• The RNZAF’s Black Falcons aerobatic team is manned by instructors of the Central Flying School. 
Credit: Gordon Arthur
    The RNZAF’s Black Falcons aerobatic team is manned by instructors of the Central Flying School. Credit: Gordon Arthur

This year the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) marks ten years operating the Beechcraft T-6C Texan II trainer. ADM recently sat down with two officers to learn more about how the T-6C has revolutionised Kiwi pilot training.

Comparing the T-6C to the preceding CT/4B Airtrainer, Squadron Leader Michael Williams, a flying instructor and Black Falcons aerobatic team member, described them as “night and day”. Both initial and advanced pilot training are now done on the Texan II.

Wing Commander Hayden Sheard, Commanding Officer of the Flying Training Wing, said pilots take around 18 months to gain their wings. There are twelve pilots per course and two intakes per year. The course involves 200 hours of flying and the RNZAF generally has more applicants than spaces, “which is where we want to be”.

“The COVID pandemic, as it did for many,” he said, “disrupted the flow a lot, and so we’re still kind of unbinding ourselves from that situation. I think it was an unexpected flow-on from the COVID pandemic, the challenges we’re having in retention in the defence force. The air force isn’t immune to that, so our capacity to train – a little bit at the moment – has been reduced somewhat through our human resources.”

Pass rates remain consistent at about 70 per cent. “You know, there’s always a desire to lift the pass … So we’re exploring how better we can use psychologists, and we’re exploring options with virtual-reality devices in conjunction with our existing simulators on the Texan,” said the CO.

About 30 per cent of “flying” is done on two CAE Australia-managed simulators that achieve 100 per cent availability rates. “We’ve taken a couple of little first steps…so we’re opening up access to the simulator a little bit more to students outside of pure contact sessions with their instructor, to see how we can make better use of the sim resource we have,” noted Wg Cdr Sheard.

As well as tracking the RAF as it brings virtual reality (VR) into its Texan operations, We’ve been watching keenly projects like Pilot Training Next in the States, and we’ve tried to keep abreast of what various nations are doing. VR is a very powerful tool, but it’s something that needs to be integrated properly into the flying training system. It’s quite embryonic at the moment; we’re watching it with interest to the point that we will pick up on it when it’s developed, and we know how to slot it into our system.”

Sqn Ldr Williams added: “So if you can free up aircraft for solidifying stuff, new skills, and devote the initial teaching of those skills to virtual reality, or augmented reality as well, then you’re using more efficient use of the aeroplane and the instructor resource. But until that technology is developed properly, it’s actually very easy to be a negative drain on that resource, because you’re pulling instructors out of the real airplane in order to administer.”

Wg Cdr Sheard concurred: “It’s pretty exciting. It could have some really amazing benefits to it. I don’t know whether we would see an increase in pass rates, necessarily, but ultimately that’s what we’d love, because that eliminates training wastage. But I’m pretty confident that use of VR would increase the level of capability.”

A decade on, the Kiwi T-6C fleet has already had automatic dependent surveillance - broadcast (ADS-B) added, and the RNZAF is about to go live on an electronic anti-lock braking system (ABS).

“We’re the first Texans in the world that are going to have anti-lock brakes,” Wg Cdr Sheard shared. The aircraft’s high-pressure tyres can pop in certain situations, especially because Kiwi Texans tend to go on runways shorter and narrower compared to other operators. “It’s been a long-running project. Introduction of ABS not only enhances the safety of the aeroplane, but it should avoid some consumables.”

The T-6C fleet has a 30-year lifespan, and Airbus New Zealand physically maintains the aircraft on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Jet Aviation New Zealand maintains four leased King Air 350 aircraft. The latter’s primary role is multi-engine training, but they also execute domestic transport and surveillance tasks with No. 42 Squadron.

There are actually two users of the T-6C – No. 14 Squadron conducting the “Wings” course, and the Central Flying School (CFS) training flying instructors. The CFS, with an establishment of 28 instructors, also fields the Black Falcon aerobatic team.

Not only do the Black Falcons grab attention and hopefully attract people into the RNZAF, but Wg Cdr Sheard explained: “There’s huge value in the Falcons operation for the flying instructors I have. It’s good flying, it’s challenging flying, it’s an extension skill they wouldn’t ordinarily have.”

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