The manicured lawn. The spider web of sidewalks between one brick building and another. Small classrooms and a large lecture hall. Learning laboratories. The administration building named after someone notable. Registration and course materials. Coffee makers and vending machines in the breakrooms. Late nights. Working toward a sheepskin.
There are some notable differences between this campus and that of a small college, however. The students at this institution of higher learning all wear green flight suits or tiger-striped Airman Battle Uniforms to class rather than sweatshirts and flip-flops. And the final exams take place on a C-130 Hercules.
“We’ve been in the business of training C-130 aircrew members and maintainers for decades,” said Col. Pat Mordente, the 314th Airlift Wing operations group commander at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas. “Nobody puts their brand on the Hercules like we do. The capability we can present to our students is amazing.”
The 314th AW trains approximately 1,800 C-130E/H and C-130J aircrew members annually—about 450 daily—from the US and from nearly thirty-five countries around the world. Close to 1,600 Hercules maintainers from the US and from more than fifteen allied nations are also trained every year. Students arrive or depart The Rock, as the base is commonly known, almost every working day. Similar to a college architecture or computer science laboratory, the lights at Hercules University are on from dawn to dusk and late into the night.
“When I went through C-130 training in 1991, we passed quickly through the simulator and then headed to the flightline. The whole curriculum was biased toward flying,” Mordente said. “Now, we conduct all initial C-130 aircrew qualification in the simulator, including a student’s first check ride.”
The Air Force’s tactical airlift center of excellence has been reinvented over the last decade or so. “With the very high fidelity simulators we have now and the increasing incorporation of technology-based instruction, our focus has changed,” added Col. Kirk Lear, the 314th AW vice commander. “Instead of just teaching students how to operate and maintain the C-130, we get their skills up to where they need to be for real-world operations today. We produce mission-qualified and combat-ready Airmen.”
Home Of The Hercules
Little Rock, which opened in October 1955, could easily be described as the Home of the Hercules. “When all the units assigned here are home, there are nearly 100 C-130s on the ramp,” noted Mordente. “But that hasn’t happened much lately as people and aircraft are constantly deployed.”
The host unit at The Rock is the 19th AW, an active duty wing reporting to Air Mobility Command. The 19th AW has four C-130E/H squadrons and one C-130J squadron in Arkansas, as well as Active Associate squadrons in Wyoming, Mississippi, and Colorado. The 189th AW, which also reports to Air Education and Training Command, is an Air National Guard C-130E wing.
The two colleges, if you will, run by the 314th AW at Hercules U are set up for C-130E/H training and, separately, for C-130J training. The 714th Training Squadron manages the C-130 Aircrew Training System, or ATS, contract, which provides academic and simulator training for legacy Hercules crews. Lockheed Martin Global Training & Logistics Company runs both the ATS and the C-130J Maintenance and Aircrew Training System, or JMATS, which provide simulator, academic, and maintainer training for the Super Hercules.
Courses for C-130 crew chiefs and maintenance journeymen are taught by members of Detachment 4, 373rd Training Squadron. This unit has training spaces in a purpose-built building that appear, at first glance, to be something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory—there are C-130 parts and sections in every bay. The engine shop comes complete with an engine and propeller hanging on a wing section, although set lower than on a C-130 to reduce the time it takes to raise and lower the workstand. One tire in the landing gear simulator is always left flat so students can learn how to change it. Another simulator replicates rigging the aircraft’s elevators.
“We have twenty-five early 1960s-vintage C-130Es for training now, and our maintainers do a great job of keeping them flying,” Lear observed. “But the E-models are scheduled for retirement by the end of 2011. We’ll then migrate to the C-130H2. We also have seven C-130Js and could use a couple more. We need them.”
The 314th AW flies more than 15,600 hours annually and uses two local drop zones, two assault landing zones, and ten regional airfields to train C-130 aircrews. Actual flying training for legacy Hercules crews is conducted by the 62nd Airlift Squadron, while the 48th AS instructs C-130J crews.
“If we do anything else other than train students, like taking part in the Haiti earthquake relief effort, then this company is not producing its widgets, that is, aircrews and maintainers,” noted Lear. “We were ready and eager to help in the relief effort. But between shifting gears to operational missions and then shifting back to school mode, nobody got trained for three weeks. It took a while to fully recover the training schedule.”
The convergence of several factors led the Air Force to move to Reduced Flying Initial Qualification, or RFIQ, for C-130 aircrews. One factor is the reduced number of aircraft available for training. With tight budgets, replacing nearly fifty-year-old C-130s one for one simply for training isn’t likely to happen. “In our case, the fewer aircraft needed for training means there are more aircraft available to go forward to an operational theater,” said Mordente.
The biggest factor by far is cost. “I can use a $50-plus million dollar aircraft that costs up to $5,500 per hour to train pilots, or I can use a $3 million Weapon System Trainer that costs about $750 per hour to run and conveys the same information to a student nearly as well,” Lear stated Over the course of a year, that amounts to close to $20 million in savings versus the cost of flying. Plus, the simulators run about twenty hours a day. “I don’t lose a training slot because an airplane is broken or the weather is bad.”
The introduction of sophisticated technology greatly helped reduce the cost of training. “The commercial airlines do very little actual flying training with new pilots. Their training is done in high fidelity simulators,” Mordente added. “It required a little bit of a mindset change, but once the Air Force saw that all qualification requirements and standards were still being met, resistance to simulator-focused training started going away.” As a result, a lot more training has now migrated to simulators.
The Hill is the name for the collection of interconnected buildings at Little Rock where academic, simulator, and hands-on instruction takes place. “Because the C-130J is a computer-based aircraft, it lends itself well to synthetic training. We have been able to migrate new technology and use it on the legacy Hercules side,” noted Mordente, who can see both The Hill and the flightline from his office in the Clayton Stiles Building, the wing headquarters named for the first commander of the 314th Troop Carrier Group in World War II.
“A student begins with a half-day of in-processing,” said Chuck Cash, the Lockheed Martin JMATS deputy program manager. “They get their school-issued laptop loaded with all the courseware, lessons, and anything else they will need. Then they take a tour of the building. When they come back from lunch, they start training.” The laptops are returned and reused when the students complete their training. Meanwhile, the ATS students across the courtyard receive a disk with everything they need for legacy Hercules training when they start. The students can keep the disk.
“We use a structured approach. The formal training is a little longer, but with fewer flights, the students actually get to their units faster,” said Lee Wiegand, the Lockheed Martin ATS instructional systems development manager. “We are trying to drive the training to the lowest level we can to reduce costs. Training that can come off the aircraft can go in the WST [Weapon System Trainer]. Training that can come off the WST can go to the simpler part-task trainers.
“Also, the Generation Y students we are getting now learn with more than one or two senses,” Wiegand continued. “We are incorporating new elements, such as creating the ability to put computer-based lessons or the aircraft Dash-1 [operating manual] on their iPods, iPhones, or iPad. We are trying to reach them where they are and teach them the way they learn.”
On The Hill
The JMATS staff consists of about fifty pilot and thirty-five loadmaster instructors, while the ATS has roughly the same number of pilots along with roughly thirty instructors each for loadmaster, navigator, and flight engineer training. The instructors come with a variety of backgrounds. The academic classes, taught in well-lit, comfortable rooms, prepare the students to go into the simulators. “We use a crawl-walk-run approach,” said Cash. “The first lesson for C-130J students is how to turn on the computers.”
The C-130J students start with the Avionics Systems Management Trainer, which teaches the pilots—who are paired up with a fellow pilot throughout training—and loadmaster trainees how to manipulate the switches. The trainer also teaches basic procedures of the avionics systems, such as inputting data into the aircraft’s cockpit management display unit.
Both C-130J and legacy students go through the Cockpit Procedures Trainer that teaches them the initial concepts of flying their aircraft. There is no visual system or motion in this trainer, but all the instruments and systems operate. This simulator gives students the knowledge and hands-on experience to safely and correctly operate the aircraft.
Meanwhile, the loadmasters are going through their own academic and hands-on training with an instructor. Initial training consists of a combination of actual hardware and computer-generated images on large displays. These video lessons include things like releasing simulated loads. Once the students have mastered the various parts of the cargo compartment, training moves to the FuT, or Fuselage Trainer, a full-sized simulator with working systems that resides on the flightline.
The legacy FuTs are three wingless C-130E fuselages sitting side by side in a hangar. Because the C-130J has different equipment, such as electric cargo locks, ramp actuator arms, and hydraulics, the C-130J FuT was specially built and, rather than an aircraft, looks more like a large house trailer. The final piece of ground training for the loadmasters is several lessons in an actual C-130E or C-130J that has been pulled off the flying schedule for a couple of hours.
The WST is where all the ground training comes together. These motion-based simulators, which look like large white boxes on stilts, feature highly detailed visual systems and fully operational cockpits. The training goes from simulating simple flights to replicating complicated, low-level combat missions in Afghanistan. Mission planning for a four-hour WST ride gets as detailed as planning for a flight. Everything is replicated—radio calls, weather, even the constant hum of propellers turning. It is as close to flying a mission as possible without ordering a box lunch.
One big difference in the C-130J WST and the legacy C-130 WST is the J-model loadmaster station, complete with video display simulating the cargo hold. The loadmaster on the C-130J is much more involved in the operation of the aircraft, and all three aircrew members need to train together. The legacy C-130 WST does not include the loadmaster, who usually doesn’t work with pilots until they are all on board an actual aircraft. However, the WST does include the navigator and flight engineer, and on occasion, a loadmaster linked in remotely.
About 100 days after starting training, an aircrew is ready to get on a real C-130. Students, after all, do still need the experience of actually flying a Hercules, and in particular, the experience of landing a C-130 in a tactical environment. “When the students get to the flightline, the transition from their flying what is essentially an elaborate video game to operating the aircraft is nearly seamless,” said Maj. Mason Stewart, an instructor pilot with 48th AS. “The simulator shakes out students so well that eight flights in the real aircraft are enough to get them fully qualified. Those eight flights are the capstone of the course.” The students have been instructed so well that it is rare that any student has to refly a sortie.
“Here the students learn to employ the C-130 as a weapon system,” said Lt. Col. Chip Brown, the commander of the 62nd AS, the largest C-130 squadron in the world. “Formation airdrop is our bread and butter. We do CDS [container delivery system] drops at low altitudes, CDS on NVGs [night vision goggles], heavy equipment drops, and assault landings.” The drop zone is busy from about 8:00 am until 2:00 am with students flying five-hour sorties, six in the day and two at night, in a timeline oriented to producing graduates.
The students don’t receive As or Bs at Hercules U—although top graduates do get a certificate and a commendation letter. Instead, they are working toward a Training Complete notation in their permanent record, known as a Form 8. And that record is computerized as well. Whether it’s a mission in the simulator or a CDS drop, a student’s complete training history is recorded. The electronic scorebook also allows the student to review instructor comments and recommendations as well.
However, all the WSTs, the part-task training devices, the courseware, and even the overall RFIQ concept fail if the ultimate customer is not happy. “The graduates we receive are fully qualified,” noted Lt. Col. Gil Martinez, the commander of the 41st Airlift Squadron, the active duty C-130J squadron at Little Rock that has had crews and aircraft deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan continuously since 2008. “We give the new crew members local unit certification and make sure they are mobility-ready. In less than three months of arrival at this unit, they can deploy for combat. They arrive here pretty much ready to go out and accomplish their mission.”
“Nearly everyone who has done anything with a C-130 has been through Little Rock,” concluded Mordente. “We are going to touch Airmen early in their career and often again later on when they come back for additional training such as the weapons instructor course. Crew members can go from their first day in a Hercules to getting a PhD here.”