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33 feet nose to tail and wingtip to wingtip. Just shy of 11 feet tall at the tail. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68 turboprop that develops 1,100 shaft horsepower. It takes off at up to 6,500 pounds. It’ll climb at 4,500 feet per minute and has a service ceiling of 31,000 feet. Vne is two thirds the speed of sound. Some variants have hard points for weapons.
It has two crew places, configured in tandem. It’s equipped with ejection seats and supports gee suits and an oxygen system.
It’s sleek and beautiful and it looks fast just sitting on the ramp.
It takes its name from its predecessor, the North American T-6, the iconic primary trainer that first flew in 1936 and served actively through World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Viet Nam in variants with such names as the Harvard, the Mosquito, and the SNJ. But most called it the Texan.
So when it came time to name this new machine that takes near-pedestrians and turns them into the best-trained pilots in the world, the choice was easy.
The United States Air Force uses it for basic pilot training and Navigator/WSO training. The United States Navy uses it for Primary and Intermediate Joint Naval Flight Officer training.
It has replaced the Air Force's T-37B Tweet and the Navy's T-34C Turbo Mentor and is also the basic trainer for the Canadian Forces as the CT-156 Harvard II.
If you want to fly for the United States Air Force, this is the aircraft that’s waiting for you at your initial pilot training.
This is the T-6A Texan II.
I first saw the T-6A at the Muskegon Airshow in 2006 during Airspeed’s first season. I loved everything about the airplane. If you built a P-51 Mustang with today’s technology, it’d look a lot like the T-6A.
And I came to love it because it’s a challenge. If you want to fly for the US Air Force, you must demonstrate mastery of this aircraft – And do it under the intense evaluation of some of the best instructors in the world.
We all admire military aviators for the skill and courage they embody. I wanted to know what it was like for a future steely-eyed shooter or toner with buckets of potential but minimal demonstrated skills to step onto the ramp and get his or her dollar ride in the T-6A. With all of the excitement, energy, doubts, fears and ambitions that go with that first step time.
What does the threshold of a career flying for the military look like? How does it feel? How does it smell?
I decided sometime last year that I just had to fly in this modern-day pilotmaker. I started asking around in June or July and then wrote some very focused proposals. I re-tooled my in-flight audio and video systems. I started flying acro in a Super Decathlon to be sure that I’d be able to experience the envelope of the T-6A with my eyes and ears wide open and be able to give a good account of the flight.
In March, the Air Force called. I was approved for a ride in the T-6A. It was going to happen in May with the 559th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. I was going to meet the pilotmaker.
I called up filmmaker and pilot Will Hawkins in California to enlist his assistance. He called up ace aviation photographer Jo Hunter of Futurshox in Austin. And, in mid-May, we converged on San Antonio to document this flight.
This is the story of the flight, but a lot more. For me, it’s an additional step toward understanding the Air Force’s training philosophy and methods and a realtime demonstration of the capabilities of this beautiful and capable aircraft.
For you, I wanted to make it a few more things. If you’re an aviation enthusiast, be it pilot or otherwise, it’s an account of a first flight in a turboprop trainer with power and capability to spare.
If you follow the United States military, especially the US Air Force, this is a look behind the scenes and how new pilots learn their skills and about the instructor pilots who teach them.
And, perhaps most importantly, if you’re considering a career as a military aviator, this is going to be an extensive and in-depth window on what to expect when you show up for your initial training.
You’re going to be there for the suit-up and life-support fitting. You’re going to hear the systems and egress training. You’re going to hear me dangle from the ceiling in a parachute rig. And then I’m going to stuff you into my helmet with me and take you along on a 1.4-hour dollar ride in the mighty T-6A, complete with intercom, ATC calls, maneuvers, and gut reactions. It doesn’t get any more involved than this until you walk out onto the flightline at Laughlin or Moody.
I particularly wanted to cover ab initio Air Force flight training for this piece. That’s because the experience is the closest to what I’m doing in my own flight training and, although I’m a little longer in the tooth than the average new Air Force pilot, it was an experience that I was pretty well qualified to have and to talk about.
You’ll hear me talk about “UPT.” That’s short for Air Force Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training or “SUPT” or just “UPT.” That’s the pipeline that makes new pilots.
If you don’t have any flight time, you start with Air Force Introductory Flight Screening, which involves about 25 hours of flight time and 58 hours of ground instruction.
If you’re accepted into the pipeline, you head to Phase 1: Academic Classes and Pre-Flight Training and learn aerospace physiology (including an altitude chamber ride), ejection seat/egress training, parachute landing falls, aircraft systems, basic instruments, mission planning, navigation, and aviation weather.
Then it’s out onto the flight line for Phase 2: Primary aircraft training. You meet the T-6A and fly it for about 90 hours over 22 weeks of 12-hour days.
At the end of Phase 2, you’re racked and stacked by merit and you put in for your track: Fighter/bomber, airlift/tanker, multiengine turboprop, or helicopter.
It’s tough training but, if you make it out the other end, you’ll be one of the best-trained pilots in the world and have the objective opinions of your instructor pilots to back that opinion of yourself.
I took this opportunity very seriously. I’ve flown in a number of advanced military aircraft and appreciated them for what they were. But the T-6A was special inasmuch as this aircraft is meant to be flown by people who have roughly my pilot skills or less. This aircraft is meant to take people with my skill level and turn them into shooters and toners.
We all stand in awe of the F-16, the F/A-18, the C-130, the C-17, and other aircraft and wonder what it’d be like to fly them. Well, to sit in a T-6A is to see, feel, hear, smell, and taste the actual beginning of the path into those storied cockpits. It’s the link between where many of us are and where we wish we were. And, for those of you who are UPT candidates or thinking about flying in the US military, this is where you actually begin to earn your way into those cockpits. I envy you guys. I really do.
So I prepared more for this ride than any other.
First, I read everything I could. There are several core documents for flying the T-6A. There are probably more than what I can access as a fanboy outside the Air Force establishment, but I did a lot of research for documentation online and otherwise and came up with a couple of references that I found most helpful.
The first, and probably most useful, is Air Force Manual 11-248 (or “AFMAN 11-248” or just 11-248”), entitled simply “T-6 Primary Flying.” It contains a full syllabus for flying the T-6A and is probably the most helpful document to those unfamiliar with the T-6A and/or Air Force aviation. Chapters are Introduction; Basic T-6 Flight Principles; Ground Operations; Take-Off, Climb, and Level-Off; Traffic Patterns and Landings; Contact; Instrument Flying; Navigation; Two-Ship Formation; Night Flying; and Three- and Four-Ship Formations. There’s also a huge glossary of terms.
It runs 248 pages and is full of color graphics illustrating maneuvers and other information. Any knowledgeable person that I asked what a UPT student could most profit from reading before showing up for training immediately identified AFMAN 11-248.
So I read that cover to cover. Twice. If you’re thinking about becoming a UPT student, you’d be an idiot to fail to read it, highlight it, make notes on it, and otherwise consume it before showing up. Just sayin’. It’s that good. Search around on the net. You’ll find the PDF. I’ll post a link in the show notes to this episode to a PDF file containing the manual and I highly recommend that you check it out.
I also got hold of the Pilot’s Abbreviated Flight Crew Checklist, a little ring-bound manual that’s about 5” wide by 9” tall with a turquoise cover and yellow rip-proof, waterproof pages. It’s the in-cockpit reference for hydraulics, electrical, fuel, life support, engine, performance, emergency procedures, and lots of other good information. It’s like the child of a POH and a comprehensive procedures checklist. That one’s not available on the net. I’m not sure that I’m supposed to have it. One showed up in my mailbox one day after I had been making noises for some time about trying to get a T-6A flight. And I’m grateful to have it. I sometimes leave it sticking out of the side pocket of my flight bag. Just to make my CAP squadron-mates jealous.
We’re basically going to go out and do all of the major single-ship maneuvers in AFMAN 11-248. And, in fact, I’ll try to identify by section number each maneuver as we do it so you can follow along at home. You’ll have to do your own G-loading, but it’s the next best thing.
I also did as much preparation in the air as I could. I began to go up regularly with Barry Sutton in the Super-D to build aerobatic tolerance. If you listened to the Airspeed episode, The Guy in the Red Airplane, you can hear Barry talking about prepping me to fly this T-6A sortie. Just before leaving for Randolph, I was going up with Barry and getting upside down and sideways twice a week. It turned out to be a really good idea.
I’m not saying that you have to have some acro training or endurance built up before you show up at Laughlin. You’ll probably do fine. But it couldn’t hurt to get up and hang upside down like a bat in a cave a few times before you head down there. Just sayin’.
Maj Jarrett Edge is the demo pilot. He started out as a navigator in C-130s and then did his initial pilot training in the C-37 Tweet before ultimately becoming a C-17 heavy transport pilot. He transitioned to the 559th after completing his C-17 tour and has been making new instructors for three years. He has flown a number of aircraft for the Air Force.
You’ll also hear some commentary from 1Lt Paul Jaskiewicz [yas-KE-vich], whom I met at the Indianapolis Airshow this year. He was there as part of a two-man flight crew from Laughlin showing off the T-6A in a static display similar to the one that first interested me in the aircraft.
The 559th Flying Training Squadron, based at Randolph, trains instructor pilots. The squadron had its origins in the 81st Bombardment Squadron in World War II. After a short period of deactivation, it stood up again as the 559th Fighter Escort Squadron, 12th Fighter Escort Group, and it flew the F-84 Thunderjet in Korea. After another period of deactivation, it stood up yet again to fly F-4 Phantom IIs in Viet Nam. The squadron took on its current role as a flying training squadron in 1972, flying T-37 Tweets and took its first delivery of a T-6A in early 2000.
Just about everyone there already has his or her wings and is either doing follow-on training after doing very well in their initial training in the T-6A or is transitioning from flying some other platform to the T-6A for instructor training. The squadron mascot is the billy goat and, fittingly enough, our callsign for the flight will be “Goat-Zero Seven.”
I saw many senior officers in life support and elsewhere around the squadron facilities. Mostly O-3s and above. I get the feeling that the LPA at the 559th is pretty small. And probably doesn’t need to be very big. By way of example, the guy who helped to buckle me in was a Lieutenant Colonel who was doing his IP checkride later that day.
The first morning, I reported to the visitors’ center to meet Gabe Meyers of the Public Affairs Office. He’s former active-duty Air Force and had transitioned to a civilian public affairs position after his active duty time was up.
Our first stop was to see Reynaldo (“Ray”) Gutierrez in the emergency training section. Ray would show me the basics of getting into the flight suit, harness, and helmet and take me through everything from the survival kit (man, I want some multi-colored flares for my flight bag!) to strapping in to getting out. And the getting out part has several variants, from the docile one that involves merely unstrapping to the more interesting ones that involve climbing, breaking, falling, ejecting, canopy work, and/or making one’s way through the upper limbs of a tree at intermediate speeds.
To take things slightly out of order, let’s talk about what you’re wearing when you strap into a T-6A.
The rig you wear to fly the T-6A is pretty much what you’d expect to wear in a fighter jet. You can’t tell by a pilot’s gear as pilot stepping out to fly whether he or she is heading for the T-6A or the T-38. Or at least I can’t. And I saw no real difference between the gear that I wore in the T-6A and the gear I wore in the F-16.
You start with a pair of shorts, a tee-shirt (I prefer a black CAP Oakland Composite Squadron shirt), and a pair of black boot socks.
Then you put on your flight suit and boots. The flight suit is basically a one piece jumpsuit made of flame-resistant Nomex. As a CAP pilot who meets the height, weight, and grooming standards, I have my own Air-Force-issue flight suit. All I had to do was pull my rank and patches off, which is easy for me because mine are all Velcro-equipped.
(Y’know. In case you’re downed in CAP Illinois Wing territory. If Rod Rakic was in the aircrew that found me, I’d need to be de-patch pretty quickly before his ground team got word back to the colonel in Michigan.)
Gabe gave me a bit of a funny look when I showed up at the gate with a flight suit and flight-rated boots. Not every media guy is fanboy enough to show up with his own zoom bag.
During the egress and emergency training, the first thing Ray did was say “okay, let’s get you a flight suit.”
Gabe hooked his thumb at me and, doing his best to keep a straight face, said “That’s okay. He brought his own.”
The next thing is the G-suit. I love the G-suit. Some call it “speed jeans.” It’s like a pair of chaps that goes up to just over your navel. You put them on sideways so you can get to the snaps and zippers around your waist in front and then you rotate them around 90 degrees so the closure is at your side. Then you snap above and below and zip up the legs on each side.
The G-suit has air bladders in it that constrict the big blood-bearing muscles in your calves, thighs, and abdomen. The idea is that, if you limit the places in the lower body that the blood can go, more will stay in your head, allowing you to remain conscious and even comfortable under high G loads.
You also need to perform the Anti-G Straining Maneuver – or AGSM – when you pull gees. You tighten up everything from your toes to your abdomen. And you lock down a breath every three seconds (usually by saying the word “hook” or something similar with a back-of-the-throat guttural that helps you clamp down that breath). The challenge can sometimes be maintaining looseness in your upper body. Straining your upper body can actually allow blood to leave your cranium and you don’t want that. Give it a try sometime. You really feel like you ought to be making fists and straining with your upper body. But don’t.
The average human can handle around four Gs without straining much. I hang it out to, at most, 4.5G in the Super Decathlon. I’ve purposely not strained in the Super-D while Barry was demonstrating a maneuver out to maybe 4.0G. I got a little lightheaded and got a few sparklers in front of my eyes, but nothing more than that. I’ve pulled up to 6.5G for four or five seconds without a G-suit in Greg Poe’s MX-2 while straining and was fine. The most I’ve pulled was 9.0G for four or five seconds in the F-16 and, even with a G-suit and hooking like crazy, I had only narrow vision remaining and the video showed a guy who, even though his chest was rising and falling, otherwise looked like a sock puppet.
Once the G-suit is zipped up, the life support personnel lace it up to customize it to your body. The laces run back and forth up the back of your legs and they lace it so that it’s tight, yet allows you to walk around reasonably naturally. Once the lacing is done, you can take off the G-suit with the snaps and zippers and it’s ready to go the next time you fly.
The G-suit has an approx. 18” hose coming off the left side just above your waist. It has several slang names that are in appropriate for a family podcast (even if they’re hilarious among the right audience), so let’s just call it the G-suit hose. You tuck it into the elastic band on the front of your left leg. This becomes important when you’re getting into or out of the aircraft because there are several things upon which it could snag, not the least of which is the handle that shatters the canopy in the case of emergency.
Next comes the harness. The harness straps you into the ejection seat and the risers of your parachute. It goes over your shoulders and then down between your legs. Properly adjusted, you shouldn’t be able to stand up straight – which is fine because you’ll be sitting down in the aircraft. Although the T-6A syllabus really doesn’t include much negative-G work, you will be dangling from the harness at some point and it’s good to be nice and snug in there.
Last is the headgear. You wear a helmet that has a shaded visor on it that slides up and down. You’ll have the visor down most of the time, so it’s important that it be comfortable and scratch-free. They give you a helmet bag to keep it safe and a separate cloth shield protects the visor until you’re ready to go fly. The helmet bag goes out to the airplane with you and stows in the airplane.
The mask hooks onto the helmet with bayonet clips. You want a good seal on your face while maintaining comfort. The adjustment takes awhile, but it’s worth it. Then you walk over to a table-top unit into which you plug your gear and test it. If you have a malfunction, better to find out there in the life support room than out on the flightline.
We did all of the life support fitting on the day before the flight. Which meant that I needed to store the gear overnight. Not that that was my first choice. Those of you who have been listening for long know that I’d gladly have worn the rig back to the hotel and to dinner – helmet, mask, and all. But they did the next best thing. For about 24 hours, harness no. 204 hung in a cubby there in Life Support among all of the other helmets and speed jeans and harnesses. With a name tape on the cubby that said “Mr. Tupper.” It’s a small thing, but it was a big thing. You understand, of course.
I said that I was taking things a little out of order. The life support fitting took place after the egress training, but the stuff you’re wearing is important to give you the full sensation of the egress training. You have a flight suit and all of the goodies on as you’re going through it.
Ray explains the seat kit, the flares, the emergency radio, and other survival gear. Then it’s on to the ejection seat. It’s free-standing in one corner of the room. Here, you learn how to hook into the aircraft and go through the ejection procedure.
I sit down and Ray methodically walks me through the routine. I’ll go through it top to bottom because that’s the easiest way to illustrate it. It doesn’t necessarily happen in this order.
The mantra is two-one-two-two. That’s the order in which you undo yourself if you’re going to get out of the T-6A in a hurry. You have the two attach points on your harness hear your shoulders. Then there’s the lap buckle. Down near your hips are two more connections for your seat kit. Finally, there are two garter straps that go around your lower legs. They’re connected to two tethers that lead back under the seat. You give yourself just enough play in the tethers to allow full rudder travel with your feet. If you have to eject, the tethers will pull your feet back close to the seat so you don’t hook them under the panel when you’re punching out.
Ray strapped me in and then I unstrapped myself and strapped myself back in. Once satisfied that I had that down, I put on the helmet and the oxygen mask. Ray had me find both the ejection seat safety pin and the ejection handle, which is located down in your crotch. Short of my demo pilot being incapacitated, it would be unnecessary for me to eject myself. The demo pilot should be able to eject us both – first me and then him a second or so later. But I’d need to know how to do it myself regardless.
It’s pretty straightforward. You pull the pin and then you grab the handle with one hand, grab the pull hand by the wrist with your free hand, and yank. It’s a hard yank. You’d be very unlikely to punch out unintentionally. When you yank hard enough, there’s a mechanical whack not unlike the noise and sensation of a pinball machine acknowledging a free game. I’m pretty sure that the real thing would be a little more dramatic.
I should note that you’re pretty well contained during this stage. You’re strapped in at seven points (two-one-two-two) and you have the helmet and oxygen mask on. You can’t move much and your face and head are enclosed and you’re sucking and blowing through the oxygen hose. If you’re claustrophobic, you might have to work a little at keeping your head together. Even if you’re a little claustrophobic, it’s not bad. It just takes a little getting used to.
From there, you go to the egress trainer. This is a full mock-up of the front cockpit of the T-6A, complete with canopy. Again, you strap into it, but this time you have the cockpit surrounding you. The objective here is to show you how to get out of the airplane on the ground in case there’s a fire or other reason to make an expeditious exit.
I have to show Ray that I know how to unlock and raise the canopy. And blow the canopy if it refuses to work the way it’s supposed to. And, lastly, I put on the helmet and oxygen mask and hook everything up. Ray can talk to me though an intercom system and he gives me the command, “Egress, egress, egress!” I raise the canopy, unstrap (two-one-two-two), and then stand up aggressively. All of the com and life support hookups are supposed to break away when I stand up. I’m always conscious of breaking stuff in or around aircraft, so I don’t stand up as aggressively as I might have, but Ray gives me a little encouragement. The hook-ups all disengage and I make my way out onto the “wing” successfully.
[Egress trainer audio]
Then it’s over to the parachute training area. The area consists of two hoists dangling from a high ceiling. Ray hooks the risers of the hoists into my harness and then hoists me three feet off the ground. He then walks me through how to correct line twists and other potential problems with the parachute.
I said before that Maj Edge makes instructor pilots. And you’re going to hear some about that. But this was going to be my dollar ride in the aircraft, so I wanted to ask as much as I could about the experiences of Air Force personnel whose experiences would be most similar to mine, namely the incoming UPT student. So I asked a lot about that phase of T-6A operations, too. Starting with the experience level of the usual incoming UPT student.
The T-6A is unique in several ways.
You might go a number of different places after you finish the T-6A training.
UPT training is a big undertaking and it’s a tough process. I asked Maj Edge what qualities were most important in a UPT student.
Lt Jaskiewicz had a similar view.
I asked about UPT students’ first impressions of the aircraft.
Lt Jaskiewicz also weighed in on that point.
Like I said, Maj Edge makes instructor pilots. Those candidates come in with substantially different experience.
In addition to being an airplane in which to test your mettle, the T-6A looked like it might be fun to fly once you mastered it. I was kind of pleased when Maj Edge confirmed that.
On the day of the flight, I checked in at the base medical facility and got inspected, detected and selected. A basic physical to be sure that my sinuses were clear and that I didn’t have low blood pressure or heart rate that would cause be to be susceptible to GLOC. And they weighed me and measured me so that they could be sure that I fit within the aircraft and ejection seat parameters.
I can tell you that my heart rate and blood pressure were not low. In fact, the staff sergeant who did the initial checks noted that they were a little on the high side. Which made them go higher. I note here that I have a blood pressure cuff in my office and regularly check myself. I’m normally well in the acceptable range. I explained that I was about to go fly in a T-6A and that I was a red-blooded American aviation fanboy who’d been working on this project since the prior November and that I’d foam at the mouth for him if he gave me a few minutes.
The sergeant took it in stride and send me down the hall to the exam room. Where I proceeded to freak out some more.
I needn’t have worried. The flight surgeon was a lieutenant colonel with MiG time. He did a thorough exam, chuckled at me a little, and sent me out to the waiting public affairs rep with the medical signed off. Thanks, colonel. Really. Thanks.
Later that morning, I met Will and Jo at the gate and we proceeded onto the base. Maj Edge briefed the flight profile with me, I suited up, and we headed to the briefing desk and then onto the flightline.
After we strapped in, Maj Edge went through the pre-start checklist and then we closed the canopy. My HD camera rig was mounted on the vertical rail of Maj Edge’s ejection seat pointed back at me. A lateral bar across the lower edge of the canopy between the seats had to pass within about an inch of the camera lens, so I asked the LtCol to lower the canopy slowly to get the bar safely past the camera.
Maj Edge cranks up the generator and then we check the life support systems. With the temperatures that one sees on the ramp at Randolph and Laughlin, I’ll bet the average UPT student or IP is pretty glad that the air conditioning comes on early in the process.
Then comes the speed brake check and setting up the flight plan.
We get the ATIS and then set up the avionics. There’s a lot of ragged cloud cover throughout the area, as I was about to see for myself. Layers of scattered cumulous and kind of a green tint to everything. Every threat of a thunderstorm in the area but nothing in or near the Randolph 2B Military Operations Area (or “MOA”) where we were headed.
Maj Edge sets up the altimeters up front and I set up the altimeters in back and we talk about the other indications in our respective cockpits. Here’s where the studying helps, although I had spent most of the time on the primary instruments and had a little difficulty locating the backup gages.
Then we call for taxi clearance.
We go through a couple of briefs and checks. I ask whether I can play with the GPS in back, but it turns out that the GPS in back affects the one in front. So no fiddling with that, but that’s okay.
Maj Edge lets me know that he’s asked for, and received, confirmation that we can spin the aircraft if I want to. And, yeah, I want to!
We’re at the approach end of the runway and it’s time to run the Power Management Unit (or “PMU”) check and before-takeoff checks.
So it’s time to call up the tower and get ready for departure. The pattern is pretty busy and we have to wait for a couple of other aircraft to get through final. While we’re waiting for them, we talk a little bit about the controllers.
Then it’s time to take off. Maj Edge runs the final items and then it’s time to disengage the nosewheel steering and lay on the throttle.
He talked a little about the pattern here and I’ll explain a little more about military training patterns when we get to the arrival back at the base.
We call up San Antonio Approach and get an expedited climb to 13,000. Departure calls out some traffic ahead, but it’s quickly no problem.
In case you were running a stopwatch with the altitude callouts there, the T-6A was making its advertised climb rate of well in excess of 3,500 feet per minute. As we’re heading through 10,000 feet, we do a pressurization check. The cockpit is pressurized to around 8,000 feet with a tolerance of a few hundred feet. We’re also wearing life support gear so we could breathe fine well above that but it’s good to know that your pressurization is within limits.
We’re level at 13,000 before long. We’re cleared into the 10 Low MOA, which means we’ve got a little bit of cruise to get out to the MOA.
The T-6A cruises at 200 KIAS. Major Edge talks about the configurations and power settings that get that cruise speed. This is true of even the most mundane GA flight training, especially instrument training. Once you get your power settings and configurations nailed down, you can devote your attention to the other elements of your flying. It’s no different in a T-6A. You have to do the homework to learn your settings and configurations. Because we’re going to be a lot busier with other stuff shortly and chasing an initial airspeed is not something to which you want to have to devote bandwidth.
The Randolph 2B MOA is set up like slices out of a pie. Draw a few radials out from a VOR and then cross them with a couple of DME arcs. Just like cutting a few narrow pieces of pie and then cutting some concentric circles out toward the crust. It makes some roughly square areas. We’re going to be in once of the squares out toward the crust of the pie. Once we get about 24 miles distant from Randolph, we’ll be able to proceed to our MOA.
Additionally, the pieces of the pie are divided into high and low boxes of airspace. We’re going to be in the low box for most of the demo. Later, at least one maneuver is going to require a little more altitude, so we’ll get clearance to use the whole chunk of pie, both high and low.
I note that the MOAs are set up to appear on the GPS. It’s really convenient to be able to see the lateral boundaries on the GPS. Yes, you could figure it out using a VOR with DME. But that would be one more distraction from yanking and banking. And we’re out here to yank and bank.
There’s a nearby general aviation airport called Stinson Municipal Airport (KSSF) 15 miles southwest of Randolph that gets both military and civilian traffic. We can hear on the radio how busy it is.
One quick note. You’ll hear them “SPUR” and “AUGUR.” These are waypoints or procedures. There’s one between Lansing and Pontiac called “CRATR.” I don’t know how I feel about hearing ATC call up and say “Cleared to AUGUR” or “proceed direct CRATR.” Sometimes I think that they’re a little too gleeful about it.
Anyway, we’re now in the MOA and we check in to let them know where we are and what we’re doing.
The first thing we do is the G-awareness exercise or “G-Ex.” It basically amounts to rolling into a tight turn and then pulling up to a given G load. Your ability to pull Gs can really vary from flight to flight. I’ve gotten lightheaded with as little as three Gs and I’ve also pulled 4.5G without even thinking about it. It depends on your general level of fitness, what you’ve eaten, how hydrated you are, your stress level, your excitement level, how well you slept last night . . . any number of factors. And it’s really tough to know how your G tolerance is at any given moment without actually pulling some Gs.
So it makes sense that the first thing to do is to pull some Gs in a controlled maneuver so that everyone in the aircraft can get a sense of how they’re doing at this particular time, place, and altitude and in these circumstances. Plus, it’s a chance to pull. You don’t have to ask me twice.
Maj Edge explains the G-Ex (follow along in AFMAN 11-248 Sections 1.17 and 9.1) and away we go.
It’s also helpful to remind yourself of the aircraft’s slow handling qualities, so we’re going to do some Traffic Pattern stalls (or “TP” stalls). These are similar to what primary general aviation students learn, but we’re going to have a little more bank angle and other elements because we’re practicing what a Texan driver would do in the much tighter Air Force pattern. The departure stall simulates getting too slow and nose-up on departure.
We’re going to recover by lowering the nose, max, relax, and roll.
Max - Select max power.
Relax - Reduce backpressure momentarily out of stick shaker. Do not stare at the Angle of Attack (“AOA”) indicator.
Roll - Roll wings level with coordinated rudder and aileron.
I omitted a lot of the discussion in the cockpit, but I asked a lot of questions and confirmed things like airspeeds, configurations, climb rates and other information. You can hear a bit of a payoff here as the major acknowledges that I seem to have read up on the aircraft and the Air Force’s operations. Yeah! I’m a fanboy, make no mistake about it. But I’m deadly serious about understanding what I’m seeing, hearing, and feeling and it’s a good feeling to be aloft with my homework done.
Here’s the departure stall.
Then it’s the remainder of the TP stalls.
Although Major Edge gets his tongue tangled a little in the narration (hey, not everybody’s John King), the entries and recoveries are precise and coordinated.
Then it’s the power-on stall. Think about your power-on stalls in a Cessna 172. Then double the pitch angle up to 30 degrees. It’s dramatic-looking, but the right control inputs bring the aircraft back to a flying attitude. By the way, this airplane has an amazing amount of torque, p-factor, and other left-turning tendency. That’s 1,100 horsepower spinning four prop blades, eight feet tip to tip, up there. I’m off the controls for these, but the rudder pedals are right under my boots and I can feet the major’s rudder inputs. There’s a lot of right rudder happening here.
Also, you can hear us talking about the stick shaker. For those who don’t know, the aircraft has a device that actually shakes the stick rapidly if you’re about to stall. If you’ve never experienced a stick shaker, the sensation in your hand is not unlike the antilock brakes going off under your foot when you’re sliding on some ice of water on the road, only a lot more pronounced. It’s yet another way that the airplane leverages your senses to let you know what’s going on. Hey, buddy, I’m about to stall here. Do something!
Am I ready for some aerobatics? Does a bear poop in the woods?
Okay, things really get going here. In this three-minute clip, we’re going to knock out the wingover, a split-S, and a loop. You can follow along in AFMAN 11-248 in Sections 17.16.2, 6.25, and 6.3 respectively.
For those who don’t know much about aerobatics, here’s the sequence. The wingover is a confidence maneuver designed to give the student confidence in the use of the attitude indicator in extreme pitch and bank attitudes. It’s really just direction reversal. You pull up steeply, bury a wing down around 90 degrees of bank, let the nose fall through the horizon, and then pull out, completing the turn so that you’re heading in the opposite direction.
The split-S is another direction-reversal maneuver. You roll inverted, then pull until you’re upright, just like the back side of a loop.
The loop is just what you think it is. Pick up some airspeed either level or with up to 20 degrees of down-angle on the nose, pull up, and complete a full 360-degree vertical loop with the airplane ending up going the same direction as when you started.
Three minutes doesn’t sound like long, but it’s plenty of time to complete these maneuvers. It’s straightforward and deliberate. You can hear Maj Edge calling out the airspeeds and other parameters both to describe the maneuvers to me and to verbalize those items as a reminder to himself. Remember that Maj Edge makes instructor pilots for a living. He not only flies the maneuvers, he teaches the maneuvers. And he not only teaches the maneuvers, he teaches others how to teach the maneuvers. Standards are pretty important to him, so the callouts seem to mean more than usual.
I should also mention that the weather was some of the weirder I’ve flown though. San Antonio is, to say the least, not Michigan. It was mid-May. On the ground on the day before, I could feel my mobile phone burning into my head as I gave Will and Jo vectors through the construction zones to the hotel.
It was hot, but not very convective. The whole time we were there, the sky was an assemblage of ragged alto-cumulous clouds in layers a few thousand feet apart. They seemed like they wanted to get together and form a thunderstorm, but didn’t have the energy to actually do it. The sky had a mildly green tinge to it that I’ve never seen in Michigan unless is was getting ready to storm pretty heavily. But no real precip there in San Antonio.
The net result was that it was pretty hazy and cloudy and, even in the low MOA, it wasn’t easy to find good ground references. Sure the T-6A has resilient gyroscopic instruments, but these maneuvers are best done with respect to roads or section lines or other features on the ground and especially the horizon. You really need about ten miles of straight road on the ground and a reasonable horizon to use as a reference for a lot of these maneuvers, but we’d frequently get only five miles of a road or so between clouds below us and there was rarely very much of a horizon.
An Immelman is another direction reversal. It’s the split-S’s brother in that you start with the first half of a loop and then you roll upright at the top of the loop. In either case, it’s a half loop that reverses your direction. See AFMAN 11-248 Section 6.24.
Now comes the Cuban Eight. A Cuban Eight is the first three quarters of a loop with a roll to upright and a 45-degree downline and then you do the same thing again, the idea being to inscribe something approximating an eight on its side in the air. See AFMAN 11-248 Section 6.26.
We discussed the maneuver there at the end. I has been sinking into my head over the course of my own civilian aerobatic training and my training for the commercial certificate that many of these maneuvers, in addition to being a heck of a lot of fun, are designed to teach you competence in managing the aircraft. Each maneuver teaches you something slightly different, but they’re all about being conscious of, and managing, your energy state, handling the aircraft through multiple axes of motion, dividing your attention inside and outside the aircraft, and doing all of those other things that make the airplane less something that you’re sitting in and more something that you’re wearing. In skilled hands like those of Maj Edge, the T-6A can be a Superman suit.
The T-6A hasn’t been the military’s primary trainer for very long. In fact, the last pilot to complete initial training in the T-6A’s predecessor did so just this year. That predecessor was the Cessna T-37 Tweet. The Tweet was a twin-engine jet with about 2,000 pounds of total thrust and side-by-side seating. Some affectionately refer to it as the Screaming Mimi or the 6,000-pound dog whistle because of its high-pitched whine.
Maj Edge did his initial training in the Tweet and he took a few moments both in the cockpit and on the ground to reflect about its capabilities compared to the T-6A.
Next up is the barrel roll. The barrel roll is basically a roll with pull all the way around. You should have a uniform and coordinated positive G. Bob Hoover was able to pour iced tea all the way around a barrel roll. Follow along in Section 6.6 of AFMAN 11-248. You’ll hear Maj Edge talk about picking out a cloud or some other object on the horizon. That’s the reference point and it helps to inscribe a circle around that object with the nose of the aircraft. I might note that the software used to illustrate AFMAN 11-248 was spectacular in many respects except that the cloud in the graphic looks a little like a boulder. Think you’re a hot pilot? Try using an airborne boulder for your reference point in the barrel roll.
In any case, here’s ours.
Next up is the cloverleaf. The cloverleaf is a series of loops with a 90-degree roll on each so that you end up four loops offset 90 degrees laterally and then you’re continuing along at the same altitude and direction as when you started. Think about a bow on top of a holiday present and you’re most of the way there. It’s in AFMAN 11-248 Section 6.27.
Maj Edge explains the purpose of the maneuver. It strikes me as one of the most difficult because it takes awhile to get all the way through it and you’re managing a lot of geometry and airspeed in the process.
Next up is the Chandelle. It’s a maximum performance climb used for gaining as much altitude as possible within the smallest lateral area possible and you end up at a higher altitude going in the opposite direction. The chandelle is also a required maneuver for the commercial certificate in the civilian world, so I’m pretty familiar with it already. Follow along in AFMAN 11-248 in Section 6.28.
And then it’s Lazy Eights. The maneuver is also on the commercial PTS. It’s basically turning back and forth, managing airspeed and coordination in all three axes. The military goes to 45 degrees of pitch on the climb and descent and 80 or 90 degrees of bank at the peak of each turn. Check out AFMAN 11-248 Section 6.21.
Despite the pitch and bank, it’s a pretty benign maneuver. When I first started commercial training, I assumed that lazy eights were going to be a series of alternating wingovers. Not so. The secret, if there is one, is to make them lazy. I guess I could see the adrenaline kicking in and making a UPT student pull or bank a little harder than necessary. Especially in this aircraft.
Now it’s time for the spin. Yeah! As you probably know, a spin occurs when the airplane experiences an aerodynamic stall while uncoordinated (that is to say, the rudder position is such that the tail is sticking out to one side or the other and it’s not directly behind you where you want it). In a spin, one wing is usually more deeply stalled than the other. That wing drops and then the airplane begins an autorotation where the outside wing, which is less-deeply stalled, flies around the center of mass of the aircraft. The effect is that the airplane is nose-down and rotating.
If you’ve seen the Airspeed video episodes, the last part of the intro shows a tight one-turn spin in the Super Decathlon. In the Super-D, the effect of a spin is a lot like being caught in a clothes dryer with a lot of rotating green in the windshield. The Super-D has short wings that make the rate of rotation in a spin a lot more dramatic than you get in the T-6A. But it’s still pretty cool in the T-6A.
You can lose a lot of altitude in a spin, especially in a slippery aircraft like the T-6A, so we need a taller stack of airspace for the spin than we have at the moment. We’re going to go get that.
We call in and ask for nine high and low, so we have both the high and low part of that slice of the pie.
I’m actually doing pretty well back there. That’s a lot of acro. But I’ll admit that not having the controls in my hands through the amount of acro we’ve done is getting to my tummy. No worries. I’m prepared. I’ve hung upside down like a bat in a cave in the Super-D twice a week for the last month preparing and I’m completely serene about throwing up if I need to. There’s not much else I could possibly have done to prepare and, frankly, not being all bunched up about hurling is making me more relaxed – which is one of the keys to not hurling.
Anyway, I go mask-off for a moment to get the pressure off my face and that really helps.
We talk about the parameters of the spin in the T-6A. The Air Force permits spins in the T-6A only between 10,000 feet and 22,000 feet MSL and we discuss the reasons for that. I sure understood the minimum, but I didn’t get the maximum. Then it’s time to spin the T-6A.
With that, it’s time to head back and we pick up ATIS information Lima. We’re going to be going back through some altocumulous clouds in the faintly green skies and it’s pretty interesting-looking out there for a boy from the Midwest. But no real sign of convection or turbulence.
As we’re cruising back, we return to discussions about UPT and what washes a person out of UPT. The Air Force has one of the best training syllabi and programs in the world for training pilots. If it’s possible to make a military pilot out of you and you’re mentally ready and dedicated, the Air Force will make a military pilot out of you. But it’s interesting to talk about what gives UPT students problems.
It’s pretty hazy on the way back, but there are some decent landmarks. Kind of like the gravel pits or the trailer park for Pontiac.
We call up and proceed inbound.
ATC calls traffic and we start looking for him. Maj Edge does some wing flashes in the hopes of making our aircraft more visible. That means that we crank it over to 60 degrees back and forth a few times. Pretty dramatic for my sensibilities, but all in a day’s work in an environment that’s really thick with training aircraft and a pattern in which eight aircraft at a time is child’s play.
We’re going to head around the pattern a few times so I can see what a military pattern looks like.
Check out Chapter 5 of AFMAN 11-248. The military pattern is much different from civilian patterns. It both allows you to accommodate more aircraft in a busy traffic pattern and involves a break at midfield that lets you check your six before you land so you can assure yourself that an enemy aircraft isn’t back there ready to fill your aircraft full of lead when you’re low and slow on landing.
You approach down the runway in the direction of landing at 1,000 feet AGL and 200 KIAS. Somewhere between the threshold and halfway down the runway, you break hard left and slow to 120 KIAS minimum. At the end of the downwind leg, called the “perch” for obvious reasons, you’re at a minimum of 120 KIAS and still 1,000 feet AGL. Then you do a tight turn to final doing between 110 and 120 KIAS, depending on your flap configuration.
There’s also an Emergency Landing Pattern, or ELP. Lt Jaskiewicz explained that, as well as how congested the pattern can get at primary training base like Laughlin AFB about three hours down the road by car from Randolph.
The turn from the perch should put you on the glidepath about a half mile from the runway threshold doing between 100 and 110 KIAS, again depending on your flap configuration.
We’re going to motor around a couple of times to give me an idea of what the pattern looks like in various configurations.
This we then do. It’s really interesting. Especially in that we’re banking 60 degrees or better in the turns, something I obviously never do in a C-182 or even a Super-D.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that it was at this point that my tummy decided that it had had enough. After getting in 40-odd minutes of acro and then some more maneuvering, I hurled. No big deal. And I’m not afraid to play you the audio. I’m just going to save it for another episode because this episode isn’t the best place to showcase that particular aspect of the flight. Suffice it to say that complications arose, ensued, and were overcome. Stay tuned for a follow-up of sorts to the 2006 episode with Dr. Patricia Cowings, the NASA motion sickness expert.
Then it’s time to call up for landing. We’ve been around a few times already and we talk briefly about the base. It’s really beautiful. There’s a central core and then parallel runways on either side. The grounds are well-groomed and it’s a pretty majestic-looking place.
And we’re cleared to land.
The landing is smooth and we taxi in. We safe the ejection seats and cage the gyros.
And then we shut her down and open up the canopy.
I don’t try to hide the fact that I have a little white bag full of lunch and Will gives me some grief from below the cockpit.
It’s all in good fun. Like I said. Complications arose, ensued, and were overcome. And I learned a little more about my personal envelope. Would I have gotten right back in for another sortie then and there? You bet!
I unstrap, remembering the order of operations that Ray taught me. I also un-mount the video camera and stow the recorder and cables. Then it’s the walk back across the ramp to the squadron’s offices. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I do this, whether military, civilian, or otherwise. I always feel a little different from the way I felt earlier in the day. More relaxed. A feeling of having achieved something. And I guess I have.
Will, Jo, and I have an interview or two to do and we set about rounding up the equipment. I don’t have time to change out of my flight suit, and that’s fine by me. I meet pilots and others in the hall who I’m sure are wondering who this guy is in the zoom bag with the squadron patch on his shoulder but no command patch, no flag, and no rank.
It’s a fanboy, ladies and gentlemen. If you cut him right now, he’ll bleed sage green and little goat logos for you.
In the course of getting the gear, Will manages to lock the keys in the rental car, thus forcing us to figure out how to get a locksmith onto a secure Air Force base to extract them. And earning his callsign, “Locksmith.”
We do the interview work and then pack up. I’m back in my usual uniform of cargo shorts and golf shirt. Always a downer to take off the flight suit, even after a CAP mission.
Before we leave, I give Maj Edge a dollar bill. He accepts it with a smile. Traditions remembered. Traditions observed. Traditions continued.
Our merry band of media types gets some dinner and then disperses. Jo to Austin, Will back to California, and be back to Michigan by way of Denver.
The adrenalin subsides, yielding to a mood conducive to thinking Big Thoughts about the ride. And Big Thoughts come.
The view from the cockpit is spectacular. The tandem seating means that the cockpit glass goes right down to your shoulders and you feel like you’re flying a fighter.
It has ejection seats and it supports oxygen, G-suits, and other hardware that you associate with hardcore flying. I don’t know about you, but being strapped in with a helmet and oxygen mask and a G-suit and looking at the ground straight out of the side of the cockpit glass is just one of the best feelings you can have. You can leave your tentative and irresolute self back in the life support area. The person I see in the cockpit video is a faceless, deadly-serious aviator with a mission on his mind. No matter that Maj Edge was the guy actually flying the demo. I felt it and it was great.
This is a very capable airplane. Plenty of power and maneuverability. Everything you need to demonstrate your mastery of the airplane and preparedness for your track in further pilot training.
The airplane is objective. A well-trained student will find the aircraft a good platform in which to learn and to demonstrate what he or she has learned. And it will give a marginal pilot enough rope to screw up. And, if you want to prove your competence by objective measures in one of the most intense training environments in the world, I think that’s exactly the equipment you want.
And, lastly, its mission is sacred to people like you and me. It’s a pilotmaker. It turns those with intelligence, coordination, guts, and discipline into pilots in the best air force the planet has ever seen. Just like the original T-6 did in some of the darkest days of the nation.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you’re thinking about Air Force UPT, I envy you. This is the aircraft that is waiting for you on the ramp right now. An aircraft more than adequate to train you, test you, and bear you aloft in this first step to the adventures that await you.
This is the T-6A Texan II.
USAF Air Education and Training Command
12th Flying Training Wing
559th Flying Training Squadron
Reynaldo (“Ray”) Gutierrez
Maj Jarrett Edge
Randolph Air Force Base
Wilco Films (A Pilot’s Story)
Jo Hunter (Futurshox)
More information about the T-6A:
I recorded audio both on the ground and in the aircraft. Will is working on a video episode featuring both ground and airborne footage. The in-flight video was shot with an all-solid-state HD camera clamped in front of me and aimed back toward me and the tail, much like the Thunderbird F-16 footage. The camera is modified with a 0.3 semi-fisheye lens that gives a great field of view and the image stabilization worked wonderfully, even under high G-loading. Except for the IMAX Red Flag film, I’m not aware of any other Air Force HD footage like this and I think this is the only pro HD ever shot of a T-6A demo. Long story short, when the video episode drops, you’re going to get a really good idea of what it’s like to fly the T-6A.
Additionally, the T-6A has helicopter-style audio plugs that don’t work conveniently with my MP3 recorder. So I dangled a condenser lapel mic over my ear inside the helmet and stowed the recorder in the sleeve pocket of my flight suit. You can hear a definite difference in the ambience inside the helmet whenever we pull gees, which turned out to be dramatic if not pleasing.
Goat Groove by Steve Tupper (Download a free MP3 file here.)
Look for the enhanced version featuring Scott Cannizzaro in the video episode coming soon!