From initial pilot training to mission qualification training, U.S. Air Force pilots complete intensive training and preparation to learn critical skills to fly, fight and win, as well as prevent mishaps.
However, F-35 and F-16 trainees in the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., also receive cutting edge human performance optimization training across physical, mental and emotional domains. In May 2019, Capt. Robert Larson, a 61st Fighter Squadron student pilot, was on a training mission when he found himself faced with an in-flight emergency.
Larson called upon his human performance optimization training and saved not only himself but the F-35A Lightning II he was flying from any damage.
“I was pretty high up, about 34,000 feet, and all of a sudden everything got really quiet,” said Larson. “I tried to call my flight lead and realized I couldn’t talk to anybody. I started descending, working through my checklist and rocking my wings to try and let my flight lead know that I didn’t have a radio. As I got further into the checklist I realized I had lost one of the flight computers that was responsible for controlling oxygen, pressurization, and some parts of communication.”
Larson eventually visually communicated with his flight lead to relay the situation and decided to return to the base. As he worked through multiple checklists with additional failures, he determined that the aircraft’s landing gear could possibly collapse upon landing.
“At that point my plan was to land and if the gear collapsed as I was landing I was going to eject,” said Larson. “Luckily it didn’t and I was able to pull off to the end of the runway and shut down there and wait for maintenance.”
Larson succeeded due to his ability to keep a level head during a high-stakes emergency, and his training helped prepare him for it. Unique to Luke AFB, student pilots receive holistic performance training and support to optimize their physical and mental skills for the stress of flying and coping with an emergency situation. The Human Performance Team’s Fighter Tactical Strengthening and Sustainment (FiTSS) program is normal part of the F-16 and F-35 Basic Course training, and also available to all Luke AFB instructors and student at all levels.
“We have an academic portion that covers mindfulness, awareness, intensity regulation, focus and attention, self-talk, goal setting, confidence, motivation and team cohesion,” said Dr. John Gassaway, Clinical Sports Psychologist with the Human Performance Team. “Then we meet one-on-one about twice a month to talk about how they are implementing these strategies.”
In an advanced, fifth generation fighter like the F-35 serious malfunctions are extremely rare. For Larson, the incident was solved not only by his knowledge of the jet’s systems but his ability to assess the situation with composure.
“I had practiced for all this time and it worked in a way where I was able to stay calm, successfully work through everything, bring the jet back and land safely,” said Larson. “All those mental skills helped so much, and it’s not until you have the time to reflect that you realize how useful and necessary they are.”
Emergencies or life threatening situations are never ideal when flying; however, Larson believes the experience reinforced the importance of his training.
“It’s not what your hands and feet are doing to fly the jet but what you’re doing mentally to process what you’re going through,” said Larson. “How you can improve that whole process has been my biggest take away for it.”
For Gassaway, the incident emphasized the importance of practicing and improving mental skills.
“The thing that was so impressive with Larson, and the thing that I really take the greatest amount of pride in, was the fact that when he was flying, he didn’t think about any of these skills until he landed,” said Gassaway. “That showed me he was aware he had used the skills, but they were automated, ultimately that is the optimization of these skills.”