In the Air Force, there’s a saying: Lead by example. For one squadron commander, he took that saying literally.
As of January 2013, Lt. Col. Chris Spinelli became the first commander for the 445th Flight Test Squadron to become dual-qualified in the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the KC-135 Stratotanker.
“Outside of Air Force Materiel Command, it would be almost unheard of to have a fighter and tanker dual qualification,” said Spinelli. “Generally, in the Mobility Air Forces and Combat Air Forces, the pilots are qualified in only one aircraft, and become experts in their particular airframe. Within AFMC, there is only one other pilot I am aware of that was dual-qualified in the KC-135 and F-16: Lt. Col. William Peris, a former 445th FLTS Director of Operations during the 2007-2008 timeframe. Of note, Mr. Wayne Ringelberg, a civilian Test Pilot assigned to the 445th FLTS, is currently dual-qualified in the KC-135 and T-38, which is very similar to a KC-135 and F-16 dual-qualification.”
According to Spinelli, this unique opportunity arose after he noticed the demand for tanker test pilots within his squadron, especially in light of the on-going F-35 tanker qualification testing.
“As commander of the 445th FLTS, I have four aircraft under my prevue: F-16, T-38, C-12 and KC-135. I flew the T-38 in Undergraduate Pilot Training and Test Pilot School and I acquired about 70 hours in the C-12 while at TPS,” Spinelli said. “I had never flown a heavy aircraft before and thought it would be a unique and rewarding experience. Additionally, I now have greater oversight ability for the tanker mission. Finally, as a test pilot I will be able to fly on tanker test missions giving the squadron greater flexibility since we only have three assigned TPS graduate tanker pilots. This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and I am grateful Col. Christopher Azzano, 412th Operations Group Commander, and the folks at AFMC Headquarters allowed me the opportunity.”
As part of this additional undertaking, Spinelli said he had to undergo some challenging training in order to meet the requirements for the tanker qualification.
“The KC-135 training was very fast-paced. We started with two days of academics and simulators, we then flew twice in the remaining days of the first week. We had a study day on the next Monday, followed by our check ride on Tuesday,” added Spinelli. “In all, although it was a fast paced course, especially for someone like me who had no heavy aircraft experience, the instructor pilots and boom operators at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., were extremely professionally and helpful. It was a pleasure to train with them in such a unique airframe.”
To get a better understanding of what the training differences are between qualifications in either aircraft, Spinelli said the qualification path for fighter pilots starts with one year of Undergraduate Pilot Training, or UPT, then about three months of Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals, or IFF; followed by Replacement Training Unit for six months in the specific fighter airframe. For tanker pilots, they go through one year of UPT and then immediately move on to the tanker RTU-equivalent or Pilot Initial Qualification, or PIQ, for approximately six months.
“Obviously, there are many differences in the follow-on training between the tankers and fighters since the mission set for each airframe differs greatly,” added Spinelli. “However, each Air Force training school is dedicated to producing the best possible pilot for the given mission. My experience is a little different from most, since I grew up flying the F-16 and only recently became qualified in the KC-135.”
In Spinelli’s case, he followed the traditional fighter path – UPT, IFF and F-16 RTU. However, unlike other tanker pilots, he did not go through the PIQ program for the tanker airframe.
“I went to an extremely abbreviated course called the Senior Officer Course, or SOC. It is only a one-and-a-half-week long course with three rides including the check ride. It is designed for senior officers, O-6 and above, who have KC-135 aircraft under their command,” said Spinelli. “However, after completion of the KC-135 SOC, I have a restriction to fly with an Instructor Pilot, known as an IP.”
As of now, Spinelli is currently in further upgrade training with his unit to remove that restriction and so he is allowed to fly with other KC-135 pilots who are not IPs. According to him, the IP restriction usually remains in place for most SOC graduates.
“I offer a unique perspective having been both on the receiver side, as an F-16 pilot, and now on the tanker side. I obviously still have much to learn about the KC-135 aircraft and the intricacies of the tanker mission. However, I look forward to flying the Mighty War Wagon and being part of the KC-135 legacy,” Spinelli said.
“In the coming months, I hope to gain a greater appreciation for the tanker mission and crew concept. I also hope it will bring greater flexibility to the Test Operations scheduling shop. Last, I hope I will be able to add value and insight to at least one tanker test program. The next one-and-a-half years will most likely be the one-and-only opportunity I will have to fly the KC-135 in my career.”