander said. “Now that knowledge will be almost D-CAT or C-CAT level of knowledge.”
Not only does 2OCU have the responsibility for training the RAAF’s F-35 pilot workforce but, in conjunction with industry contractors, has also taken on the F-35 maintenance training. “This first six months for us is really a chance for us to build our squadron to a point where we can function like a squadron,” WGCDR Sander said. “I’ve got only a third of our maintenance workforce qualified on the F-35 so far, and the other two thirds – about 70 maintenance students – are on a course.”
NEXT GEN OPCON
The F-35 OPCON is still evolving, and 2OCU’s executives are still finalising the courseware and course structure in preparation for the commencement of the first course later this year. To this end, the unit is taking some of the best of what was done with the Hornet, as well as the experience gained flying the F-35 at Luke AFB, as well as other RAAF exchange postings.
“You know, there’s a lot of wisdom in the classic Hornet world,” WGCDR Sander said. “Over 30 years they continuously tweaked and refined things. But the actual layout of the course will be similar: you learn to fly the aircraft in general flying, you then do some flying at night, you then do some formation work, and that’s the end of that phase before you move into air-to-air. And then you go through a visual manoeuvring and BFM phase into intercepts before you move into an air-to-surface phase with a deployment at the end. That is all very similar to Hornet.
“But we’ve got a lot of people who have spent time in the US and saw the way the US did business over there,” he added. “So when it comes to the details, we are going to use some of that. Examples might be in how we grade and things like that, and how much time is spent on the different elements like simulation, which will be a bit of a change from Hornet. You’ll probably see the number of flights go down and the number of sims go up, but we finalised that level of detail yet.”
But while the number of flights might go down, the total amount of time spent in the air will likely be similar. A typical Hornet training sortie is between 60 and 90 minutes, while the F-35 has much greater endurance so this will likely grow to two hours or more.
“The F-35 does hang around longer than a classic Hornet, and at the training unit that’s going to give us opportunities to get more done in a single mission,” WGCDR Sander said. “So while that appears to be an advantage, it raises other issues. If you run a traditional two-wave day of flying where aircraft come back, maintenance is performed, and we go flying again … if you extend the morning and afternoon wave times, you’ve extended the whole day. So we’ll need to consider if we have a maintenance workforce that can actually support that extended level of flying.”
New pilots coming to the F-35A will require similar basic flying skills to those converting to previous fighter types. “I think you still have to be a natural flyer because that gives you the capacity to think tactically,” WGCDR Sander said. “If flying doesn’t come naturally you are thinking about flying the aircraft, not necessarily about the mission.
“The ability to prioritise is also important, because you’re always overloaded,” he added. “There’s always going to be more stuff than what you can do tactically, maybe even domestically when coming to and from the airfield. So now they’re testing down through pilot training to make sure the right people come in the door who can feel safe – so that when they feel like they can’t cope anymore they can revert to the old school ‘aviate, navigate, communicate’ and be safe rather than focus on a tactical problem to the detriment of their safety.
“But what has changed now is (that) previously a lot of the wingman’s capacity was taken up flying in close or tactical formation, or driving a sensor, or both. But the F-35 won’t typically operate in close formation and it presents the air picture using sensors which are mostly automated. That will give the pilot more capacity. In this airplane, you generally know what’s going on which frees you up to be a tactical decision-maker, which is what I think makes the F-35 so potent.”
“So, instead of telling a 4th gen wingman, ‘Don’t go blind, shoot what I tell you to shoot, and if you get shot at, execute your defence,’ we’re now giving them priorities and just letting them execute. It’s now, ‘Priority one today is a dynamic target. If that comes up then we’re going to do this.’ So, your D-CAT wingman is now much more of a thinker.”
While simulation technology has matured greatly during the Hornet’s service life, like the airframe, it has also taken a generational leap with the F-35. Indeed, with all versions of the F-35 only available as single-seaters, simulation is now an integral part of the conversion process as a pilot’s first flight will be solo.
“We have to rely on simulation a lot more because of the single seat,” AIRCDRE Alsop explained. “The Sabre community managed to make it work, but it was a much simpler aircraft and they could get away with taxiing around with someone sitting on the wing for a little while before they were sent off on their first solo. This is very different.
“But then the whole pilot training system now is different too,” he added. “Any tactical proficiency system now is so much more heavily weighted towards simulation. Even with the PC-21 – by the time a student or a trainee sees a sequence airborne they’ve done it five times in the sim. As a previous instructor, that’s fantastic. You can correct so many misunderstandings and other things on the ground, and then you can really get into the depth when you’re airborne. So it can only be a good thing.”
In comparison to the three classic Hornet HACTS simulators, the RAAF has bought 10 F-35A simulators, six of which have been installed at Williamtown while four will be installed at RAAF Tindal where 75SQN is based.
“For F-35, a lot of the basic skills can be done now in a web-based setting and with an almost Microsoft Flight Simulator-type setup that you can practice a lot of the hands-on throttle and stick integration,” AIRCDRE Alsop said. “You can do that at home, and you can practice it over and over again before you even get in the simulator. That’s something we’ve never been able to do before.
“And you can sit there and it’s like being in the jet, and start playing with the menus,” he added. “It’s incredible the amount of information that you can be presented with and how many options you have to select from for different tasks at different phases of flight. So getting to a point where you’re comfortable doing that before you get to the sim means that you can then concentrate on the actual employment of the aircraft and the aviating, as opposed to the systems operation.”
WGCDR Sander continued, “Simulation is becoming more important about how you do business. In the Hornet we have two cockpits at Williamtown and one at Tindal, and that’s quite limiting as we don’t fly around in sequence. We fly around as two-ships, three-ships, and four-ships. So that’s why Tindal has got four sims, so that they can do formation type training which is really important.
“So a new challenge for the F-35 OPCON, and how we put it together, is going to be the amount of academics and simulation upfront before they hit the flight line. It could take pilots six to eight weeks to hit the flight line, which is way longer than a first Hornet ride. So because they have that huge simulation phase, we need to work out what we’re doing for that time flying wise. Do we need to do something?
“And if we’re running overlapping transitions or refreshers, do we start the refresher course earlier so when the OPCON is in a phase of academics and heavy simulation, that refresher is in an airborne phase? This also smooths out the demand on the flight line, so we don’t have these big peaks and troughs in when we need to go flying, or simulating.
“So, I think the answer about how much flying and simulating we’ll be doing, I think it’s going to be about 50/50. If you could do two flights a week and two sims a week, that’d be pretty good.”
In the meantime, while 2OCU is no longer producing new Hornet pilots, the jet still has about two years left in RAAF service. Williamtown-based 77SQN is scheduled to retire its Hornets at the end of this year and transition to the F-35A in early 2021, with Tindal’s 75SQN to follow the following year.
Several classic Hornets have already been retired and parked-up at Williamtown, while at least three of a planned 25 jets have been transferred to Canada to bolster the RCAF’s CF-18 Hornet fleet until replaced in the late 2020s. A March 5 media release from Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price stated that “up to 46” Hornets will be sold to US-based training services provider Air USA, although the actual number is believed to be about 38 with the remainder allocated to museums in Australia.
In closing, WGCDR Sander said the first half of 2020 is a rebuilding period for 2OCU. “We’re basically being left alone over this six months to just build a squadron and write the pilot training,” he said. “Then I think we’ll be given some validation and verification (V&V) tasks needed to achieve IOC.
“This could be, ‘Hey, go to Townsville or Amberley. We want to make sure the base knows how to deal with F-35. Do they have the right security forces? Do they know what to do if an F-35 takes the cable?’ Sometimes is not the sexy part of the capability of the airplane, but it’s important to ensure the entire RAAF is ready for F-35.”