SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — Advance Force Development. It’s the first priority for Air Education and Training Command, the First Command of the Air Force.
It's a primary tenet of 2nd Air Force, as well as that of Sheppard AFB.
During his change of command ceremony when he took the reins of AETC in May 2022, Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson spoke about developing the force through the command’s triad of education including basic military training, technical training and professional military education.
“Our Airmen deserve and need the tools, techniques and cognitive ability and confidence to think, decide and act in increasingly challenging situations, in accordance with their commander’s intent,” the general said during the ceremony. “Airmen must be developed through experiences that build and help them understand that they are trusted, that they are empowered to maneuver, to gain and or maintain the advantage of all levels of warfare and phases of competition.”
Sheppard AFB has improved a specific aspect, or tool, of advancing its force development piece over the past few years in a very particular way as it has brought on much-needed upgrades to its ground instructional training aircraft, or GITA, fleet, the aircraft on which all of the Air Force’s new maintainers hone their craft in technical training. In fact, the 82nd Training Wing has brought on seven new GITAs over the past year to either replace antiquated models or fill a void.
Scott Turner, the 982nd Maintenance Squadron’s logistics support program manager who works the acquisition process for GITAs, said training aircraft provide the necessary realistic training for new maintainers that can’t be replicated. Some of the aircraft were retired in the 1990s, well before many Airmen in Training were born, and have or had components or systems that were outdated and several generations behind the current variations actively flown today.
“We want our maintainers to go out to the operational Air Force once they leave Sheppard with more of an understanding and the experience in their classroom environment while they’re here,” the 23-year B-52 and B-1 avionics veteran said. “This is going to be more commensurate with what they’re going to see in the real Air Force to better prepare the warfighter and the mission as it pertains to their next base.”
Getting updated, modernized GITAs isn’t as simple as placing an online order and having them show up at the doorstep. Turner said there is an involved process that begins with a unit identifying a need for an upgrade. The next step is forwarding that information to the 82nd TRW wing commander for signature, and then sending the official request to the system program office, or SPO, for the aircraft.
Then the wait begins. In some cases, the wait is long.
In September 2021, Sheppard received an HH-60 Pave Hawk for use in the 363rd Training Squadron’s armament and munitions training. It took 30 years for the April 1991 request to be filled. That’s 30 years of Airmen in Training being taught on concept or another training device before seeing the aircraft.
“Many times, we just have to wait for a retirement of that asset to happen,” Turner said. “Sometimes, there’s an aircraft that is damaged in such a way that only gets a one-time flight, and we get lucky enough to have that one-time flight come to Sheppard rather than going out to the boneyard.”
The most recent acquisition, an F-16 Fighting Falcon that was part of the 64th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada, is one such aircraft being retired and authorized for one more flight. That flight occurred on Sept. 19, 2022, and goes to the 362nd TRS for crew chief training.
Sandwiched between the September 2021 delivery of the HH-60 and the arrival of the F-16, Sheppard has received three KC-135R Stratotankers for crew chief training, and two C-130H2 variants, also for crew chief training. The three KC-135Rs closed a 12-year acquisition process to upgrade heavy crew chief training for the 362nd TRS.
Staff Sgt. Daniel Casares, a KC-135 crew chief instructor who spent four years as an RC-135 crew chief before coming to Sheppard, said the KC-135s used to train new maintainers at Sheppard were retired in the 1990s. He said they were able to teach maintainers on concept or use other instructional tools, but not having the actual components and systems Airmen will see in the field is difficult.
The RC-135 is a reconnaissance variant of the KC-135 with similar components, but a different mission.
“It’s hard to go into a course and say, ‘We’re going to teach you this,’ and then go out to the aircraft and say, ‘Well, it would be here,’” he said. “A lot of the components are missing that we have on the older ones, so having these new ones, of course, is easier to say this is what this does, this is what it looks like and this is how it functions.”
Casares said even though he learned the basic concepts of crew chiefing a 135 during his technical training in June 2015, he said it took some time to learn processes and procedures as it relates to the more modern aircraft he would eventually work on. The newer variants, he said, will cut down on the transition time for Airmen.
It’s not just GITAs that have been behind the curve on modernization. Trainers such as engines at the 361st TRS propulsion course are also lagging behind what is currently used to propel aircraft through the sky.
Keith Hester, a Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, Reserve crew chief and propulsion instructor at Sheppard said they are using outdated engines to train Airmen on the newer iterations in the force. He said, for example, they train Airmen to maintain B-52 engines the schoolhouse doesn’t have on hand as training devices. That will be compounded even more, he said, because a contract has been awarded for the production of engines that are even further beyond the generation used for training.
“We teach three engines here,” he said of a B-52 training device. “Technically, there is one at the crew chief schoolhouse that we can go look at, but we need some here so we can actually put our hands on it.”
For crew chiefs, though, the B-52 is a NASA variant, which has different components than the ones Airmen will see when they arrive on station, Hester said.
All said the professionalism and expertise of instructors at Sheppard overcome any deficiencies in equipment. But, the need for modernized GITAs to provide a better end product for frontline supervisors and commanders in the field cannot go unnoticed.
Turner said Airmen are being instructed on technical orders that don’t match the aircraft they are using to train, and that poses challenges.
“If you can no longer use those technical orders and those guides to operate a system safely, or replace the parts on those aging systems to make sure they’re operational, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good for the schoolhouses,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why getting updated, modernized assets, even though they’re retiring, the components that are needed to sustain the operational system of this particular asset are still available (is essential).”
The drive to update Sheppard’s GITAs continues, Turner said, as several F-15 Eagles are expected in the relatively near future to enhance the aircraft maintenance training here. By doing so, the drive to Advance Force Development within the command, 2nd AF and Sheppard will continue its forward advance.