So you want to be a fighter pilot?
No longer can the U.S. Air Force rely strictly upon the Cold War tactics that featured well-scripted, preplanned bombing targets and air-to-air engagements to be successful in the battlefield.
The microchip and interconnected networks have completely shifted the battlefield into a fast-moving and sometimes invisible landscape requiring more flexibility and brainpower from our warriors. The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington DC are prime examples. The attacking jihadists used the Internet for communications and a web of electronic currency transactions to conduct the attack. The Improvised Explosive Device, or IED, that can be detonated with the use of a cell phone network is another example of the new battlefield that leverages information technology.
Recognizing this, Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) at Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio, Texas, is adopting its training approach for the 21st Century. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“We are in the age of conducting a new kind of warfare,Ă˘â‚¬Âť explained Lt Col Om Prakash, Squadron Commander of the 87th Flying Training Squadron that trains pilot candidates on the basic fundamentals of air warfare in the T-38C at Laughlin AFB. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“The most important thing you bring to the battlefield, really, is your brain,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said. And Prakash is succeeding at it remarkably well.
Of the 45 graduates of his program that made the next step on the road to becoming a fighter pilot, 20 of them earned recognition as either a distinguished graduate or Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Top GunĂ˘â‚¬Âť distinction at Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) School.
Prakash, a 1989 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) and a 1991 graduate of Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s Astronautical Engineering masters program didnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t arrive at the position of squadron commander through the traditional ladder climb. Yet, his background appears to be tailor-made for the modernization of the methods and tools now used to train new combat pilots.
After graduating from MIT, Prakash attended pilot training at Williams AFB, near Phoenix, AZ. At the time of graduation, the Air Force was fat on pilots, so he deferred a flying assignment and served a two-year tour of duty in the intelligence world before finally strapping on an F-15E Strike Eagle. He enjoyed several years of real world operations in Iraq patrolling the infamous Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“No Fly ZonesĂ˘â‚¬Âť and watching the sky of pre-war Kosovo before he was accepted into the prestigious Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB in California.
After graduating from Test Pilot School, Prakash flight-tested new information technology meant to enhance the way pilots train for battle. He worked on the F-16 Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“VistaĂ˘â‚¬Âť program that integrated software into the planeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s flight controls and helmet-mounted site to better fight air-to-air and air-to-ground engagements. He also worked on new upgrades to the avionics, weapons, and engines of the F-15C and E. Then he worked to bring the T-38C Talon onboard, the aircraft of his future squadron. The T-38C, which is now employed at Laughlin AFB, incorporates an F-16 Heads-Up Display (or HUD), a new glass cockpit, and several other advanced avionics systems that make the T-38 comparable to modern jet fighters in information integration.
Prakash found out that he missed operational flying, and wanted to move back. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Traditionally, once you go into flight test, you donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t leave. It is considered a one way door,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Prakash said. He was eventually granted his wish and went back to an operational F-15E squadron where he participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Then Colonel Steve Kwast, who was the Operations Group commander here two years ago, specifically requested that Prakash return to the flightline at Laughlin AFB.
Last year, as the 87th FTS Operations Officer, second in command to the squadron commander, Prakash managed the transition of the 87thĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s instructor pilots and student pilots from the T-38A to the T-38C, the airplane he flight tested at Edwards. With the C-model transition, he initiated the new approach to training students with the HUD and glass cockpit, in light of the requirements of warfare in the information technology age.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Some felt that the new cockpit had too much information for a new student,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Prakash said. And so they shied away from teaching students to use most of the new features of the HUD, Multifunction Display (MFD), or the Up Front Control Panel (UFCP). Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I disagree,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said. The priorities for being a good pilot have changed, he noted.
Prakash relayed a real life example that involved sensor management on the battlefield. It was an incident that occurred to him over Iraq a few years ago. Insurgents fleeing in a white vehicle had just detonated an IED on the side of a road injuring Army personal. Through Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and a myriad of communications avenues, word was passed to Prakash and his flight of F-15Es to search for the truck making a fast escape.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“As word was being relayed, my wingman was experiencing an engine malfunction.Ă˘â‚¬Âť Recent upgrades to the Strike Eagle allowed Prakash to monitor his wingman while he stayed on station to search for the vehicle.
Using onboard sensors in ways they are not originally designed to be used, Prakash and his backseater were able to identify the insurgents. After he landed, he learned that because he was able to spot the van, the Army captured the perpetrators. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“It gave me a lot of satisfaction that we were able to contribute. It was impressive to see the technology come together in such a manner on the battlefield,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said.
Prakash said that the access to information technology alone isnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t the combat edge of the American Air Warrior. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Our edge is combining the traditional American warrior ethos with information technology. Ă˘â‚¬â„˘Warrior ethosĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ is vital to a fighter pilot,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said. According to Prakash, a warrior will now have a diverse career taking him (or her) to several arenas in the new battlespace.
Prakash says he is impressed with the quality in the pipeline of new students, and their grasp of the warrior attitude.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Sure I feel a generational gap,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Prakash noted when evaluating the quality of pilot candidates moving through the T-38C course. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“But if anything, they have a deeper understanding than I did at their age. They are coming into service knowing what is at stake,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said, noting that the majority of his graduates will probably be deployed into a hot battlefield within a year of leaving Laughlin.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I have noticed a fundamental shift in the attitudes of these students. Before, during the Cold War, when an immediate threat didnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t seem to exist, I think there was a less aggressive attitude. Sometimes we were almost proud of being ignorant. But now, the new generation wants to know. They want to learn.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
They will need to know, too. The war is now, and all too real. Many have perished. And the nature of modern war requires a thinking warrior more than ever before.