Flying Hours in Decline
By John A. Tirpak
Active-duty Air Force pilots flew fewer hours in fiscal 2021 than the previous year, giving back gains made the prior year, but Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve pilots gained back some additional training in the same period.
Flying hours are a critical barometer for Air Force readiness and indicative of factors such as pilot and spare parts availability, speed of throughput at depots, and operations budgets. Inadequate flying hours reduces pilot proficiency and historically correlates with increased accident rates.
According to Air Force figures provided to Air Force Magazine for this Almanac issue, pilot flying hours across all types of aircraft in the Active-duty force, on average, declined to 10.1 hours per month in fiscal 2021, down from 10.9 hours in 2020. In 2019, flying hours averaged just 6.8 per month, down sharply from 10.7 in 2018. Historically, the Air Force has sought to give combat pilots 200 or more training hours per year, or a minimum of 16 hours per month.
I’m not happy with where we are.Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, responding to questions during a visit to the Heritage Foundation June 1, expressed disappointment with the decline.
“I’m not happy with where we are,” he said. After a decade of operating under the Budget Control Act of 2011, the service has “never recovered,” he said.
On the plus side, Kendall said, rapid advances in technology mean Airmen are able to “do more with simulators” today, gaining extremely high-fidelity virtual training that is far less costly than flying real aircraft, which require fuel, parts, and maintenance. Simulators also allow aviators to rehearse emergencies that can’t be practiced in a real, flying airplane.
Declines were particularly high for some of the most demanding training, such as fighter pilots.
Active-duty fixed-wing hours averaged just 6.1 hours per pilot per month in fiscal 2021, down steeply from 8.7 hours in pandemic-challenged 2020. Air National Guard fixed-wing training hours fell from 10.8 to 7.9, while Air Force Reserve pilots saw training rise from 4.8 hours in fiscal 2020 to 10.9 in 2021.
Tanker flying time for the Active duty was flat, but Guard pilots saw a downturn from 10.4 to 9.4, while Reserve pilots flew more, up to 9.1 hours from 8.3 the year before. Retirements of the KC-10 tanker may have affected flying time, although new KC-46s are also entering the force.
Trainer aircraft time dropped about 20 percent for Active-duty pilots, from 9.6 hours to 8 per month. Guard trainer pilot time was flat at about one hour per month, while Reserve hours fell precipitously from 2.9 to 0.4 hours.
Reconnaissance hours were up for pilots in that category, from 7 per month to 8.4. Reserve time in recce was flat at 5.3 to 5.4, but Guard recon time fell from 9 hours a month to 8.1.
Contract Red Air Not Up to the Challenge at Nellis, Alaska
By John A. Tirpak
Fifth-generation fighters need fifth-generation adversaries to train high-end capabilities—so the Air Force is giving up on privatized adversary air companies at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) Alaska. Instead, Air Combat Command will create its own permanent F-35 Aggressor capability.
“These contracts aren’t very effective at Nellis at the high-end training environment,” Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May. “What they provide is not giving us what we need.”
When ACC decided to let lapse its $280 million contract with Draken International, signed in 2018, Draken issued layoff notices. That prompted Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) to question Nahom over concerns there will be a shortage of aggressor capability while the Air Force stands up its own F-35 Aggressor unit. She cited an Air Force response to query that indicated 63 percent of Aggressor hours are supplied by contractors.
Nahom said the Air Force didn’t need a fifth-generation adversary aircraft as recently as “five, six years ago,” but that today China fields such fighters, and USAF’s two marquee fighter training ranges need adversaries that can mimic those capabilities.
“As the China threat has stepped up, we have to step up our replication,” Nahom said. “What the contractor is providing there at Nellis … is not what we need … for that high-end piece.” The Nevada Test and Training Range and the JPARC complex in Alaska “are the only two places that you get that high-end training anywhere in the world.”
Adversary air vendors “do wonderful work for the Air Force, especially at our Formal Training Units, or FTUs, where we train basic fighter pilots how to fly,” he said, that kind of work will continue.
But “the Nellis training range is a national treasure,” he said.
USAF is also moving toward greater virtual training, Nahom added, “because a lot of things cannot be replicated in ‘real.’” While actual flying hours are critical, USAF’s investment “in a virtual simulation environment” is also essential to “ensure that our aircrews maintain that edge.”
Draken’s for-hire Adversary Air force includes Russian MiG-21s, U.S. A-4 Skyhawks, French Mirage F1s, and the derivative South African Atlas Cheetah, as well as Czech Aero L-159A Honey Badgers and MB-339s. Recently, it began acquiring ex-Dutch F-16A/Bs. Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), Tactical Air Support, Air USA, Blue Air Training, Coastal Defense, and Top Aces Corp also offer such services.
ACC once envisioned contracting as much as $6.4 billion of adversary air work at 12 bases, including 40,000 hours of air-to-air and 10,000 hours of close air support work. It’s not clear how much of that work will now be absorbed by ACC.
An industry source said Draken was given only 60 days notice of the contract lapse, after the Air Force “led them to believe they would still be in high demand.”
There is “no published Air Force vision” for Adversary Air or electronic warfare aggressors, he said.
Air Force Awards $604M Contract to Rebuild Tyndall as ‘Base of Future’
By Greg Hadley
More than three-and-a-half years after Hurricane Michael pummeled Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., the base took a major step toward its quest to rebuild as the “base of the future” in May, awarding a $604 million contract that the Air Force called its largest-ever military construction contract.
The deal funds 11 projects to support the flight line for Tyndall’s F-35s, including:
- Three aircraft maintenance hangars
- A maintenance fuel cell hangar
- A weapons load training hangar
- Group headquarters
- Squadron maintenance complex
- Flight simulator facility
- Corrosion control facility
- Parking apron
- Aircraft support equipment storage.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded the contract to Hensel Phelps, among the nation’s biggest construction contractors. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Natural Disaster Recovery Division is also involved in the project. Construction is slated to begin late this summer, but no completion date has been publicly announced yet. The base may not be fully rebuilt until 2028, officials said.
“The rebuild gives us the unique opportunity to reimagine how we accommodate the needs of the F-35,” said Col. Travis Leighton, the Natural Disaster Recovery Division chief. “We’re leveraging cutting-edge technology to increase cybersecurity and perimeter defense, enhance base safety, and equip Airmen to execute the missions of today and tomorrow.”
To guard against future storm damage, new buildings will be built to withstand winds up to 165 miles per hour and will be built to account for up to seven feet of future sea level rise. “Smart” building technologies, such as occupancy sensors, will be built in from the start.
Congress appropriated $5.3 billion combined to restore Tyndall and Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., which was devastated by major flooding around the same time. Most of that investment will be at Tyndall. More money may yet be needed. The Air Force’s 2023 MILCON budget request for fiscal 2023 noted an unfunded priority of $286 million for natural disaster recovery at Tyndall, Offutt, and Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. Brig. Gen. William H. Kale III, the Air Force director of civil engineers, said additional requests will likely follow in fiscal 2024 as well.