LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas—With a primary mission of training the world’s best military pilots, Laughlin is also home to a number of the best instructor pilots the U.S. Air Force has to offer.
A majority of these instructors are assigned to either the 85th Flying Training Squadron or the 434th FTS, which are together known as “T-6 Nation,” giving students their first flying experiences in the military through the T-6 Texan II.
Air Force pilot training—an ever-evolving program—saw many entry-level airplanes before welcoming the T-6 to be the first plane students fly. The first T-6s arrived at Laughlin in 2002. From October, 2017, to September, 2018, Laughlin’s T-6 fleet of 103 are projected to fly more than 32,700 sorties and graduate 352 pilots.
“The T-6 has an extremely rich heritage,” said Capt. Brian O’Connor, 85th FTS flight commander and instructor pilot. “It draws its name, "Texan II", from one of the most prolific pilot training aircraft in military aviation history: the T-6 Texan. Additionally, since its introduction in the early 2000's, almost every Air Force aviator has flown T-6 in Student Undergraduate Pilot Training.”
O’Connor noted even though pilots go on to fly numerous types of aircraft, the shared T-6 experience is unique, connecting the Air Force pilot community as a whole. First Lt. Rafael Alicea, 434th FTS T-6 programmer and instructor pilot, illustrated the T-6 culture through the relationships among the pilots and pilots-in-training and how they strive to accomplish the mission. Much like in an exclusive club, those qualified as Air Force pilots share a camaraderie because they shared the experience of the T-6.
Pilot training is divided into three phases, the first phase is devoted to academics, while the second phase teaches students to fly the T-6. The third is where students are assigned to either helicopters, T-38C Talon or the T-1A Jayhawk and learning to fly those.
Throughout a pilot’s continuum of training, phase II helps students who know nothing about the reality of handling an airplane to flying it with confidence. To Alicea, that transformation is one of his favorite aspects of pilot training.
“My most memorable experiences in the T-6 are when the students move beyond using random corrections to fix their mistakes,” he said. “When they finally understand what they were doing wrong and start to succeed, their excitement is contagious. Pilot training is no longer hard work they struggle with, but instead each sortie becomes a new chance for them to succeed.”
Alicea continued to describe that in the beginning of their training, most students do not have the ability to perform basic flying tasks. However, by the end of the program they are able to perform while flying within 10 feet from another aircraft in formation.
Similarly, O’Connor described the T-6 as a very forgiving yet high-performance, aircraft. Students can go through high-stress, high-speed situations and still have viable outs to prevent dangerous situations from developing. It is through those circumstances students gain the experience that will guide them through the rest of their aviation careers.
“Phase II is where we are teaching the core components of aviation to students,” he said. “Since they will go on to fly one of three different airframes depending on their track [helicopters, heavies, or fighters], it falls on us to ensure they all go to that next phase of training with the same base level of knowledge and aviation experience.”
“The T-6 culture is one of team work and mutual support that can be seen throughout T-6 nation,” Aliea stated. “From the 47th Operations Group commander, who regularly flies student lines, to the brand new instructor pilots, everyone works together to graduate the world’s best military pilots.”
One of the reasons T-6 nation thrives is because of knowledgeable and devoted instructor pilots who contribute so much for the Air Force’s next generation of pilots. The T-6 is their key to connect the academics of pilot training to the next aircraft the students are assigned.