Story by Lt. Michelle Hernandez (U.S. Coast Guard) and Capt. Chris Hulser (U.S. Coast Guard)
U.S. NAVY — The Naval Helicopter Training takes a first step to enhance rotary-wing aviation capabilities with an innovative approach that will benefit an age-old partnership.
Eight Student Naval Aviators (SNA) including five Navy and three Coast Guard students began training under a new joint-Service, public-private partnership program that promises faster time-to-train, greater helicopter simulator availability and in-aircraft training hours, and a better rotary-wing aviator for the joint-maritime services’ talent supply lines.
These eight students are the first cohort of 48 volunteers (33 Navy and 15 Coast Guard) who have volunteered to participate in a rotary-only training pipeline that could replace traditional primary air training for aspiring helicopter pilots that opt into the program. If the pilot program is successful, the Navy hopes to permanently establish the rotary-only pipeline for helicopter students by fiscal year 2026. So far, CNATRA reports that this new program can reduce time to train in the overall timeline for helicopter students by 13 weeks.
Primary training for helicopter pilots has not fundamentally changed in nearly half a century. Prior to this initiative, prospective rotary-wing Naval Aviators (Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps) reported to training in Pensacola, Florida, and flew fixed wing followed by rotary-wing. This pipeline’s time requirement could take upwards of three years to complete. This expanding time requirement was a primary driver for the Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) to carefully study the U.S. Air Force’s and U.S. Army’s rotary-wing-only training pipeline, which graduates a pilot in just over one year.
Aviation training in the 1940s
In the 1940s, the path to becoming a naval aviator was characterized by rigorous classroom instruction in areas of meteorology, aerodynamics, engineering, aviation safety, aviation physiology and more. In the following decades, the training system was adapted to include rotary-wing training, though it resembled a “bolt-on” addition at the end of fixed wing training. The Army was the first to pioneer a rotary-wing only pipeline in 1955.
Regardless of the service branch or stage of training, most instruction occurred in the aircraft itself. As recently as the 1990s, a task as simple as learning to tune the radio was done in the aircraft, at altitude, at high expense and relatively high-risk. Training systems matured to incorporate simulators, some as basic as a tabletop trainers to manipulate navigation and radio systems, to improve quality and time-to-train. Just like the advent of sloped-deck aircraft carriers in the 1960s, technology made aviation operations and training safer. By today’s standards, the majority of aviation training pipelines utilize simulators and advanced technology such as virtual and augmented reality.
Training after World War II took just under one year and was divided into three-phases of training: primary, basic, and advanced. Aspiring aviators accumulated 65 flying hours during primary instruction and 140 hours between basic and advanced training. This equated to roughly 200 hours of in-aircraft training, first in fixed-wing aircraft, and then later in rotary-wing aircraft. Once helicopter training arrived on scene, the obvious solution was to simply add rotary-wing training onto the end of a proven flight training curriculum. Hence, all Naval Aviators are initially trained as fixed-wing pilots. This model has changed little from 1940 to 2023.
The success of the Naval Aviation training system has endured for decades and was crucially tested in the crucibles of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, over the skies of the Middle East and Afghanistan, and reaffirms the principle that quality of training remains a linchpin of military readiness and success. Understanding the history of this training system, its challenges, successes, and failures is paramount to upholding its legacy and ensuring its continued effectiveness. However, another linchpin of military success is to never rest on laurels – innovation and progress must be embraced. With the advent of modern technology, and the increased time-to-train, Naval Aviation rotary-wing training was thoroughly examined for innovative opportunities.
A new approach to training
With a similar structure to the Air Force’s model, the Navy and Coast Guard are participating in the most impactful change to rotary-wing aviation training in half a century. The Air Force beta-tested a new program labeled by CNATRA as Contract Operated Primary Training – Rotary (COPT-R) throughout 2022. This program questioned the need for a rotary-wing flight student to have any appreciable fixed-wing airplane training. It surmised the time spent in a single-engine airplane would be far better served with training focused solely in helicopters and associated rotary-wing training devices. Further, the system capitalizes on a blend of contract and military training to provide an optimal mix of education and training for new pilots with tangible gains in time and cost-to-train.
Beginning in the 1990s, as the aviation landscape transformed, decision-makers noted the effectiveness of rotary-wing only training, utilized by the Army for decades with great success. This approach, which aimed to produce skilled helicopter pilots in approximately 12 months, garnered increasing attention as the need for more agile, cost-efficient training solutions became evident. The Naval Aviation helicopter training has now taken a leap into this modern paradigm and the results are promising.
To date, the Air Force’s rotary-wing-only program has produced 24 winged aviators in the 12-month program. Initial feedback from squadrons receiving the new pilots is that quality was not sacrificed, and the new pilots are equally ready for transition to their fleet aircraft as the legacy students, which often took two to three times as long.
Collaboration to explore a new program
Unbeknownst to the Navy, a team from the Coast Guard’s Aviation Training Center (ATC) and Coast Guard Liaison Office (CGLO) at Naval Air Station Pensacola conducted on-site evaluations of the new Air Force program in January 2023. Simultaneous studies were underway by the CNATRA team for Navy implementation. The findings were inspiring to both services: this hybrid model, which incorporated elements from the Air Force’s training program, could provide the services what they needed. This strategic adaptation serves as a crucial step forward in ensuring our maritime aviation forces remain well-prepared and mission-ready in today’s dynamic operational environment.
Under this newly developed program, students will complete several discrete phases of training, just like pilots have for decades, but at several locations and some under contract training agreements. While phased training is not new, content of these phases is starkly different. Student Naval Aviators first report to Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola for medical screening, indoctrination, and introductory flight training, including academic lessons and approximately 10 hours of “introduction to flight” in a low-performance fixed-wing aircraft. Then, it’s on to a contractor owned/contractor operated helicopter flight school called “The Helicopter Institute” in Fort Worth, Texas, to train in the Bell 206 (TH-57 Sea Ranger) helicopter. After completion of this “basic” flight training, in which students amass 50 hours of in-aircraft flight experience, they report to Advanced Helicopter Training at NAS Whiting Field, Florida. The TH-73A Thrasher will soon replace the aging TH-57 Sea Ranger as the advanced air training platform for helicopters at Whiting Field.
“I Have the Controls”… early… under this new training program
The program focuses on hands-on training right from the start. On day two of the 12-week program, students take the controls. This approach breaks training down into four digestible stages that pave the way to master helicopter flight in 81 ground training hours and 50 flight hours.
During Stage One, students delve into the foundational knowledge necessary for a private pilot helicopter license. Ground classes are a deep dive into aeronautical fundamentals, while flight sessions introduced the students to basic Visual Flight Rules (VFR) maneuvers and pre-solo training, laying the groundwork for future success. The syllabus was designed to have students in the cockpit every other day in order to transfer their knowledge to the controls. This is a stark difference from legacy training syllabi, in which students can be situated in long periods of classroom activities.
This first phase of training sets students up for success with small group learning in a 2.6-to-1 student-to-instructor ratio, and hands-on flying right from the start. Even the location is ideal, utilizing three outlying fields nearby Fort Worth Meacham International Airport. This atmosphere exposes students to one of the busiest Class Bravo and Delta airspaces in the world and a multitude of airports in the Fort Worth/Dallas area that creates a perfect environment for honing radio communication skills, navigation, and the ability to make critical decisions in the face of ever-changing weather conditions.
Stage Two training marks a transition into navigation and aeronautical general knowledge. In the classroom, students toil over charts, become masters of aviation weather and gain a profound understanding of aeronautical regulations. In the air, students practice performance maneuvers, make a first foray into night flying, and embark on thrilling cross-country journeys, broadening horizons and cultivating expertise, which will result in mastering the craft of aviation.
Stage Three training is a pivotal moment. Ground classes are devoted to special operations, handling emergencies, and preparation for the practical examinations to meet FAA and eventually Navy “check rides” at NAS Whiting Field – South during advanced flight. In the skies, students undertake VFR cross-country flights, coordinate special operations maneuvers in confined areas, and prepare for the end-of-stage practical test, and finally, the “solo.” This phase ensures students can navigate any situation with the poise and precision required of a military pilot. As students transition into the final stage, the intrigue of flying by instruments awaits.
Stage Four training reorients focus towards cockpit instrumentation, prioritizing a comprehensive understanding of instrument operations. Ground classes delve deep into the fundamentals of instrument flight, emphasizing instrument interpretation and cross-check procedures to enhance precision and elevate flight capabilities. This stage offers an in-depth education in basic instrument maneuvers, partial panel operations, and precision approach techniques, cultivating proficient aviators with the requisite skills to navigate the skies safely and confidently.
“The Helicopter Institute’s” student-friendly curriculum, digestible stages, and diversified learning methodology embraces a hybrid approach to prepare students for advanced helicopter training (AHTS) at NAS Whiting Field and Part 141 Private Pilot Helicopter Course. It ensures students have the required aeronautical knowledge, skills and experience to safely and successfully conduct helicopter flight operations under Day & Night VFR and to meet or exceed the requirements for a helicopter Private Pilot Certificate. In short, when pilots graduate from this phase of flight training, they are ready for military advanced training at NAS Whiting Field. These “new” students will start Advanced Helicopter Training alongside legacy advanced students. However, the students trained under this new system will have 50 hours of in-helicopter flight training, and exposure to helicopter operations from the four stages provided by the COPT-R program.
CNATRA’s mission is to train, mentor, and deliver the highest quality Naval Aviators who prevail in competition, crisis, and conflict. Headquartered at NAS Corpus Christi, CNATRA comprises five training air wings in Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, which are home to 17 training squadrons. In addition, CNATRA oversees the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron the Blue Angels and the training curriculum for all fleet replacement squadrons.
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