After his first up-close view Jan. 15 of a ready-to-fly T-X, the Air Force’s training aircraft of the future, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein could have been expected to marvel at the technical sophistication of a state-of-the-art plane designed and manufactured not only with future pilots in mind but with maintainers and software specialists as well.
He could have mentioned that the new plane’s single engine generates nearly threetimes more thrust than the dual engines of the plane it is replacing as the primary trainer for all future Air Force pilots — the legendary but aging T-38C Talon.
He could have noted that the T-X has twin tails, slats, and big leading-edge root extensions that provide deft handling at low speeds allowing it fly in a way that better approximates real world demands and that it is specifically designed to prepare pilots for fifth-generation aircraft.
But after climbing out of the cockpit during the visit to the St. Louis factory where Boeing builds the T-X, Goldfein, a former instructor-pilot, pointed to a seemingly mundane but critical difference — sight lines.
“I’d love to be an instructor again,” a smiling Goldfein said after a detailed briefing by senior Boeing officials and a close inspection of a plane on the factory floor that included time in both cockpit seats. “The visibility is exceptional. I can see what the student is doing, what displays he is calling up; which challenges she’s calling up.”
To be sure, Goldfein took note of the technical sophistication of the plane and what that modern technology brings to the future of the Air Force. During a briefing with Boeing executives and engineers, for example, he asked pointed questions about not only the plane’s performance but also how reliable — and fast — software is upgraded.
He asked about the way maintainers are blended into the training program. The answer is that the plane is designed with easy-to-reach and open panels and that virtual reality can be used to train maintainers.
Goldfein acknowledged the point. “We sink or swim on sustainment,” he said.
Impressive and important as all of that is, Goldfein’s history as an instructor caused him to highlight something else.
Unlike in the 57-year-old T-38, the instructor’s position in the T-X is elevated, meaning he or she can see things that were not easily possible before — body position and hand movements, which display is activated and when, and the kind of information that training pilot receives and requests during flight.
That difference, along with the updated technology and capabilities of the plane itself, along with better simulators and the ability to update software faster and more seamlessly, convinced Goldfein that the plane has the potential to deliver what future pilots and war fighters need.
“The level of instructional capacity is impressive,” he said, noting that the new trainer will go into service in 2024 and reach full operational capability by 2034. Having a fleet of these trainers, he said, will allow pilots to train for fourth and fifth-generation aircraft.
Goldfein was careful to couch the change in a way that both saluted the service of the trainer he flew on his way to becoming a fighter pilot — the T-38 — and herald the arrival of a new tool that will teach generations of new pilots so that the interests and security of the United States are preserved.
“The distance between the T-38 and an F-35 (Fighting Falcon) is night and day,” he said, referring to the capabilities of the two aircraft. “But with this plane the distance is much, much smaller. And that’s important because it means the pilots trained on it will be that much better, that much faster at a time when we must be able to train to the speed of the threat.”
The contract for the T-X was awarded in September after a vigorous competition. The $9.2 billion contract awarded to Boeing calls for 351 T-X aircraft, 46 simulators, and associated ground equipment to be delivered and installed.
The first T-X aircraft and simulators are scheduled to arrive at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in 2023. All undergraduate pilot training bases will eventually transition from the T-38 to the T-X. Those bases include Columbus Air Force Base, Miss.; Laughlin AFB, Texas; Sheppard AFB, Texas; and Vance AFB, Okla.