November 2, 2008 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The 43rd FS of the Air Education and Training Command at Tyndall AFB graduated its first four students from the new F-22 Basic Training Program.
An F-15 Eagle banks left while an F/A-22 Raptor flies in formation en route to a training area.
The four students - 1st Lt. Austin B. Skelley, 1st Lt. Ryan Shelhorse, 1st Lt. Dan Dickenson and Capt. Marcus McGinn - arrived at Tyndall Air Force Base last February as the first "green" Raptor pilots.
The program almost didn't make it off the ground as there were doubters at the beginning. The exceptional situation was that they took flight students directly out of pilot training and put them in an advanced course with no prior fighter experience.
Prior to their arrival, only experienced pilots who distinguished themselves on other fighter platforms were selected to transfer to the F-22.
Now F-22 pilots will be chosen just like pilots for any of the other fighter systems but the training comes with a challenge all its own.
Unlike the F-15 and F-16 there is no two-seater variant of the F-22. So when a student pilot takes an F-22 in to the air for the first time, there is no second set of experienced hands on board.
"Was there any apprehension? That's the understatement of the year," said Lt. Col. Tom "House" Kafka. "You now take a bunch of lieutenants, 22, 23, 24 years old and you hand them the keys to a $200 million dollar fighter, and the first time they're going to fly it they're solo."
Before the students set foot in an F-22 cockpit they have been in training for nearly two years. They begin with a T-6 "Texan II" and progress through to the T-38 "Talon." Then the students moved to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for the newly developed Raptor lead-in program, a training program that places b-course pilots in the cockpit of a two-seat F-16.
Next, the pilots move to Tyndall and begin a rigorous academics and simulator course. After completing that training, they move on to fly actual missions in the F-22. And even with two years of extensive training, the four are still considered inexperienced pilots.
"The good news of that is they don't have any bad habit patterns from other airplanes. The bad news of that is they don't have an experience base to draw on," said Lt. Col. Derek "Trapper" France, commander of the 43rd Fighter Squadron.
There were challenges for the veteran pilots as well. A syllabus and training regiment was created largely from scratch for the basic course. Instructors like Kafka, who spent years training new students to fly the F-15 at Tyndall, worked with civilians to construct a viable training program for the fighter.