What does it take to become an RCAF fighter pilot?

News Article / January 23, 2018

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By Second Lieutenant Camille Dolphin

Have you ever wondered what pilots go through to become fighter pilots in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF)?

The answer: a whole lot of dedication and hard work!

RCAF fighter pilots go through many different phases of flight training in the air and on the ground; the training happens across Canada and the United States so they can learn to fly and fight in the CF-188 Hornet.

Student pilots go through Primary Flying Training, the first phase of training, on the Grob 120-A (a side-by-side twin-seat, piston engine trainer) at 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School (3CFFTS) in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. After they successfully complete phase one, students go to 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School (2CFFTS) at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, for the second phase of training, this time on the CT-156 Harvard II turboprop.

The third phase for fighter pilot students, who learn to fly more advanced manoeuvres on the Harvard, also takes place at Moose Jaw (while phase three for helicopter and multi-engine pilots takes place at Portage La Prairie). After phase three, all pilots are awarded their flying badges (pilot “wings”).

Pilots join NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) program during phases two and three. This military flight training program is run in cooperation with CAE Inc. for NATO and allied air forces. In addition to the RCAF, the program provides training for pilots from many partner and allied nations, currently including the United Kingdom, Hungary, Singapore, France and Germany.

Once phases two and three are completed, fighter pilots move on to phase four, where they begin training on the CT-155 Hawk, also at 15 Wing, to learn the basics of flying a jet powered aircraft.

The CT-155 Hawk is similar to frontline fighter aircraft; this advanced jet trainer is equipped with a Rolls-Royce turbofan engine that generates more than 6,000 pounds of thrust and enables the jet to fly at near supersonic speed. With its simulated weapons system, the jet can perform a wide range of high performance training missions.

Once the basics are covered, student pilots go on to the second half of phase four, fighter training, which is the final phase of the NFTC. The training, which takes place at 419 Tactical Fighter (Training) Squadron at 4 Wing, Cold Lake, Alberta, is also known as the Fighter Lead-In Training (FLIT) course. There, students continue to operate the Hawk, but now learn how to fight with the jet by conducting tactical flying training.

They are now ready to learn air-to-ground missions and air-to-air missions such as basic fighter manoeuvres, air combat tactics, conventional weapon delivery, close air support and more. Fundamentally, they learn to operate tactically, manoeuver to engage the enemy, fly in hostile airspace and fight as a coordinated pair against a single threat.

After a lot of hard work and dedication, the fighter pilots are ready to graduate from NFTC and Canadians can finally join their first CF-188 Hornet squadron: 410 Tactical Fighter (Operational Training) Squadron. This operational training unit is also at 4 Wing. International pilots return to their respective countries to continue their fighter pilot training on various aircraft types. But this stage is not the end; fighter training never really stops and pilots gain more qualifications at their first operational fighter squadron.

Fully qualified CF-188 pilots keep learning throughout their entire career.

In late 2017, 419 Tactical Fighter (Training) Squadron deployed with their CT-155 Hawk jets to El Centro, California to conduct warm weather training during Exercise Antler South.

“The southern deployments give 419 Squadron the ability to escape the snow and ice in northern Alberta, and train where the skies are clear,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Marks, commanding officer of 419 Squadron.

The deployment included pilots, Regular Force and Reserve Force instructors, contracted engineers from CAE Inc., and support personnel, along with seven Hawks. They conducted up to 20 missions per day, including night missions, with most taking place in the restricted airspace and the military operations area of Naval Air Facility (NAF) El Centro.

Carrying out some training in southern locations makes that training more efficient. The more consistent weather patterns in California allowed the RCAF to maximize the quantity and quality of Hawk training in a relatively short period of time. Under typical winter conditions in Cold Lake, it could take several months to carry out the same training.

“During these winter deployments we have the opportunity to focus 100 per cent on fighter training,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Marks. “Everyone has arrived in El Centro very well prepared, and we are looking forward to getting our students closer to graduation.”

NAF El Centro was chosen for Exercise Antler South for its temperate weather and because it offers a confined and secure airspace for training. “This location being a military airport permits the Hawk to train at faster speeds than a civilian airport would allow,” said Captain Louis Maloux, 419 Squadron’s operations officer.

The airspace in El Centro has more traffic, both civilian and military, than the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, making the exercise a great opportunity to train in an unfamiliar environment.

There are zones above, below and all around the pilots – including the Mexican border – where they cannot fly. These restrictions, combined with the increased traffic, simulate modern aerial battle and provide a valuable training opportunity.

Training with the assistance of the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps also helps keep the Canadian fighter force well positioned for future coalition operations. While in El Centro, student pilots conducted air-to-ground missions and air-to-air missions, including air combat tactics, air combat manoeuvres and low-level awareness and other training.

This was the second time 419 Squadron had traveled to El Centro for an exercise.

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