COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Military aviators step into the cockpits of numerous aircraft throughout their careers, though the odds of those aircraft from their past being together again at the same time and in the same place are low, they are never zero.
Stepping out to the flightline, Col. Alexander Heyman, 14th Flying Training Wing Operations Group commander, was met by three of his past T-6A Texan II aircraft. With this opportunity Heyman was able to reminisce on the unique personal ties he has associated with each tail number.
“When I was an Instructor Pilot 18 years ago at Laughlin, the T-37 was being retired and I had the opportunity to go pick up a T-6 from the factory,” said Heyman. “Tail number 650, which is sitting on our flightline, had my name on it back then. And tail number 856, which is visiting right now from Vance, was the squadron aircraft back when I was the Student Squadron commander for Vance Air Force Base in 2017 through 2019.”
To coordinate a “family reunion” alongside his current T-6, tail number 014, Heyman reached out to John Balbierer, M1 Support Services T-6 branch manager, to request the set up. M1 is a company that provides the bulk of aviation support services, such as logistics and engineering, to the non-stop pilot training mission at Columbus AFB.
“Looking at the maintenance, flying schedule and availability of each aircraft, it was difficult to find a time where we could get them all in one place,” said Balbierer. “Also, the Vance aircraft was scheduled to leave soon, which added to the time crunch. Our tow team was able to position all 3 aircraft together and quickly relocate them back to the flightline after the photo shoot.”
Balbierer worked with Heyman during the following week to coordinate his schedule with the aircraft availability, finally settling on a date of 30 September.
Those aircraft represent my time as a First Assignment Instructor Pilot all the way until my current position as the Operations Group commander,” said Heyman. “There have been a lot of names and a lot of people working hard, not only to fly, but keep those aircraft airborne.”
Heyman reflected on the heritage of the trainer aircraft and how the technological advancements being utilized changed pilot training for the Air Force.
“The first T-6’s were bought back in the late 90’s and those aircraft were designed as a replacement for the T-37, which had been around for about 50 years,” said Heyman. “The T-37 wasn’t doing a very good job at preparing our Airmen for faster, newer, 21st century airplanes, so we needed something else.”
In 1996, the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System awarded ‘Raytheon’ acquisition and support contracts for the aircraft leading to the first operational T-6A arriving at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, in May, 2000.
“The T-6 is a great aircraft for training our young USAF pilots,” said Balbierer. “The maintainability of the aircraft is fairly simple, however, it is still an aircraft with many complex sub-systems needing daily servicing, maintenance and inspections. With the number of training sorties we fly every day here at Columbus, the complexity of maintaining this aircraft is in the volume of flying we do here.”
The full rate production contract for the T-6 was awarded in December 2001 and Joint Primary Pilot Training began that same year providing the basic skills necessary for students to progress into the next tracks.
“When the turnover started, we were using the T-6’s the same way we did the T-37’s in the old pilot training syllabus,” Heyman said. “Eventually they realized the aircraft could be utilized in more ways than it was being used for. After that, pilot training really took off and expanded.”
Heyman further elaborated that Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training evolved to use the T-6 aircraft for more tactical type training, such as low level and navigation exercises.
“People started realizing that the T-6 is a very capable aircraft in that it had a lot more capacity and potential to train pilots outside of just the basics,” said Heyman. “Now, SUPT has evolved again to become UPT 2.5 where we use the T-6 even more and pack a lot of training into it. In about 8 months these students earn their wings and from there they will continue to follow-on training in either the T-1 or T-38.”
Student pilots going through UPT 2.5 begin with online academic material to familiarize themselves with the T-6. Virtual reality training has also been upgraded and further intertwined with the new syllabus, enabling students to become acquainted with the aircraft before their first sortie.
“It took a couple of decades to start re-imagining how we use the aircraft, and I think that will be very beneficial for when we start bringing the T-7 online,” said Heyman. “This time it won’t be ‘new airplane, same syllabus’ it’ll be ‘new airplane, better, and faster training’. By the time the T-7 rolls out and the Air Force starts to look at its potential uses and applications, it’ll be the next generation of Airmen who accelerate that change.”