HOUSTON, Texas — The United States Naval Test Pilot School (USNTP) trains some of the world’s finest developmental test pilots, flight officers, engineers, industry and foreign partners in full spectrum test and evaluation of aircraft and aircraft systems. One of the foundational aircraft used at the school is the Northrop Grumman T-38C Talon supersonic jet trainer. As the Navy’s principal operator of the trainer, the school’s fleet of 10 of the aircraft are flown an average of 1,100 hours per year, providing students with valuable experience evaluating flight performance, flying qualities, dynamics and transonic and supersonic flight characteristics.
As the T-38C is the USNTPS’s primary fixed-wing trainer, students are required to receive formal flight training in the aircraft prior to arriving at the school. Before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, this was accomplished through a partnership with the U.S. Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command (AETC) at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. The pandemic forced AETC to pare back training commitments to the Navy and other customers. With new students preparing to arrive, USNTPS needed to find an alternative — and quickly.
While USNTPS had the capability to provide T-38C ground training and approximately 10 of the flight hours required to achieve initial T-38C qualification, the school had no way to conduct vital simulator training as the Navy does not have a T-38 simulator. Simulator training is essential because aircraft malfunctions and emergencies can be trained through simulations that otherwise would not be safe or possible to train to during actual flight.
USNTPS turned to the Reserve to help solve the critical training shortfall.
CDR Adam Klein, Officer in Charge of Naval Air Systems Command’s Reserve Program (NRP) Rapid Research and Development (RR&D) Detachment and a Reserve T-38C Instructor Pilot with USNTPS, works as a civilian research pilot for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and identified a solution to the problem.
NASA operates a simulator for the T-38N to train basic and emergency procedures as well as crew resource management. Working with USNTPS, the NRP and his NASA leadership, Klein rapidly developed a simulator training program tailored to the school’s unique requirements as well as an inter-agency agreement between USNTPS and NASA.
“NASA appreciates its professional partnership with USNTPS, and we recognize the importance of pre-arrival training for fixed-wing students,” said Klein. “We were able to leverage both my civilian and Navy Reserve careers to solve a critical problem for USNTPS while continuing to strengthen the relationship between USNTPS and NASA.”
Five Test Pilots Under Instruction (TPUI), the formal name for students attending USNTPS, traveled to the Johnson Space Center over the summer for training in the NASA simulator. Each student received basic, instrument and emergency procedures training.
Klein said that although the avionics of NASA’s “N” series aircraft differ from the “C” series flown by USNTPS, the fidelity of the simulator’s flying qualities and performance were high enough to be an effective trainer for the T-38C.
“While the differences between the two series of aircraft might normally be a detriment to the training flow of a fleet pilot, USNTPS is training TPUIs who need to rapidly adapt to new aircraft and interfaces,” explained Klein. “By exposing the TPUIs to the T-38N simulator, the students were able to receive the critical T-38 transition training while also receiving a test pilot school primer.”
Upon completion of the simulator training, Klein returned to Naval Air Station Patuxent River for his two weeks of Annual Training augmenting the USNTPS flight staff as an instructor pilot. Klein’s support helped expedite the TPUI’s training flow and ensured the students were able to start their 10-month training course on time.
USNTPS Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Rory Feely, praised NRP personnel for transforming a problem into an opportunity. “Partnerships are a significant contributor to the successful operation of USNTPS and allow us to execute operations of this magnitude with about half the personnel strength of a similarly sized military squadron.”
“At USNTPS, we rely heavily on the NAVAIR Reserve Program to fill critical and demanding billets within the squadron,” Feely said. “They bring a wealth of experience and perspective with them and are instrumental to USNTPS mission success. Without the NRP, we would be dead in the water. I see this innovative use of staffing resources as a huge win-win for the NRP and USNTPS — we are talking top quality talent that dons their service uniform and gets after the mission.”
The mission of the NRP is to support NAVAIR, Program Executive Offices, and Commander Fleet Readiness Centers in the acquisition and sustainment of naval aircraft, weapons and related systems; and to maintain a mobilization-ready force able to provide unique forward-deployable capabilities and expertise.