The T-50 Golden Eagle program has much to celebrate. Ten years after the first T-50 rolled out of the Korean Aerospace Industries factory in Sacheon, South Korea, the program has radically improved the way fighter pilots are trained in Korea. Two training squadrons at Gwangju AB operate fifty aircraft and graduate about 140 students per year.
The Black Eagles, the demonstration team of the Republic of Korea Air Force, are impressing crowds in shiny T-50Bs. And at Yecheon AB, where the first TA-50 lead-in fighter training course will start in 2012, aircraft are starting to populate the ramp. Furthermore, development of the FA-50 fighter/attack variant has transitioned to production. The first FA-50 is planned for delivery to ROKAF in 2013.
On top of these successes, the program celebrated its first international sale in May 2011 when Indonesia placed a $400 million order for sixteen T-50 trainers.
In the first feature article on the T-50 in Code One in 2005, appearing shortly after the first production version rolled off the line in Sacheon, Enes Park, now senior executive vice president of KAI, said, "The rollout of the first production aircraft was just a start for us. We celebrated. Now we get to work.”
That work continues today as the latest versions of the T-50 roll off the line to head to training squadrons in Korea and to training squadrons of new and future customers.
ROKAF received its last T-50 trainer from KAI in May 2010. The delivery marked the successful completion of the introduction of the initial version of the T-50 into the ROKAF training organization. The trainer, which has a wide range of capabilities, entered full service less than five years from initial delivery, which allowed ROKAF to retire its aging T-38 advanced flight trainer fleet and to discontinue operating its BAE Hawk and Northrop Grumman F-5E aircraft for lead-in fighter pilot training.
As of September 2011, ROKAF’s T-50 advanced flight training course at Gwangju AB has produced more than 350 fighter pilots and logged more than 40,000 flight hours. The aircraft have established an aircraft availability rate exceeding eighty-five percent. The T-50 Total Training System has reduced training time by twenty percent and training costs by thirty percent, while increasing skill levels of graduates by forty percent, compared to the legacy training system. The program has been a huge success.
As commander of one of the two training squadrons that operate T-50s at Gwangju, Lt. Col. Yung-Chae Kim is familiar with the performance of the T-50. “The aircraft and its associated training systems are exceeding our expectations,” he said. “We have eliminated ten training sorties from the previous training syllabus while graduating pilots with much improved skill levels.”
Kim has been commanding the 189th Squadron at Gwangju since 2008. The 189th and the other T-50 squadron at Gwangju, the 203rd, fall under the 1st Fighter Wing. The squadrons together operate fifty T-50s and train about 140 students per year in three classes. About two-thirds of the graduates go on to fly KF-16s in combat squadrons. The remaining graduates head to F-5E units.
The advanced flight training coursework for new pilots at Gwangju introduces students to jet-powered flight. “Before student pilots can become combat pilots, they must learn basic flight skills, basic controlling, formation flying, instrument flying, and basic tactical flying,” explained Kim. “The T-50 and its associated ground-based training systems allow us to teach the primary stages of the course much faster. We apply the time we save to teaching more advanced topics and to introducing tactical flying.”
The approach produces pilots who are much better prepared for the next phase, which is combat readiness training, or CRT.
The ground portions of the T-50 training at Gwangju are conducted in a silver, two-story integrated training center. Lecture halls in the center are wired for computer-aided instruction. Student pilots as well as student maintenance personnel work at their own pace on individualized lessons on computer-based training systems. These same systems also track the training performance of the students using an integrated, Web-based system.
Student pilots fly the T-50 in two types of simulators at Gwangju—an operational flight trainer and a full mission trainer. The operational flight trainer, used primarily as a procedures trainer, is a full cockpit and a large five-panel display. The full mission trainer, used for training an entire flight, is a full-dome simulator. Student performance is monitored on both simulators from a control room that features a desktop version of the cockpit. Without ever having to leave the ground, student pilots learn to operate the T-50 from engine startup to engine shutdown.
New students at Gwangju spend their first seven weeks in a ground training squadron. They then move to a flight education squadron. The computer-based ground training and the simulator training continue into the flight training syllabus. Even after students begin flying the T-50, they spend time in the flight simulator—about one hour in a simulator for every hour they spend in the air flying.
“The ground education has been the most challenging aspect of the course,” said 1st Lt. Yong-Deok Cho, a student in the 189th Squadron. The T-50 is highly advanced and complicated compared to the T-103 and KT-1—aircraft that students fly for pilot screening and basic training. “The T-50 engine, electrical system, subsystems, and emergency systems, which are all completely different from the T-103 and KT-1, take some time to understand,” he explained. The trainees also have to study about a dozen additional subjects, such as normal flying procedures, aviation dynamics, and meteorology. “The coursework would be much more difficult to absorb without computer-based training, the simulators, and the other modern training systems we have here.”
The similarities between the T-50 and the F-16 pay dividends in subsequent training phases. “The similarities allow pilots to adapt faster and easier,” said Capt. In Geol Hwang, an instructor pilot at the 189th. The final classes of the advanced flight training course focus on tactical flying. Unlike our previous training system, students are now exposed to basic fighter maneuvers, or BFM, before moving on to CRT. “Those who finish this course have commented that they found the BFM instruction here extremely helpful in the CRT course.”
“The T-38 was a fine training aircraft,” added Kim. But ROKAF could use the T-38 only to train analog flying, which is basic flying. “With the T-50, student pilots can learn digital avionics and the high-tech systems used on modern fighters, such as the head-up and multifunction displays. When they transfer to aircraft that use digital equipment, they adapt much more easily because of their experience in the T-50.”
The T-50 family continues to expand as new variations of the aircraft roll out the KAI factory. In 2011, the company completed delivery of ten T-50B aircraft to ROKAF’s demonstration squadron, the Black Eagles. This version of the T-50 carries equipment unique to the team, including smoke system, internal and external cameras, and high-visibility spotlights in the dummy Sidewinder missiles on the wingtips.
The TA-50 is the latest version of the T-50 to roll out the factory. This more advanced version will be used for lead-in fighter training at Yecheon AB, about 150 miles southeast of Seoul. As of September 2011, KAI had delivered eight of a planned twenty-two TA-50s to ROKAF.
Armaments and radar account for the primary difference between a T-50 and a TA-50. The TA-50 is equipped with an internally mounted 20mm gun and with external hardpoints for carrying a variety of weapons. A stores management system combined with a MIL-STD-1553 databus allows these weapons to be integrated on the aircraft. While the T-50 has no radar, the TA-50 features the Elta EL/M-2032 multimode radar.
“The T-50 is used in the advanced flight training course at Gwangju to teach students basic flying abilities in jet-powered flight,” explained Col. Sun Tae Yung, who is in charge of flight training policy and pilot training for ROKAF. “Later in 2011, the TA-50 will begin operations for lead-in fighter training, or what we call LIFT. The course teaches students how to operate a fighter tactically. The armaments and radar on the TA-50 are essential to LIFT.
“The T-50 and TA-50 have the same shape and flight characteristics,” Yung added. “So students coming from the advanced flight training course at Gwangju will have no problem transitioning to the TA-50 at Yecheon.”
TA-50 in the LIFT role will significantly reduce the training loads on operational aircraft. For example, combat readiness training now conducted at dedicated F-16 training units will be moved to the TA-50 training squadrons at Yecheon. The F-16 units can then function as pure combat units. Besides freeing up combat aircraft for combat roles, the lower operating cost of the TA-50—compared to legacy trainer aircraft—will reduce the overall training cost for new pilots. The TA-50 will further simplify training and reduce costs by replacing F-5s currently used for LIFT.
The TA-50s will operate from the 115th Squadron of the 16th Fighter Wing at Yecheon. The wing, founded in 1976, currently hosts a fighter squadron and a training squadron for advanced flight. The F-5E/F CRT course there has been in operation since 2006. The TA-50 LIFT course will begin operation in mid-2012.
“We have already selected the first twenty instructor pilots who are now training in the newly delivered TA-50s at Yecheon,” said Yung. “Eventually, these instructor pilots will train about eighty pilots per year in three classes.”
Once TA-50 production completes in 2012, KAI will begin producing a light combat version of the T-50, called the FA-50, to replace the ROKAF F-5E/F aircraft. The FA-50 will be a fully combat-capable version of the T-50. On top of the TA-50 capabilities, the FA-50 will have self-protection systems including a radar warning receiver and a countermeasures system to dispense chaff and flares.
The FA-50 can be armed with more sophisticated weapons that include the Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser, or WCMD, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs. It will also have Link-16 datalink for net-centric warfare and night vision imaging system for all-weather day/night operations. Enhancements planned for the cockpit include larger multifunction displays and other digital instruments.
The FA-50’s primary mission will be close air support and suppression of enemy artillery using precision-guided munitions, such as JDAM. The FA-50’s capabilities free aircraft with longer ranges for other missions. The ROKAF has committed to purchasing at least sixty FA-50s.