Major General Gregory Feest, the commander of the 19th , was in Chicago representing the Air Force and acting as the senior military officer in attendance at the event. The 19th Air Force is tasked with providing flight and aircrew training to more than 25,000 US and Allied students annually and is comprised of more than 38,000 Total Force personnel across 17 wings and 3 training groups. They operate 1,720 aircraft including the T-1 Jayhawk, T-6A Texan II, and T-38 Talon.
A little background on the General, he has over 5,400 total flight hours and more than 800 combat hours. He’s flown a countless number of airframes including the F-111, the F-15C and E, and the F-117. General Feest holds a number of claims to aviation fame, he is the first person to ever reach 1,000 hours in the F-117 and the first person to fly that aircraft into combat. He is also purported to hold the most combat hours in the F-117 (more than 130 hours) having been the first person in Desert Storm to drop a bomb in Iraq from an F-117.
I had the opportunity to speak with the General on the Friday before the Air and Water show. I wanted to know what he thought of the discontinuation of the F-22 program. He was solidly in the camp that the discontinuation of the program will put us in the position of having to “make do” with what we have. The General said:
“You’ve heard many people say, ‘more is better’, I tend to agree. Because right now, out of those aircraft that we have, many are for training, many are for testing. When you take those aircraft out of the mix and then you take the ones that are down for maintenance, it doesn’t leave enough to fight maybe two major conflicts, or even one.”
I then asked the General to address how this might effect the Air Sovereignty Alert mission. He didn’t feel that it would have much effect on that mission mainly because the fleet of F-16’s is still viable and will be well into 2020’s based on the later blocks of aircraft. As to the recent assertion that the Air Force should consider looking at the F-18 he said:
“We’ve not trained in the F-18, it’s a Navy Aircraft. It would take a lot of effort to transition into that because we don’t have the supply lines, the depots. We have nothing setup in the Air force for the F-18, so I’m not sure that would be the right decision, but I’m sure our senior leaders will come to some kind of decision to keep the guard viable because as everybody knows, we need them.”
I wanted to find out more about the F-35 training program. One of the key issues with and aircraft like this is the fact that it’s a single seat aircraft, this makes training a little bit more complicated. I asked the General how they plan to address this issue:
“Our main task will be training brand new UPT graduates, SUPT graduates, putting them in the Joint Strike fighter as we had to do for the F-22. The key there will be a great simulator because these aircraft are single seat, so there first flight is solo. We have to make sure that the students have experienced a high “G” environment, so we have to make sure we give them some kind of training in high “G’s” with an instructor in the airplane before we send them out by themselves.”
“Two weeks ago we retired the last T-37’s, they left Sheppard Air Force Base, so now all of our pilot training bases have T-6’s. The T-6 is much more advanced than the T-37. The T-37 did it’s job well but now we have a glass cockpit and more advanced avionics in the T-6. From there in pilot training we have different tracks, the T-1 track for heavy aircraft pilots, the helicopter track and we have the T-38 track. The T-38 has been upgraded to the “C” model, so it also has a glass cockpit with GPS and it has a HUD and it has more advanced avionics than the original 38. So a great platform as well to get these future 5th generation pilots ready for their fighters. Now, the T-38 is getting old, it will retire by 2018 we think, without any repairs done to it – or any modifications – we are putting new ejection seats in them still.”
He went on to explain the new T-X program:
“Our plan is to get a new ‘T-X’ trainer aircraft by 2018. It’s called the T-X, right now the AOA, Analysis of Alternatives is being done to determine what requirements we need in that aircraft because we’re going to have to look at requirements and look at cost and see what we can get. The T-1 is set to retire in 2025, I think in today’s environment with the economy and the budgets we have we probably will not be able to get 2 replacement trainer aircraft, so I think what we set for the requirements for the T-X, it will need to do both. Then we can look at how we do pilot training when we get that aircraft.”
He went on to say that his boss General Lorenz has made it the highest priority to move up the T-X program in order to ensure that the aircraft is in place by 2018. A specific airframe for this program has not been selected, 2 RFI’s have gone out to contractors – once that process is complete, and RFP will be issued and they’ll see what’s available. Ultimately the selection will be based of course in their requirements and ultimately where the budget dollars fall. One of the features they’re looking for is in air refueling, this isn’t a make or break option, but it is something they’re looking for. The T-38 is a supersonic training platform, the General indicated that if supersonic comes in at a cost that they can afford, of course they’ll take it, but it may be something that’s given up for something more advantageous like synthetic radar for example.
A controversial subject among pilots in the Air Force and Pilots in general, is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV. It’s been the subject of some interesting cartoons and even a song by the band Dos Gringos. I asked the General his opinion on the UAV as a platform, speaking as a pilot with more than 5,400 hundred flight hours:
“First of all, I think it’s the wave of the future and some people say, well, pilots are going to go away – maybe – many many years from now. I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime, it may happen, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If we can send a drone or UAV or UAS into a high threat environment, and I’ve been in them with the 117, I would rather do that than risk somebody’s life. The pilots are there for different reasons, we need pilots in aircraft to make decisions when there’s emergencies. Obviously being there looking down at a troops in contact situation, let’s say in Iraq right now, it’s much easier when there’s a pilot actually at the controls looking down seeing what’s going on, not looking through a soda straw type of thing to see that ‘Hey there’s friendlies over here, I may not want to drop this weapon over here, I want to wait till they get out of the way.’ things like that. So it’s all going to be based on the scenarios, but I think the UAS system is here to stay, I mean I’m glad it’s here to stay.”
We went on to discuss the training of UAS pilots and Sensor Operators. They’re standing up the Sensor Operator Training at Randolph Air Force Base starting in October. I’m hoping to get down to Randolph in December to showcase this training. The General felt that the younger generation of potential Air Force pilots were excited to be a part of the UAS program:
“In a room of 100, when I asked them who would like to fly the UAS, half the people raised their hand.”
This was very surprising to me, almost all of the future Air Force Pilots I have spoken to have been sharply against flying the UAV, one even saying he would rather not be a pilot if he was put into a UAS slot. Right now, they’re taking 100 SUPT graduates a year and putting them into the UAS program – specifically the Predator. I asked the General to address the fact that the Army flies it’s UAS systems using enlisted people, while the Air Force continues to use officers:
“Our doctrine is different, our mission is different. If you look at the airspace we control, we send the UAS systems out much farther, I think the training is different for us, whereas the Army is there to protect the BCT’s, Brigade Combat Teams. So what they’re doing with there’s is a different mission. I’m not saying in the future, I think it would be a great idea to merge some of this training. It should be joint, I mean the Navy is doing the same thing and so are the Marines.”
I asked the General about how technology has impacted the Pilot Training Program recently and he addressed a very interesting example:
“The C-17 pilots to 43 sorties in the sim and they get to go out and fly one ride and then get their checkride.”
So essentially you have a pilot who’s spent the majority of his time in the airframe having never left the ground. AMC, the “customer” for this training, says they’re very pleased with the results they’re seeing. The cost savings based on fuel alone has got to be huge.
I got to spend quite a bit of time with General Feest, one of the things that struck me about him was his very down to earth nature. I’ve met a number of flag officers in my time and more than my share of fighter pilots, at no time did the General ever come off as anything other than a regular guy from Wisconsin. He made a point to say that he was so happy to see the level of support that the nation is providing to our troops and how valuable that really is to them.