Joint School Launches New Navigators
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Aug. 21, 1997 Navy Lt. Dave Huntley deftly guided the Air Force T-43A twin-engine jet 35,000 feet above the New Mexico desert. With nearly a dozen navigators aft, there was no chance he'd get lost.
"They sometimes give me the wrong coordinates or ask me to make a wrong turn, but we know this route by heart, anyway," Huntley said. Relaxed, he likened his part in the Joint Undergraduate Navigator Training mission to driving a bus. "But it's good duty, especially for naval officers," he quickly added.
Seven Navy and 28 Air Force pilots share the task of taking aloft navigator students from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Experienced instructors, also a mix from the different services, let the students make mistakes and even allow the mission to veer off course. As a result, Huntley and the other pilots sometimes fly in zigzag patterns.
Up to 12 students sit at identical navigator stations in the aircraft's main cabin. Three have real responsibility for directing the flight path, while the others just try to chart the flight. During the four- to five-hour missions, the T-43A is literally a classroom in the sky.
Besides U.S. students, the program also trains international students, mostly from NATO countries, explained Lt. Col. Tom Andersen, 562nd Flying Training Squadron commander. Those who graduate from the difficult, challenging school serve as navigators or naval flight officers aboard multiengine aircraft.
Each class of some 210 students spends five to six months with the 562nd, the middle leg of navigator training. Before arriving here, they complete primary training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. After winning their wings at Randolph, they head to various locations for additional training on the type of aircraft they will navigate. All told, they've been in training some 18 months by the time they're mission-qualified.
Adjacent to the Air Force-Navy squadron, the Marine Aerial Navigation School prepares enlisted Marines for navigator duty on the Corps' C-130 aircraft. The Marines use Air Force equipment but have their own course syllabus.
Although they're training for flight positions, navigator students spend most of their time here simulating the experience. "Seventy percent of training is done in simulators," Andersen said. "We take them up in the T-43 mostly to give them 'air sense,' so they know the feeling of flight and the movements they cause by the directions they give the pilot."
The simulators have the advantage of giving each student total control of a "mission." On the downside, Andersen said, the conditions simulated are "too perfect. The aircraft provides a lot of situational awareness they don't get on the simulator."
Navigator training hasn't changed much over the years, Andersen said. The T-43, a modified Boeing 737 transport, has been in use since 1973. The students still learn both instrument and celestial navigation. And the instructors continue to be at the core of successful training.
"We have only a 2 percent wash-out rate here, compared to 8 percent in other programs," Andersen said. "A lot of that is due to the quality of our instructors, who can take even a marginal student and produce a good navigator."
Instructors complete at least one operational assignment of three to four years before coming to the schoolhouse, Andersen said. Here, they go through preparatory training and check rides before qualifying to teach. It's choice duty, said Cmdr. Ed O'Callaghan, now squadron operations officer. He rattled off benefits such as regular duty hours, more time with family and the chance to earn advanced degrees as some reasons many volunteer for the three-year assignment.
But the students are also a big reason for coming here to teach, O'Callaghan added. "The students are very enthusiastic, and we have a chance not only to prepare them to be good navigators but good officers, as well.
"All the instructors here, from the commander on down, are accessible to the students," he said. "They can come to us anytime, and we will talk to them about our experiences in uniform and what they can expect after they leave here. We really have a great chance to shape them."
The students learn about six weeks before graduation where they'll first serve as full-fledged navigators. They have choices. The school receives lists of openings from the services, from which students select the aircraft they want to serve on and assignment location. "Most students are able to get the aircraft and mission they want, but sometimes they have to make an alternate selection. That's when we award selection based on academic order of merit," O'Callaghan said.
From the day they arrive at Randolph, student navigators walk daily past a plaque in a squadron hallway. Rows of shiny Air Force silver and Navy gold wings with a student's name under each wing adorn the plaque. The Marines have a similar plaque in their training area.
"Seeing their name under a set of wings is an incentive to excel and a reminder of why they're here," O'Callaghan said. "It helps them keep focused and get through the tough times."
"The school was more difficult than I thought it would be," said 1st Lt. Glenn King, a day before his Aug. 15 graduation ceremony. King can look back on 105 training days at Randolph, during which he completed 336 academic hours of training and education, more than 20 simulator missions and 14 flights. Along the way, he had to pass timed tests to show he'd learned such navigation basics as weather tracking and avoidance, computer operations, radar procedures and global navigation.
With all that behind him now, he looked forward to rejoining his Tennessee Air National Guard unit, the 118th Airlift Wing in Nashville. "I'm excited about getting to the unit and doing missions," King said. "We have aircraft and crews all over the world, and for the first couple of years, I will fly a lot."
Before he gets to Nashville, however, King has to complete C-130 navigator training at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. But now, he'll have his wings.