Mark Ayton reports on the UK’s T-6 Texan training system, which is now being used to instruct ab initio students with No 72 Squadron at RAF Valley, Anglesey.
The first two Beechcraft Texan T1 trainer aircraft for the UK arrived at RAF Valley in February 2018, kickstarting a complex and extensive programme of validation work designed to ensure that the courseware, simulators, aircraft and personnel were ready for the start of the first ab initio basic fast jet training (BFJT) course with the new aircraft.
Textron Aviation sold ten Texan II aircraft to Af inity Flying Training Services, a service provider under the UK Military Flying Training System (MFTS). Textron signed a contract with Af inity in February 2016. Af inity owns and operates three aircraft fleets within MFTS – the Grob Prefect T1 elementary trainer, the Phenom T1 multi-engine trainer and the Texans. Af inity reports to Ascent Flight Training, which, in turn, operates under contract with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), the ultimate customer for MFTS, which buys a service from the two companies. Ascent acts as the flying operator of the Texan fleet in partnership with the MOD, with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy (RN) completing the overall team under No 72 Squadron, which comes under No 4 Flying Training School at Valley.
Textron’s field service representative provides expertise on maintenance procedures to support both Ascent and the RAF for Texan flight operations at Valley. This arrangement is not unique to the UK – a similar system is in place for NATO Flight Training in Canada (NFTC), which also uses the T-6. According to Textron sales director Tom Webster, the company’s experience of such operations illustrates how these aircraft can be flown up to five times per day with low maintenance requirements: “The Canadian aircraft have been flying 900 hours per year, a level I would expect the UK programme to achieve once it gets rolling. Af inity’s MFTS contract extends for a number of years with the option of an extension beyond that term.”
For its part in the contract, Textron undertook certification engineering, set up a production line for UK-specific aircraft, managed the non-recurring engineering process to correctly configure the aircraft to the UK specification and supported both the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and UK Military Aviation Authority (MAA) certification processes.
As part of its contract with Af inity, Textron ran two conversion-to-type training courses for 11 British instructor pilots, each of whom flew approximately 25 hours in UK aircraft. Provided by Textron’s team of instructors – all former US Air Force and US Navy pilots – each course lasted between three and four weeks depending on the individual requirements.
Initially, Textron ran an engineering maintenance familiarisation course for technical engineers (as opposed to maintenance engineers) teaching them about the aircraft and its systems, explaining how they function and interact. This allowed the engineers to proceed with both the EASA and MAA certification processes and ease the transition. Textron subsequently conducted training courses for engineers in the UK.
All ten UK aircraft were ferried to the UK by Textron pilots and the first pair arrived at Valley in February 2018, with the final example touching down at the Anglesey base on December 3, 2019.
Ease of transition
The RAF’s Texan T1s are based on the most advanced version of the T-6C Texan II and are powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-68A engine rated at 1,100shp (820kW). UK-specific equipment includes embedded systems for electronic warfare training, a ground proximity warning system (GPWS), enhanced communications with additional VHF/UHF radios, and wingtip-mounted forwarding-facing lights designed to discourage birds and keep them away from the aircraft. As a trainer, the UK Texans are not equipped with radar warning or missile warning sensors, but the embedded electronic warfare system simulates both of these and can generate ground-based threats that can be presented to the student in order for them to react and counteract.
The TERPROM (terrain profiling and matching) GPWS interfaces with the aircraft’s moving map and its avionics to generate and present a ‘picture’ of the terrain around the aircraft to the instructor and student. Perhaps more importantly, TERPROM generates a real-time warning for any deviation below a set safety altitude. The UK is the first operator to integrate this system on a Texan.
Dovetailing these capabilities with those available in the simulator has also been key, with Textron and its partner, Lockheed Martin, ensuring the real aircraft and simulator seamlessly blend live and synthetic flying with identical cockpits and displays.
Having an all-digital, open-architecture glass cockpit akin to a modern fighter, the Texan T1 features the CMC Electronics Cockpit 4000 integrated avionics suite, a Sparrowhawk 25° total field of view head-up display (HUD), an up-front control panel and three 5in x 7in (125mm x 175mm) interchangeable colour multifunction selectable displays driven by two avionics computers. The HUD displays the flight path marker, pitch reference, climb/dive marker and climb/dive ladders with capability for the instructor to select the HUD view and present the feed on any of the three displays. The up-front control panel gives access to navigation and air-to-ground modes from both cockpits, and can also be used to operate radio communication, navigational programming and waypoint management.
The primary flight display instruments present information such as attitude, airspeed, altitude, flight path direction, engine-indications, and crew alerts. In addition, a tactical situation display presents a scalable plan view of information required for navigation, while a colour digital moving map shows the aircraft’s position.
Certification and validation
EASA awarded Type 3000 certification to the Texan T1 in January 2018 and MAA certification followed. Both authorities conducted a variance certification process pertinent to the UK-specific configuration of the aircraft. Much of the flight data required by the MAA for this was acquired during sorties flown from Wichita, Kansas, by Textron test pilots. That data was compiled and submitted to the authority in the UK, a process that took a number of months to complete.
Deputy Commander Operations, Air Vice Marshall Gerry Mayhew, issued the Texan’s release to service documentation on December 19, 2018, which cleared the way for flight operations to start at Valley. When a new type enters operational service there are many steps towards its acceptance process, each one adding more capability. In the case of the Texan, the aircraft is one component of a training system which includes courseware, simulators and staff to manage operations, schedule sorties, operate the simulator and run the administrative side of the squadron, instructors and maintainers. All of them must learn the processes and procedures required to generate training sorties.
Discussing the acceptance process, the officer commanding No 72 Squadron, Wg Cdr Chris Ball, stressed that each component of the overall training system, the syllabus, courseware, simulators and the aircraft, have their own validation process with plenty of stakeholders involved. Citing courseware as an example, he said: “[This] undergoes a specific process called CICD [continuous integration and continuous delivery] which is conducted by a visiting team of specialists to review the product before formerly accepting it. Similarly, any new training capability for the simulator has to undergo a specific review process undertaken by the duty holder chain – the only people allowed to hold risk within the UK MAA’s system of governance of UK military flying. The duty holder chain has the authority to release training capability for the simulator. Until the duty holder chain has given approval for ab initio students to conduct sorties using the capability, the squadron is not allowed to use it. Such processes are in place to ensure we take the correct approach for managing risk to life and operating safely.”
Initial flight operations
On February 21, 2019, one Ascent pilot and one RAF counterpart flew the first two Texan sorties from Valley. Following this milestone, the squadron’s other nine pilots made their maiden flights from the Anglesey base. All of them subsequently qualified on type [CQT] as aircraft captains. Some of the cadre then started to develop the student course syllabus, working up to a proficiency level suitable for qualifying other instructors. Their first ‘students’ were instructors who had not undergone the conversion-to-type course with Textron but required QFI qualification.
Overall, this was a complex procedure. Taking instrument flying as an example, the Texan enables the pilot to fly an RNAV approach, which uses a series of waypoints, legs, speed and altitude constraints stored in the onboard navigation database and based on INS/GPS navigation, and is the only aircraft within No 22 Group with that capability. This breaks new ground for the RAF training command, which must determine where RNAV approaches should be flown by students on a course, and poses the question whether the RAF and RN needs to teach students the methodology.
Instructing low-level navigation is another example. With the Tucano, this involved use of a map, a stopwatch and a compass, while checking location by looking out for landmarks in order to reach targets on time. That’s all changed with the Texan, because the aircraft knows its exact location at all times and sends an alert if it gets ‘lost’ Experience of flying low-level sorties in the Texan to date shows that the navigation system’s position marker is always exactly on the waypoint, which begs the question: what is the instructor’s role now? Wg Cdr Ball reckons there is already a realisation of how much more can be accomplished with the Texan. “The benefit of a glass cockpit is that we can teach students skills that we expect them to acquire for flying frontline fighter jets. The aircraft has amazing potential,” he says.
The Texan clearly provides a huge leap in training capability for the student and gets them used to vast amounts of information presented to them in the cockpit. Its parity with current and future fighter cockpits makes for an efficient path through training.
During the initial Texan flights from Valley, a test pilot from QinetiQ, the UK’s defence test and evaluation organisation based at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, flew a dedicated aircraft that was fitted with strain gauges and instrumentation, in order to compare the simulator’s handling with that of the real aircraft. After each sortie, the test pilot flew the same manoeuvres in the dome simulator to check it responded in exactly the same way as the aircraft, and to highlight any deviations.
The 310 course
No 72 Squadron’s bread-andbutter is running the 310 course for brand-new pilots, which lasts for ten months. Groundschool kicks off the course, followed by a synthetics phase using three different simulators. Students then learn to fly the aircraft in local airspace, blending in aerobatics, basic instrument flying, spinning, stalling and then advanced instrument flying. Maximum performance manoeuvring follows, which represents the first step to basic fighter manoeuvring (BFM), a big part of the following Hawk T2 course. Students then progress to the tactical elements of low-level navigation, as well as night, close and formation flying at both low and medium level. Instructors attempt to increase the workload for the students when flying at low-level by introducing simulated threats using the aircraft’s embedded electronic warfare system.
The 310 course concludes with the composite phase, in which the student is expected to use all of the skills taught throughout the course in a single complex sortie. After graduation and presentation of pilot wings, the students step seamlessly to the Hawk T2.
Wg Cdr Ball reckons the overall Texan training system is performing really well and that students are “soaking up the syllabus” as features on the courseware-loaded tablet issued to each of them, enabling the young aviators to study when it suits them.
Even though the first class is only halfway through, the course is undergoing changes. Instructors are already evaluating further innovations and refinements as part of a continuous improvement process. According to Ball, the squadron is considering which sorties can be dropped, so that other skillsets can be introduced instead. “Alternatively, we may want to take students from an earlier phase of their 310 course and push them a little bit by downloading training from the Hawk,” he added. This is an example of how to best fit the Texan within the training pipeline and get the most out of this new system.
Three classes are currently under way: Class One started in September 2019, Class Two in November 2019, and Class Three in January 2020. The first students should graduate from Class One in the summer.
During 2020, the squadron will build to a capacity of six classes being in-house at any given time. Each will comprise six students, the number deemed optimal. As one class graduates, a new one arrives – this schedule is currently deemed appropriate to maximise the pipeline’s capacity. The current priority for No 72 Squadron is preparing for night-flying – to date none of the students have experienced this – and fully qualifying more instructors to reach a capacity that’s able to run six classes concurrently.
As far back as March 2019, Textron was working on modifications to the aircrew parachute torso harness as required by the UK MOD. This was necessary for over-water/cold water operations. The harness system is called the Universal Water Activated Release (UWARS), a battery-operated, water-activated, electro-explosive device. According to its manufacturer, Cobham, the device automatically disconnects the parachute canopy from the pilot upon immersion in water. This function is vital for pilot survival should they be incapacitated when they hit the water. According to Textron, the harness modification has previously been implemented by the US Navy, the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the Argentine Air Force. All three services have operated T-6s with this particular modification for a number of years.
Wg Cdr Ball explained the amount of effort placed into understanding any risk to life presented by any of the aircraft’s systems: “With the Texan, a lot of its aircrew equipment assembly – the equipment worn by the pilot – is American and is therefore different to other such systems used by other types in service with the RAF. The Phantom was the last aircraft for which aircrew wore a torso harness. Using this equipment for training students in the UK presents a different scenario. At first, we did not have a good grip on what risks were posed by the torso harness, a new LSJ [life-saving jacket] and a smaller life raft, so we placed a restriction on over-water flight operations because of the associated risks.
“We have tried to apply rigorous standards to an evaluation of wearing all kinds of additional kit when faced with perceived concerns with post-ejection survival in water – not just the initial impact with the water, but also surviving in the water after immersion. One example is that our life raft does not have an inflatable floor, [whereas] standard RAF life rafts do. Body heat loss through the bottom of the original life raft is therefore greater. To solve the problem, we now carry an inflatable cushion in our pocket, which provides better thermal protection than the original type.”
Confidence in the Texan’s aircrew equipment assembly had to be improved, so a series of sea trials was staged involving pilots wearing and carrying the additional kit. Based on the findings of the trials, the RAF is now comfortable with Texan T1s flying over water. A release to service for the aircrew equipment assembly is about to be issued, and the over-water restriction will be lifted. The restriction did not impede the development of either the course or the squadron.
Textron’s Tom Webster considers the spectrum of training afforded to the UK MOD under MFTS – Prefect T1, Phenom T1, Texan T1 and Hawk T2 – to be a superb means for preparing fresh-faced pilots for the Typhoon and F-35B Lightning or its modern transport and tanker aircraft. He said: “As time marches on, think the services will find the Texan’s sustainment cost to be low, backed by a supply chain that is always ready to provide parts when needed, which will make a considerable difference to the maintenance and sustainment of the fleet. I’ll make a wager that the RAF will still be flying Texans 40 years from now.”
But how many aircraft are required? With six classes running at any one time, that amounts to 36 students in-house. It’s a stretch of one’s imagination to see how just ten aircraft and 20 instructors will meet growing demands. The MOD is surely likely to need more Texan aircraft and more instructors in the years to come.