On September 1st 2010, I had the very good fortune to be invited down to Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, to take part in a media flight aboard the T-43A Gator aircraft.
The T-43 is a modified Boeing 737 and is used for navigation training exercises. Combat Systems Officers receive their basic navigation training here before moving on to their specific roles elsewhere in the Armed Forces; usually to large aircraft such as the C-130 or KC-135.
However, after 37 years of service, the T-43 is being retired on the 17th September. Training will move to the smaller T-1 and T-6 aircraft and be located in Pensacola, Florida.
We started with a tour of 562 Squadron. Normally there would be five hundred people here, but with the last few students finishing their training, the personnel has been whittled down to a minimum. Mission planning rooms are empty, and the equipment has already begun to be removed from the Simulator Room.
Here we see Lt Col Peter Deitschel showing us one of the radar simulator stations, from which the radar screen is missing. There are four such stations in the room, plus a master control console.
We move on to the flight briefing. The entire crew is here and different subject areas in the briefing are covered by different crewmembers. The students explain the route we are to fly, while the pilot gives the safety briefing. Other concerns include danger zones on the charts (some contain static balloons, for example); bird activity, NOTAMS in the local area and weather conditions.
This is Mr Lawrence Humphrey, the pilot. He and the co-pilot are civilian contractors. They are both military trained pilots and have been flying the T-43 for some time. Contractors were brought in during the late 1990s when there was a drain in military pilots, so the use of contractors kept the T-43 program flying. They fly to military standards and military procedures, so the only practical difference is the colour of their flight suits.
We move out to the aircraft. This is one of two remaining T-43s flying at Randolph. The Air Force had nineteen of them originally. This one will remain at Randolph as a static display, while the other will go the the Boneyard.
Today's callsign is 'Gator One'.
There seems to be a lot of checklists and procedures to go through before we can start. Although some of these are related to the trainees, I am not sure if the Military go through more steps than a civilian crew, or if it's just less hidden than on a passenger jet. However, you don't tend to see the Flight Attendents on Southwest looking for obstructions prior to engine start, as happened here.
We all got to play a part in the preflight, even the media folks. Since we were sitting at a navigation station, part of the checklist involves testing the communications. So I did get to say 'S7, loud and clear!' when my turn came.
Taxiing the aircraft is certainly done with more speed and panache than in a civilian jet. The military pilots really don't hang about. There were a brace of T-38 jets landing at the time we wanted to take off, so after some time waiting for them all, the controller gave us a short slot in which we had to backtaxi down the runway, execute a rapid U-turn, and take off.
After takeoff, Col Deitschel explains the training programme that the students go through. The T-43 training is an undergraduate course, during which they learn basic navigational principles. Reading the radar screen is an art form unto itself; they have to learn the physics behind radar to understand what information is being returned to them; what makes the light and dark areas on the screen.
Looking out at the wing, it's a delight to see the USAF stars and bars instead of an airline logo! We cruise at 27,000 feet. We can't go any higher as the T-43 lacks a particular piece of equipment that is required for flight in the high altitude jet routes. While it would be possible to install it, and take advantage of fuel savings at higher altitudes, the equipment is too expensive to make this economical, given the service life remaining on this aircraft.
Today we're flying a standard training route, which takes us from San Antonio, west towards Marfa, TX; north to Roswell, NM, then northeast to Amarillo, TX, before turning south via Abilene back to San Antonio. A distance of 1047.8 miles, if we stick to the flight plan.
Here we have one of the mounting points for the Celestial Navigation System. We're looking straight up at the middle of the ceiling. In previous years, they inserted a periscope sextant into the hole, which pokes through the top of the aircraft. This allowed crews to navigate by the positions of the sun, moon and stars. In dawn and dusk hours when it was too light to see many stars but the sun had gone down, they could use a polarized viewer to figure out where the sun was, as sunlight gets polarized when travelling through the atmosphere.
This is the master navigation station. Many of the knobs and switches on the left are replaced by painted panels at the other stations. Control is shifted to different students during the flight, who verbally direct the pilot to fly at the heading and speed that each student calculates, in order to get the aircraft to a particular place and time.
These two students are under instruction from Maj Adam Blanchard. They use the charts, protractors and compasses to navigate from first principles. They use the radar screen to confirm their position. The computer screen in the centre shows a GPS track of where they actually are.
This is the flight deck. This is a 37-year old aircraft, so it has a traditional 'steam gauge' instrument package; no glass cockpits here. There is the standard six-pack in front of each pilot. The middle panel contains fuel and engine instrumentation, along with the flap indicator and landing gear control.
The lower panel between the pilots contains the throttles, flap selector, speed brake and trim wheels. An overhead panel has controls for electrical systems, heating and cooling, communications, fuel pumps and lighting, amongst others.
I was very fortunate to be allowed to sit in the jump seat for the last twenty minutes of the flight. This was a fabulous, rare, opportunity to observe the operation and landing of a large airliner from the best seat in the house.
Looking down the length of runway 14L at Randolph AFB as we approach on final to land.
A successful mission is complete! We take a moment to regard this fine aircraft.
It will be a sad day in aviation history on the 17th, when the last flight of the T-43 is made. This aircraft has seen thousands of airmen pass through during its life, who have gone on to many different branches of the service.
Many thanks indeed go to Lt Col Deitschel, Commander of 562 Squadron; Beverly Simas, Chief of Public Affairs, 12th Flying Training Wing, and all who were aboard 'Gator One' on September 1st. This was a wonderful opportunity to observe what you do.
Now you've seen the pictures, watch the movie!
It's in lower resolution here, but I strongly recommend watching this in HD. Click here to go through to YouTube and click on the 720p choice at the bottom right of the video player.
However you choose to view - enjoy it!