Holland’s new military pilot training pipeline


Frank Visser visited the Royal Netherlands Air Force detachment at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, to talk about the changes to Dutch military pilot training

Despite its 50-year plus age, the T-38 remains a good aircraft for pilot training.
All images Frank Visser
Emblem of the 80th Flying Training Wing.

In the decades after World War Two, trainee fighter pilots were trained by their own air force. Due to the high costs involved, a number of NATO countries began examining the option of a joint jet pilot training course. In 1974, the United States, Canada, the UK, Italy and Turkey came up with a plan to host a Joint Pilot Training Programme in the United States. The 80th Flying Training Wing (FTW), based at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, was selected as the best option to host the programme benefiting from good weather, ample training airspace and excellent facilities.


In 1981, the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) programme was launched for a timeframe of ten years, but the programme proved so successful and cost efficient, that the contract was extended several times. The current contract expires in 2026. In all those years, many other NATO countries joined ENJJPT. Currently, 14 countries (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the UK, and the United States) are participating in the ENJJPT. Romania joined ENJJPT in 2016 following procurement of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

With over 200 aircraft and five flying training squadrons assigned, the 80th FTW is a big organisation. Three – the 88th, 90th and 469th Flying Training Squadrons – fly Northrop’s slick, supersonic T-38C Talon, a type that has been in US Air Force service for over 55 years and is due to be replaced by the Boeing BTX-1, the winner of the T-X competition. Two – the 89th and the 459th Flying Training Squadrons – fly the Beechcraft T-6A Texan.

Colonel Andrea Themely is the 80th’s current commander, with responsibility for eight classes each year from which 200 students graduate and get their wings. In addition, each year around 80 new instructor pilots (IPs) start their job at Sheppard and another 150 pilots take a course designed to provide them with an introduction to flying fighter aircraft on a combat-coded squadron, the so-called Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) course. With such a large output of pilots, the 80th FTW schedules 50,000 sorties per year, making Sheppard the busiest joint-use airfield in the US Air Force.

Dutch at Sheppard

The 80th FTW is part of Air Education and Training Command (AETC) and is tasked with training pilots not only from the US Air Force, but also those from other the NATO nations listed earlier. The Netherlands has a permanent detachment at Sheppard that consists of an average of ten flight instructors, headed by a detachment commander, who is also the Senior National Representative; around ten Dutch candidate pilots are usually at Sheppard at any one time. Their course, as for all other nationalities, starts with pre-flight training (academics) in the first phase. Basic pilot training starts in Phase 2 flying the T-6A Texan II, in which each student pilot flies solo after 15 flights.

During the 26 weeks of Phase 2, students do simulator training, basic, instrument, navigation and two-ship formation flying. Whereas students used to know that an F-16 place was waiting for them on successful completion of the course, this outcome is no longer a certainty. Becoming a transport pilot is now also one of the options. Dutch pilot Captain Jan Huib has been working at ENJJPT for three-and-a-half years, and has been a flight commander and IP on the T-6A with the 89th Flying Training Squadron.

Explaining the squadron’s organisation, Captain Jan Huib said: “Each squadron consists of four flights; each of them trains 12 students, on average. Because of the shortage of instructor pilots, this number has now risen to 14. To shorten the gap, the 80th FTW even flew during all the weekends in November and December 2017. For the last two weeks of December, all operations cease so that students and instructors can return home for the holidays. During the first flight, dubbed the Dollar Ride, the instructor flies and the student gets an idea of what flying the T-6A entails.”

On the second flight, the IP performs every part once and then the student pilot has to perform that manoeuvre. The subsequent flights focus on preparing for the first solo flight, and each part is concluded with a check ride. Captain Jan Huib said: “A unique part of the ENJJPT programme is the spin recovery training. In Phase 2, we practise this in the simulator and during flight.”

Starting a spin at 13,500ft, the IP examines how the student performs the spin recovery procedure. Dropping below 10,000ft means a fail, and the IP will take over the controls to recover the aircraft. During the T-6 phase, judgement is made on which students will be selected for the F-16 or transport aircraft tracks, a major change in the Sheppard route.

The helmet room at the 80th Flying Training Wing.
Only three pilots ever received the ENJJPT Star. One of them is Peter Tankink who completed ENJJPT class 88-03. Peter now serves as the Royal Netherlands Air Force Chief Operations Officer.
Final briefing of an American student pilot with his Italian instructor before their T-6A mission starts.
Lieutenant Colonel Winston Wolczak of the 90th Flying Training Squadron checks his T-38C Talon before his mission.
In all phases of the course, the simulator forms an indispensable element in which instructors teach students, but also students help each other.

Even if a student performs well in Phase 2, normally a prerequisite for fighter track selection, he or she could be selected for transport, depending on the demand for F-16 pilots at that specific moment. Students selected for the fighter track will continue their advanced training at Sheppard in Phase 3, which lasts 26 weeks. During Phase 3 each student flies T-38Cs for about 135 hours. Just as in Phase 2, students perform instrument, navigation, two-ship, four-ship formation and low-level flying.

Upon completion of Phase three, pilots selected for fighters move to IFF, which takes about two months to complete. Their route continues at Tucson International Airport, Arizona, where they learn to fly the F-16 with the 148th Fighter Squadron, a component squadron of Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing.

By comparison, students selected for air transport go to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, for multi-engine training, before returning to the Netherlands.

Team players

The lack of clarity about what their followup programme looks like certainly does something to the students.

The Dutch Senior National Representative, Lieutenant Colonel Filip Lindeman said. “It creates an insecurity for them that comes with a healthy portion of stress.” Students know that there is competition and it is up to them to shape the challenge positively, by working as a team and supporting each other during the training.

He continued: “In the selection of fighter or transport pilots, naturally we look at characteristics and the capacities of the students, although we are looking for team players for both tracks. As a fighter pilot, you might be alone in your cockpit, but you still work in a team: a formation of two, four or more fighters, the crew chief with whom you work, and so on. In addition, we are, as instructors, very alert to group interaction.

Is a weaker brother [sic] abandoned by his fellow students to maintain his or her own lead, or does the whole group help to score as high as possible together on the finish line? Students know that we pay attention to this.”

How individual students look at the various follow-up paths depends strongly on their own wishes and motivation. Individual students who always wanted to be fighter pilots will orientate themselves with less interest and enthusiasm on a journey as a transporter, and vice versa, said Lindeman: “Especially when a few students within a class express their preference for air transport, you often see relief from those who want to become a fighter pilot. But I make it immediately and convincingly clear that the race has not yet run. Selection at the end of Phase 2 is primarily based on qualities and suitability. Preference plays a secondary role. It can therefore happen that a student with preference for air transport is selected for the fighter route.”

A T-38C Talon assigned to the 88th Fighter Training Squadron ‘Lucky Devils’ ready for an early morning mission.
The shape and form of the Pilatus PC-7 are recognizable in the Beechcraft T-6A Texan II, which was derived from the PC-7’s bigger brother the PC-9.

Following a dream or a business decision?

In the past, the main reason a young person applied for military pilot training was based on a childhood dream, but today it is quite often a business decision.

Lindeman explained: “We see an increase in the number of candidates who have already been preparing for a career in civil aviation. Often these are the students with an air transport preference, who consider the years with the Royal Netherlands Air Force [RNLAF] as a step towards civil aviation. This is a known fact that we, as the Royal Netherlands Air Force, take into account with our long-term pilot planning. We also see more and more that future pilots start their education after they have already completed an academic education. So, you could conclude that the childhood dream is still alive. But then, very businesslike, with an alternative at hand, students could choose another career if their RNLAF contract is terminated.” Lieutenant Bart, who recently started Phase 3 at Sheppard, is such an example of an aspiring pilot who lived up to his childhood dream. A few years ago he went through the selection rounds, but he was told that there were no places. Instead, he started a business administration course of study and, after finishing, he found a job. When in 2014 he heard the Royal Netherlands Air Force was looking for fighter pilots, he did not hesitate a second and applied again. This time he was successful and was selected for the F-16.

“We see an increase in the number of candidates who have already been preparing for a career in civil aviation.”

Lieutenant Colonel Filip Lindeman, Dutch Senior National Representative, 80th Flying Training Wing

Two T-6A Texans IIs assigned to the 89th Flying Training Squadron head toward the runway at Sheppard Air Force Base.
Breaking left over northern Texas, pilots from the 469th Flying Training Squadron practise threeship formation flying.
Phase 3 of the course includes instrument flying during which the student occupies the aft cockpit with the canopy masked to prevent any visual regard.

Like Phase 2, Phase 3 starts with academics, followed by flying. This phase is similar to the previous one, but the prospective pilots finish the theoretical part faster and go solo on the T-38C after just nine flights.

Lt Bart explained: “You really get on a fast train here. The programme is fixed and it is really running.”

Teamwork in the group is paramount, as is the instructor’s steer: helping each other to achieve the best result as a class. Planning is important and thus taking into account unforeseen situations.

Bart continued: “The great thing is that after completing a part, for example, in the simulator, you can already train for the next part.” After completing the third phase and his training at Sheppard with the IFF, which takes about two months, he moved to the 148th Fighter Squadron at Tucson International Airport, Arizona, for training on the F-16.

Fifth-generation fighter

With the approaching service introduction of the F-35A Lightning II in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, further change will take place at Sheppard in the summer of 2020, when students selected for the fighter track will either be assigned to the F-16 or the F-35. According to Lieutenant Colonel Lindeman, the Royal Netherlands Air Force has not yet set the criteria for the F-35, and until 2023, several pilots will still be sent for F-16 training at Tucson.

Given the function of the F-35 as a sensor platform, information management is becoming increasingly important. It is plausible to suggest that with all of the avionics and systems flying becomes easier, but the necessary skills for flying remain unchanged. Having a strong personality with initiative, perseverance, decisiveness, good analytical skills and the ability to be a team player will remain essential and indispensable characteristics for all future Dutch fighter pilots, as they are for today’s pilots.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force would like to see more young people pursuing their dream of becoming a fighter pilot, but in reality many young Dutch people consider this to be unattainable, and may be discouraged from attempting to realise their dream. Consequently, a new recruitment campaign seeks to make it clear that pilots serving with the Royal Netherlands Air Force are ordinary men and women, and that anyone who applies with the right attitude and prior education can start a career within it.

Looking forward

With 14 NATO partners in the ENJJPT programme the 80th FTW is still planning for further growth. Discussing the potential growth, Col Andrea Themely said the wing’s deputy operations group commander had visited an international pilot training convention in the UK and talked to several NATO partners who are not part of the ENJJPT programme. She said: “We are always looking to expand ENJJPT.”

Mission complete; the formation lead pilot breaks left to head for Sheppard Air Force Base which is located near to the city of San Antonio.
Three T-38C Talons assigned to the 469th Flying Training Squadron ‘Fighting Bulls’, one of three T-38C squadrons within the 80th Flying Training Wing.

That said, there are big issues to tackle, not least the shortage of fighter pilots. To close the gap, ENJJPT has contracted more IPs and classes have been enlarged so more pilots can graduate. Grounding of the T-6A fleet this year due to hypoxia-related incidents was a major setback for AETC’s entire pilot output and especially for student pilots undergoing Phase 2.

Discussing the grounding, Col Themely said the wing ran full-day simulator training programmes during the period while the T-6s were grounded to allow students to continue their training. She said: “Although the problems had not been solved, training and flying the T-6 at Sheppard Air Force Base started again by the end of February. For Class 18-07 this meant completing Phase 2 by missing a couple of T-6 flights.”

Besides increasing its pilot output, the 80th FTW is also working towards replacing its T-38s, the maintenance costs for which continue to rise each year: 14.6% since 2016. It’s important to realise that the T-38Cs assigned to the wing and ENJJPT are flown more than at any other AETC base, and that the Talon fleet at Sheppard is also 11 years older than at other bases. Its successor, the brand-new Boeing BTX-1, will provide a big improvement for training future pilots, especially for the 80th FTW; eight of the 14 NATO ENJJPT partners have selected the F-35 Lightning II.

Speaking about the future, Col Themely said: “The T-X syllabus will allow us to advance our training significantly beyond what we are currently using in the T-38. The T-X will help to strengthen and improve training for US and NATO pilots heading to fifth-generation fighters.”

Under a current plan, Randolph Air Force Base outside of San Antonio, Texas, will receive the first Boeing BTX-1 aircraft; Randolph is home of AETC and the 12th FTW. No announcement has been made about when the 80th FTW can expect the BTX-1 trainer. Once the aircraft has arrived at Sheppard, it will put the ENJJPT at the forefront of international pilot training programmes and strengthen the alliances. Colonel Themely is clear about the Dutch partners: “I like their culture: for example, the King’s Birthday celebration. Most of all, they’re hardworking professionals and focused on quality. As Americans, we can learn a lot from the Dutch.”

Two Fighting Bulls out on the northern Texas range near Sheppard Air Force Base, home of the 80th Flying Training Wing, the host unit of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program; the only internationally manned and managed undergraduate pilot training programme in the world.