'Guinea pig' class conquers innovation, COVID-19 en route to graduation

  • Published
  • By John Ingle
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Every Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program class has undergone common challenges during the 55-week course.

Long hours. Physically and mentally demanding training regimens that take its toll on the body. Insane North Texas weather that reaches below freezing during the dead of winter and scorching temperatures above 100 degrees during blistering summers.

ENJJPT Class 20-04, however, has endured unique circumstances during their trek to earn their pilot wings, which began Feb. 26, 2019. Perhaps no other class in the nearly 40-year history of the 80th Flying Training Wing program has faced the traditional trials while also navigating the unknowns of game-changing innovation as well as a global pandemic.

Their journey culminated with less-than-normal fanfare April 10, 2020, when 19 members of the class – 15 Americans, three Spanish and one British – pinned on their pilot wings during a graduation ceremony that included social distancing standards and virtual attendance by family members around the globe via Facebook. The program has graduated 7,782 pilots for the NATO alliance.

Col. Russell Driggers, 80th FTW commander and guest speaker at the graduation, said some may ask why program would have the graduation in light of COVID-19. He said it is because of the challenges the student pilots have undergone – the virus; virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology; weather; pilot shortages and others – that they decided to celebrate Class 20-04’s accomplishment.

“It’s times like these that we’ve got to take time to seek out and find and celebrate the good, the true and the beautiful,” he said. I can tell you, after having done this business for lots of years, the wing we’re about to award … they’re indeed good, they’re true and they’re beautiful.”

Class 20-04 is the first ENJJPT class to experience the full array of the program’s traditional training arsenal to include classroom academics, a variety of simulator sessions, and flight time in the T-6A Texan II and T-38C Talon, as well as new tools. The wing’s Innovation Lab, over the past two years, has deployed mixed reality technologies to enhance the ENJJPT curriculum by giving student pilots the opportunity for more chair and “flight” time to work on ground and air procedures.

Driggers said the class successfully completed the 80th FTW’s crucible of demanding training, learning the necessary combat pilot skills and attitude, and how to operate in a multi-national environment. He said they’ve met the standards of classes that preceded them, while paving a new path for those to come.

“Your class will forever be known in every sense of the words as the ‘guinea pig’ class,” he told the 19 graduating pilots. “We put you through the small-group trial syllabus. We put you through multiple virtual reality training devices and we’ve asked you to help us figure out how to make that happen.”

Driggers also praised the class for completing their rigorous training even in the midst of a global pandemic. He said the flying training mission of ENJJPT is essential to the United States and its NATO allies.

“To do that while keeping the ENJJPT family safe and healthy, you’ve also witnessed intense organizational change,” he said. “ENJJPT has made the shift from a training footing to a true fighting stance as we’ve taken on an operational combat mindset.”

He reminded Class 20-04 that they will soon return to that mindset, illustrating his point by sharing recent instances in which NATO partners have participated in real-world operations against aggressors and those who mean to do harm.