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Top Gun Commercial and Military Trainers

Top Gun Commercial and Military Trainers

It’s no news that modern advances in technology have dramatically altered the way we live. Technology shapes the way we communicate and interact with each other, how we work, how we learn and how we enjoy ourselves. And it’s no different in the world of aviation.

As each generation of aircraft supersedes the last, advances in psychology, science, engineering, and technology come together to maximise the performance and safety of the pilot and this has translated into top notch training aircraft – often referred to as simply ‘trainers’.


Trainers – Around since the Beginning of Air Warfare

Prior to World War l, aeroplanes were just coming into military use. And with only a few hundred pilots, the number of dedicated training aircraft was decidedly low. With the advent of World War I however, the military value of an airborne soldier over the battlefield quickly became apparent and the production of airplanes increased almost as readily as young enthusiasts signed on to fly them.

Possibly marred by the whimsy of their own encounters, early aviators were likely hesitant to throw their comrades to the wind and hope for the best…at the outset at least. Therefore, training aircraft of various description were dedicated as trainers to ease student pilots into the role. Newly graduated pilots were known to give instruction to in-coming students, and the importance of two-seat trainers was quickly realised, with some trainer-specific models permitting an instructor to accompany the student in training undertakings (and correcting with dual control capabilities if needed) before allowing them to fly solo and graduate to more advanced aircraft.

Other early trainers were obsolete combat aircraft or sports aircraft lent by early aviation enthusiasts. A method used by the French known as the ‘penguin’ system involved shortening the wingspan of an otherwise working aircraft to prevent the student from accidentally taking flight. However, the insufficient supply of working aircraft available to be clipped, in conjunction with the reticence to clip the wings of a full functioning machine, lead to the production of several dedicated trainer aircraft like the Caudron G.3 D.2, A two-seat trainer version equipped with dual controls.

The United Kingdom also utilised obsolete aircraft as trainers but supplemented the limited supply of airframes with the Avro 504 and the Airco DH.6. The latter was built specifically as a trainer and was constructed very simply so that mishaps from training could be easily repaired, which generally came to be common practice in trainer aircraft. In America, a significant portion of trainee pilots trained in the Curtiss JN-4 during the First World War, establishing the USA as a mass producer of military aircraft. Affectionately known as the ‘Jenny’, the JN series emerged in 1914 as a tandem twin-seat, dual control biplane. Many Royal Flying Corps pilots earned their wings on the JN-4, both in Ontario and later in winter facilities at Camp Taliaferro, Texas. In Germany, general purpose two seater aircraft were used for training purposes, the most numerous being the two-seat Albatross C.III.

Over the course of World War l, analysis began into the design and controls of aircraft as well as the effects of environmental factors on pilot ability.  By the end of the war, dedicated aeronautical labs in Texas and Ohio were established to investigate the relationship between the plane and the pilot. Though rudimentary at first, these tests almost universally emphasised that the performance and safety of a pilot is directly linked to their own range of understanding and experience within a given aircraft.

In the interim between the two World Wars, Western armed forces began to design and produce dedicated trainer aircraft to supplement their fully-fledged counterparts. The outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1939, along with the growing recognition that the United States might be drawn into World War II, resulted in the formation of the Civilian Pilot Training Program with the Piper J-3 Cub becoming the primary trainer aircraft. As World War ll progressed, the need for trainers grew exponentially. The US armed forces condensed production down to three trainer models – primary, basic, and advanced – to which the rugged Stearman PT-13/PT-17, the Vultee BT-13 and North American AT-6 Texan were assigned respectively.

Meanwhile, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, a joint military aircrew training program created by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand was established to move the bulk of training away from active war zones to Canada, Australia and (as it was then known) Southern Rhodesia. Regarded as a precursor to post-war international air training schemes, students undertook graduated phases of training, spanning from basic to advanced levels of competency. Trainer aircraft involved in the massive effort included the De Havilland Tiger Moth, which became renowned for its forgiving characteristics in normal flight yet responsive in aerobatic and formation scenarios.

Depending on the stream of flying the student undertook, trainers such the North American Harvard, North American Yale, the CAC Wirraway, the Airspeed Oxford, Avro Anson, Cessna Crane, Fairey Battle, Bristol Bolingbroke and Westland Lysander would all be press-ganged into use as training aircraft. The availability of trainers that mirrored their fully-fledged counterparts was of great benefit as students could prepare themselves for upcoming flights much more readily.

After the Second World War, the United States operated the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor for basic flight training, while the United Kingdom operated the De Havilland Chipmunk. The North American T-28 Trojan replaced the T-6 in US service, while the Percival Provost filled a similar role with the RAF. The replacement of the earlier trainers was necessitated by advances in aviation technology and the need for the trainer aircraft to keep pace with their combat equivalents.

With many war-trained pilots simply migrating to ex-military bomber aircraft for transport roles, the role of trainers in commercial aviation grew rapidly. At the same time, private pilot schools began cropping up, taking advantage of the abundant training aircraft leftover from the war.

The Vietnam war marked the first time that helicopters were used extensively in a warzone -  requiring massive numbers of students to pilot them. Of all the helicopter pilots who flew in Vietnam, 95 percent passed through Fort Wolters, which housed the United States Army’s Primary Helicopter School in north-central Texas. The school, which ran from 1956 until the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, relied on cheap, gasoline fuelled, piston engine training helicopters such as the Bell TH-13 Sioux and TH-55 Osage. With instrument training reserved for more advanced helicopters at Fort Rucker, these two seat, instrument-less choppers afforded students the opportunity to reign-in the temperamental machines as they cobbled together the first flight hours of their piloting career.

Students who passed flight training at Fort Wolters advanced to Fort Rucker where students would undergo instrument training as well as more advanced flying techniques, using a ‘hood’ or device placed over the eyes to prevent any vision other than the instruments. Successful students would then commence training in the Huey while flying in conditions designed to mirror that of the War.

Trainers Now

Skip forward a few decades to the present day and we see a polarising view of aviation that is both different and very much the same.  With the technological advancement of…pretty much everything, aviation has surged ahead at a blistering pace. However, the principles of flight training remain consistent, as does the pre-war sequential approach of starting a student pilot with basic aircraft and progressing towards the more advanced aircraft as the confidence and ability of the student increases.

For the ambitious student, there is an array of trainers tailored to the training requirements of a commercial pilot’s licence. Universally popular, the Diamond DA40 and DA42 are the go-to choice for flight schools offering commercial pilots licenses due to their excellent safety records. Many flying schools offer the Diamond DA40 aircraft equipped with the Garmin 1000 Electronic Flight Instrument System, offering trainee pilots the chance to learn on systems that closely mirror commercial airliner flight decks. Cessna favourites such as the 152 and 172, which have more units built than any other aircraft, may not be brand new but their reputation for durability, forgiveness and availability are hard won. Tandem seating configuration is now standard in many trainer aircraft, with the advantage of trainer and pilot being able to view the actions of the other.

It’s interesting to note that a handful of traditional GA manufacturers are also now making significant inroads into the high level training space. The Argentinian Air Force recently initiated technical studies to incorporate a new simple trainer “screener” aircraft as the first flying step of its Military Aviation Academy. As a result of this study, they ordered eight Tecnam P2002JF single seat trainers  in their glass cockpit, night VFR configuration. Tecnam’s twin aircraft, the P2006T, continues to enjoy success on its home turf with the Italian Air Force.

Back in South America, Brazilian heavyweight Embraer has seen a worldwide uptake of their Phenom 100 and 300 as both commercial and military multi-engine jet trainers. The UK’s RAF is a keen supporter of the Phenom 100 which is specifically configured to provide RAF students with multi-engine training in specific areas such as high-altitude operations, flying in multi-aircraft formations, asymmetric flying, crew resource management, flying with a second engine, and dealing with emergency procedures. Furthermore, as we’ve previously featured, Embraer’s Tucano and Super Tucano remain the most ubiquitous military training machines on the market.

Stability and responsiveness are also crucial for modern rotary wing aircraft. The Bell 206 and its military trainer variant the TH-57 Sea Ranger have proven to be an exceptional training aircraft for Naval students preparing for larger and heavier fleet aircraft. The stable and responsive flight characteristics of the TH-57 were quickly put to use in the US Navy to supplement the famed but more advanced UH-1 Huey. By the early-1980s, with the introduction of the improved TH-57B and TH-57C versions of the Sea Ranger, the latter featuring a full array of instruments, the type had become US Naval Aviation’s primary training helicopter. 137 commercial Bell 206B-3 were purchased in 1993 as the primary and instrument helicopter trainers for the US Army at Fort Rucker, Alabama. The US Army currently has 181 units, of which 121 are in VFR configuration and 60 are in IFR configuration.

In the RAAF, applicants who pass the preliminary criteria for a military student pilot commence ab initio flight training in an aircraft such as the PAC CT/4 Airtrainer. Selected for its simplicity, the boxy PAC CT/4 may seem underwhelming to those with supersonic aircraft in mind – but that is exactly why they are suited to the role. Seeing service with the RAAF, RNZAF, RTAF as well as BAE Flight Training Australia, the simplicity of the aircraft make for the perfect introductory aircraft for students. Its bubble canopy, two place with side by side seating and aerobatic capabilities allowed for good visibility and versatility.

Passing initial training, students in the RAAF graduate to the turboprop Pilatus PC-9, which delivers jet-like handling characteristics without a jet-like running cost. This use of Turboprop trainers to minimise costs without diminishing student education is common in military training services around the globe. At present, Australia’s primary training fleet is looking at a serious upgrade, with the RAAF purchasing 49 shiny new Pilatus PC-21 aircraft to replace a mix of the PAC CT/4 Airtrainers and Royal Australian Air Force-owned Pilatus PC-9s.

Building on the far-reaching success of the PC-9, the Pilatus PC-21 sports a reinforced structure, modernised avionics, a more powerful power plant, pressurised cockpit, air conditioning, an anti-G system and on-board oxygen generation. A digital power management system and automatic yaw compensation makes the PC-21 easy to fly in the circuit, while also being capable of sustained low-level speeds of more than 320 knots. The new system will ensure undergraduate pilots develop the necessary knowledge and skills prior to progressing onto advanced military aircraft such as the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (when it arrives), with the first two PC-21 aircraft arriving in Australia in mid 2017.

Over the ditch, the New Zealand Government purchased 11 Beechcraft T-6 Texan ll in 2014 as trainers for the New Zealand Air Force. Replacing the PAC CT/4 Airtrainer, the turboprop modernised the New Zealand fleet of primary trainer aircraft with the latest technology including; ejection seats, collision-avoidance and ground awareness warning systems, a pressurised cockpit and personal locator beacons for each pilot.

Upon the successful completion of primary training, pilots undertake further training to convert to specific operational aircraft depending on the requirements of the Air Force as well as the individual pilot’s performance and preference. Those that progress to fighter pilot selection and training process undergo a comprehensive and competitive training regimen.

In the RAAF, the Hawk 127 is used for initial or lead-in fighter training to prepare aircrew for operational conversion onto either the F/A-18A/B Hornet or the F/A-18F Super Hornet. To reduce costs and provide efficient training in combat scenarios, lead-in fighter training (LIFT) utilises advanced jet trainer aircraft with avionics and stores-management capability that emulate operational fighter planes. Modern advanced level military trainers feature programmable displays designed to speed pilot training by reproducing the systems a pilot will encounter in an operational aircraft. Multi-function displays which can be programmed to simulate various training scenarios, radar contacts and electronic layouts to reflect different aircraft systems. The aim of programmable displays is to speed pilot training by replicating as far as possible the systems

On-board avionics system can be linked to ground-based systems, and together they can simulate situations such as infrared or radar guided missile, interceptors, air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft batteries, radars, chaff and flare countermeasures and collision warnings, in low or dense electronic warfare environments.

The Introductory Fighter Course includes general flying, instrument flying, formation flying, night flying and navigation. Graduates then progress to air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons training. Only then will fighter pilots progress to an operational F/A-18 Hornet or F/A-18F Super Hornet conversion course.

What Makes a Good Trainer?

Looking back through the history of trainers, there are a few identifiable features of good trainers. While it’s tempting to suggest that there is a single ‘best’ trainer, it is important to bear in mind the unique circumstances in which the trainer operated. For example, while clipping the wings of obsolete aircraft or repurposing different planes did not achieve the same quality of trainer as developing an aircraft specifically for the purpose – in the circumstances it was preferable given the absence of any alternative.

One of the challenges student pilots must overcome is developing an understanding of the risks and limitations of the pilot and that of the plane. Successful trainers need to be forgiving, allowing for mistakes without dire consequences. The importance of this feature can be seen in the De Havilland Tiger Moth, which built its reputation on allowing learner pilots to make mistakes and walk away intact. Other trainers that have excelled in this respect include the combination of the Stearman PT-13/PT-17, the Vultee BT-13 and the North American AT-6 Texan, which allowed student pilots to progress to more complex planes as their skills developed.

Ultimately, the purpose of training is to develop a pilot so that, when they graduate from training they will have viable flying skills. Aircraft that reflected the real cockpit environments and flying situations meant that pilots could more easily transition into the real thing. The pilots of the Harvard, the Wirraway and the Cessna Crane all saw training in simplified trainer versions of the aircraft they would fly once they left the training environment, creating the solid groundwork for piloting the full aircraft successful long after the war.

The final feature that has been proven to be important throughout the history of training aircraft is cost. Even in the absence of a total-war style international conflict, the desire of modern governments and businesses to carefully manage costs has caused commercial, civilian, and military establishments to favour aircraft that can be run economically and supplemented with other, more cost-effective aircraft if necessary. As seen in the reopposed trainers of World War I or the gasoline fuelled, piston engine training helicopters of the Vietnam era, economising on initial level training aircraft and implementing the graduated system of flight training not only cuts costs but creates a funnel effect for assessing a student for potential proficiency in flying.

The Rise of the Simulator

One of the most pronounced trends of twenty first century aviation training is the explosion of the flight simulator. Early versions of flight simulators include devices tethered to the ground but held aloft by a large number of balloons, the Sanders Teacher (which resembled a large mechanical bull) and a rockable fuselage which was manually rocked back and forth. In 1930, the development of simulations was kick started by Edwin Link who patented the Link Trainer. The Link Trainer, which was eventually adopted Army Air Force and numerous other air forces around the world, it featured a system which responded to the student’s inputs by mechanically shifting a dummy fuselage that the pilot would occupy. The next major leap forward in simulation followed the inclusion of digital computer systems in the simulator. Computer powered simulators, although initially limited in their functionality, have now come to closely the mimic real-life flying.

Although most would be aware of the desktop-based software products popular with consumers, the next level of simulator, ‘full flight simulators’, provide a much more immersive experience providing even further possibilities for learner pilots to develop their skills. Full flight simulators are generally aircraft specific and are designed to reflect the physical sensations of flight.

Full flight simulators have been widely adopted in the civil and military realms and, although historically focussed on fixed wing aircraft, are over time expanding to include simulation of rotary and remotely controlled aircraft as well as training simulators for aerial refuelling, air traffic control and maintenance.

Despite the advancement of flight simulators however, student pilots hoping to fly real-life aircraft must still undergo training in real life aircraft, if simply for the reality-factor of flying your own self (and others) around at a significant height.


Aviation training has come a long way over the last century. While not that long ago training relied on the availability of scrapped aircraft, it now affords students the opportunities of flight in a wide range of training aircraft. The process of incrementally introducing students to more complex aircraft as well as rapidly evolving technology has afforded pilots the luxury of training under conditions tailored to the needs and safety of the student which undoubtedly means better, safer pilots in our skies.

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