If your knowledge of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School comes from the 1986 film "Top Gun," you should begin this article with the thought that very little in that movie resembles the reality of what is now called the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program. So push those caricatures aside and realize the training techniques used at "Top Gun" are something that can prove useful in your commercial or business aviation cockpit.
By the time I saw the film, I had met two or three graduates of the Navy's Fighter Weapons School. I was impressed by each of them for their sober demeanor, no nonsense approach to flying, and professionalism. The movie struck me as a Hollywood writer's attempt to ratchet up the sex appeal for one segment of the viewership, and the machoism for another. It was all wrong.
A few years after I retired from the U.S. Air Force, I was blessed with the great fortune to fly several trips with a graduate of the Navy's Fighter Weapons School. He prefers to remain anonymous, so let's call him Gordon. I learned a few things about how Top Gun pilots learn, and I think they can be of use to us flying in the more genteel world of flying passengers from Point A to Point B.
I also received a few comments from a former commander of the "Red Force" of the Navy Fighter Weapons School during the Vietnam War era. His notes proved invaluable. But like Gordon and every other Top Gun graduate I've ever known, he is exceedingly modest and prefers to remain anonymous. Humility from such accomplished pilots, I think, is a lesson in itself.
Everything here is from the references shown below, with a few comments in an alternate color.
Photo: A collection of Naval Fighter Weapons School aircraft over the Lower Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, California, 1991, (USN photo)
Click photo for a larger image
I first met Gordon in the lobby of the Waikiki Beach Marriott. I had flown in from the east coast and he from the west. Another crew was bringing a Gulfstream GV in from New York and we would take it the rest of the way to Australia. Gordon was a retired Navy pilot who flew contract trips for companies like mine, and we relied on contract pilots to do trips like these that spanned the globe. I heard he had spent most of his pilot life in Navy fighters, was new to the Gulfstream, but was a quick study. Dinner that night was pleasant and it seemed he was going to be a good travel companion.
The next day the airplane was on time and we blasted off for Brisbane, Australia. Gordon ran through the checklist in the right seat competently but was full of questions about the plotting charts and every now and then about an HF position report. During our company's mandatory debrief he was all ears about procedures he may have been unclear about or techniques he had never heard of. But at the bar he was more interested in non-flying subjects. Gordon never talked about his Navy career except when asked. He flew the F-4 Phantom II off carriers during the Vietnam War. "Nothing too fancy," he said. The return from Australia was more of the same, but with fewer questions. We gave up the airplane and our passengers to another crew and retreated to the bar at the Waikiki Beach Marriott the day before flying our separate ways home. Unlike our bar time in Australia, Gordon was full of questions about the Gulfstream and oceanic procedures. I have always been a big fan of extensive debriefs at the bar. Gordon took the idea of a bar debrief to the next level.
I found out later that Gordon earned his Navy wings in the early sixties and flew two combat tours in the F-4 off carriers in Southeast Asia. He graduated from the Navy's newly founded Navy Fighter Weapons School in 1969 and returned to the sea aboard another carrier for another combat tour. All told he had nearly 400 combat missions. His next career was as an airline captain. He retired from there and became a Gulfstream pilot. I learned all of this from his Navy biography. As far as he was concerned, it was "no big deal." I thought it was a very big deal and set out to learn more about the school made famous by the movie of the same name. What is it that gives a Top Gun pilot the ability to learn so effectively?
The early days of aerial combat were said to be a matter of surviving enough combat to learn what works and what doesn't. The lessons were hardly scientific. Sometime after the Korean War, U.S. Navy and Air Force pilots started applying science to the art and the early days of the Vietnam conflict appeared promising. U.S. fighter pilots tended to best their Soviet-trained North Vietnamese adversaries about two-thirds of the time. But then the North Vietnamese caught on.
In the first half of 1968 the navy ratio dropped to worse than one-to-one. They lost ten aircraft while shooting down nine. That summer they were shut out. Something had to be done. That something turned out to be the establishment of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, more famously known as Top Gun school. The idea was to train fighter pilots in a more realistic environment to increase their success rate in dogfights.
The three year bombing campaign known as "Rolling Thunder" came to an end in November of 1968 with some concessions from North Vietnam. That meant 1969 was to be a quiet one for the air war and gave the Navy some time to come up with a new cadre of fighter pilots.
[Ericsson, pp. 115 - 118]
Sociologist Anders Ericsson examines the training techniques used at Top Gun under the chapter "Principles of Deliberate Practice" to look for what it takes to get better at complicated tasks.
Everything was recorded for later examination.
Since the students were under the microscope, mistakes were caught, analyzed, and corrected.
[Ericsson, pp. 116 - 117]
This is a hallmark of Navy and Air Force aviation: every training flight is followed by an analysis that may take longer than the flight itself.
[Ericsson, p. 117]
The film and recorded radar allow the student to relive the training from a higher perspective; almost forcing a detachment.
[Ericsson, pp. 116 - 117]
The ability to self-critique is key to continued improvement.
A debriefing in an Air Force or Navy squadron can be merciless. Pilots rarely spend more than three years at an assignment and are usually upgrading from one position to another. Pilots are never static, they are always moving to the next level. In such an environment, pilots learn to critique themselves before anyone else has a chance. This effort at self-critique not only improves "the self," but improves the ability to provide meaningful critiques to others.
As civilians flying for flight departments that hope to keep the same set of pilots for years and years, the upgrade chase ends relatively quickly. Pilots become familiar and personal relationship can become lasting. The merciless critique is not only unwelcome, it can be detrimental to the smooth operation of the flight department itself. There is great pressure to ignore another pilot's long landing. "We all make mistakes," becomes the ongoing excuse. If we can't expect critique from others, then it will have to come from within. If you are in a leadership position, this is especially important. If the boss is unwilling to provide a critical assessment of his or her own performance, nobody else will either.
There is a right way to do this and, inevitably, a wrong way. In one of my Air Force squadrons we called this "self immolation," something like the ancient Samurai warrior pulling out the short sword and ending his shame in front of the shogun. Don't do that.
Photo: USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training student with instructors, "The Year of 53 weeks" (USAF Film)
Interesting (to me) fact: The student is a member of "No Loss" flight, so was I.
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I am sure there are many ways to do this, here is what has worked best for me:
This allows you to cover the good and bad, as if it is just a matter of routine. It also gives your fellow crewmembers to offer their own self-critiques for the sections you deem "good" because they didn't involve an error on your part. If the other crewmember wants to contribute, listen politely and offer help if requested. See: Tools of the Debrief: The Flight Plan.
Note "what" happened. Cover the "Why" only if you are sure, preface your explanation with a qualifier like "I think" if you are unsure. Where you don't know what happened or there is a divergence of opinion, a FOQA system can help. See: Tools of the Debrief: FOQA.
Sometimes a hasty drawing can illuminate the problem and the solution all at once. It can also stimulate discussion. For an example, see: A "Top Gun Culture".
If you made the mistake, offer what you think can solve things in the future. Give others a chance to contribute, but don't reject ideas flatly. That risks shutting down all further instruction. If you are the senior pilot, if you have an official role as an instructor or other training officer, or if you have a position of authority where junior pilots look to you for guidance, things change a little. You can give more direct instruction because it is expected (and should be appreciated). But diplomacy and tact are still important.
As transport category pilots without gunsights or the need to maintain position in formation, the area where stick and rudder skills seem to need the closest examination is departing and arriving from a runway. Did you track centerline? Did you float past the touchdown zone? An inexpensive camera on a secure mount can answer these questions dispassionately. See: Tools of the Debrief: Video
No matter how the discussion progressed, you should make sure it ends positively. "We'll never do that again!" works better than "we sure blew it today!"
I recommend keeping a written diary of your own critiques. The ritual of writing these things down will elevate the importance of these self-critiques, even if only subconsciously. After a while, this diary becomes a self-motivational tool that cements in your mind that you can and have improved your skills as a pilot.
After a one hour hop from White Plains to Teterboro, it can be easy to forget what happened during the preflight, engine start, or even during the takeoff. Now try to remember all that stuff after a fourteen hour flight to Tel Aviv. As an Air Force instructor pilot I often flew with a kneeboard and kept a running log of notes to remind myself what needed covering during the debrief. You can still do that, but there are easier ways.
Photo: Debrief notes on a master document on the ARINCDirect App.
Note: Using two iPads linked by Bluetooth, the PM's annotations are in blue, the PF's are in green.
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When we fly oceanic or over remote areas, we are required to maintain a "master document" flight plan. We either have it in paper form, usually on a clipboard, or in our iPads. Either way, we are supposed to enter times, fuels, and other data so as to reconstruct the flight should anyone want proof that we did all this in accordance with ICAO and FAA directives. On a domestic flight, we are more likely to tuck the flight plan away once we've recorded our domestic ATC clearance, never to be seen again. In either case, the flight plan would make an excellent place to record notes about the conduct of the flight. Among the things you should make record of:
I recommend you make a practice of pulling out this paper or electronic document for every post-flight debrief. Even if you didn't make any notes, it will serve as a reminder of where you flew and when, helping to guide your debrief. Here is an example from the flight shown above.
Even the best fighter pilot can miss "the big picture" when dealing with other aircraft in a dynamic air-to-air engagement. A ground based radar is often used in training ranges to help pilots dissect a battle from start to finish, providing an invaluable and objective lesson for all participants. Technology has improved since the early days of Top Gun so that airborne radar platforms provide the same ability for actual engagements with an enemy.
Having a radar plot of every flight where things don't go as planned would be a great learning tool for us flying transport category airplanes, but would obviously be impossible to pull off logistically. But we do have the next best thing.
I cannot recommend a FOQA system highly enough. A Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) system extracts data from your Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and provides an in-depth analysis of any events that exceed established parameters. Of course it is up to you to read the report and come up with your own conclusions. I thought I was a pretty good pilot before FOQA. FOQA has made me better.
The FOQA system is normally a very small electronic component that records the data being sent to your FDR. In fact, that is what that electronic gizmo is called on some aircraft, a "Quick Access Recorder." You can learn more about the system under AC 120-82. For a Gulfstream G450, the QAR cost us $10,000 to install and the program costs about $6,000 per year.
Over the years the FOQA system taught us that we were not flying stabilized approaches when flying visual patterns, that we often ducked under a stabilized glide path on shorter runways, and that sometimes we stop more abruptly than we need to. In each case, we thought we were doing everything right, but FOQA showed us where we needed to improve. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with an example of the very first FOQA report we got after initial installation.
If you've ever flown a visual approach to Runway 29 at Hanscom Field, Bedford, Massachusetts (KBED) you will have seen the three towers abeam a 2-1/2 nm final, just to the north. I had always flown my base just inside the towers, allowing me to roll out at 2 miles and about 600 feet for a nice, stable final approach. Or so I thought.
Everything had to be just right to make a roll out at 2 miles and 600 feet, and things rarely work out "just right." I heard from another Gulfstream operator that the FOQA didn't like you joining the ILS below the glide path so your choices were to ensure the ILS wasn't tuned or to ignore the FOQA report. So that was my plan until I got our first report.
We were actually joining the glide slope at 400 feet and sometimes as low as 300 feet. The effort often ended up in a very sloppy looking pattern. We worked this through our SMS program and came up with the conclusion that flying outside the towers only added a half mile but made the entire pattern much safer. We no longer have a problem getting a stable approach on a visual to Runway 29 at Bedford.
The experience taught us to be more open to looking at what we have always assumed was the safest way to do things, especially when FOQA begs to differ.
The air combat arena moves quickly and it may be impossible to reconstruct without gun camera footage to really nail down what had happened during the seconds and minutes of an engagement. Fighter pilots are well schooled at looking back at a "1 v 1" or "2 v 2" (or even a "2 v many") to see what went wrong, what went right, and where things could have been improved.
For us, flying jets onto stationary slabs of asphalt and concrete, the task is simpler but the opportunity for improvement remains. Take, for example, the need to put the airplane down onto the touchdown zone, on speed, on centerline, off a stable approach. The ten seconds before and after touchdown happen so quickly we can miss the errors. An inexpensive "GoPro" camera can be safely mounted over the pilot's shoulder and can provide invaluable feedback you may not be able to get otherwise. But you have to look at the results with an analytical (and critical) eye.
There are several self-contained cameras with wide angle lenses that are suitable for the task of recording your takeoffs and landings. Most of these are classified as "action cameras" as opposed to video cameras. The distinction isn't important, except that the former usually is limited to 20 minutes of record time, while the latter will record for as long as the memory card and battery will last. But before you embark on your cockpit film making career, a few cautions are in order:
Photo: Gulfstream G450 Captain Jon Cain a few seconds before landing in the touchdown zone.
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Once you have your video you need to look at it with a critical eye.
Here is an example of a well executed landing in a Gulfstream G450: GoPro landing at Bedford, final few seconds.
If you have a Runway Awareness and Advisory System (RAAS), you will be able to apply science to your analysis. Here are a few things to look for:
There is a lot to take away from the way pilots train at Fighter Weapons School to become "Top Guns." If you can learn from a cockpit mounted camera, that's great. But is certainly isn't a necessity. If you can install a FOQA system that's even better. In my book, it is a necessity. But the most important thing to take away from all of this is the culture of self-critique. You have to be willing to continually monitor your own performance and look at it critically.
This may seem a trivial example. I've picked this one because it is the most recent and it illustrates a point I shall cover at the end.
Me: "The departure from Chicago was fairly routine, though I started my turn lower than 400 feet because of the restriction to complete the turn within a mile of the departure end of the runway."
The other pilot: "I think we made the restriction with plenty of margin."
Me: "I think so too, but had I been more deliberate about getting the nose up on initial rotation, we would have made 400 feet sooner without consuming so much forward distance and the whole thing would have been a non-issue."
The other pilot was being generous but I was happy to have the issue brought up. It would cement the need to get the nose up in my own mind and, incidentally, let him know about how to do this properly if he hadn't thought of it before.
Me: "Everything en route was fine and the let down into the pattern worked well, despite all the traffic. I was surprised by the tower's last minute instruction to exit on the crossing runway."
The other pilot: "We can ask for it, but they don't normally offer it without us asking first. Very unusual."
Me: "I think the pattern was getting saturated and tower misjudged our speed and the speed of the following traffic. When they told us to 'reduce to slowest practical,' they were worried about the airplane ahead of us rolling out to the end of the runway. We had a quartering headwind which probably reduced our groundspeed by about 20 knots. I think the aircraft behind us may have angled his final too. I was planning on using all of the runway."
The other pilot: "We normally do."
Me: "But with that much headwind I could have planned on pulling off on Runway 5/23. In fact, knowing the traffic situation, I should have."
The other pilot: "You landed in the touchdown zone and the braking wasn't unreasonable."
Me: "But it could have been better if I had made one, smooth brake application planning on 5/23, instead of the gradual braking followed by aggressive braking."
You may argue that the passengers didn't even notice the uneven braking and that tower appreciated our extra efforts to clean up a messy pattern. But having gone through the exercise accomplished a few things worth noting:
I flew with Gordon a few more times, once to China and a few times to Europe and the Middle East. Each flight revealed he learned very quickly, was keen on self-critique, and was always open to instruction. In my role as the seasoned Gulfstream pilot and his as the fledgling contractor, I was the instructor and he the student. But in my role as the pilot always looking for a better way, he was the professor. Over the years I had already learned to appreciate the value of excellent instruction. But my Top Gun instructor taught me to elevate the debrief to the top of my most important learning tools.
14 CFR 61, Title 14: Aeronautics and Space, Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation
Advisory Circular 120-82, Flight Operational Quality Assurance, 4/12/04, U.S. Department of Transportation
Anonymous Source: a former "Red Force" instructor at the Navy's Fighter Weapons School.
Ericsson, Anders, and Pool, Robert, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, First Mariner Books, 2016.
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