CAFB simulator instructor plays key role in teaching next generation of pilots

March 29, 2013 11:08:41 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


When Gregg Havens retired as a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Air Force after 22 years as a pilot and more than 5,000 hours of flying time, he figured he would spend the rest of his life on the ground. 


He was right. Sort of. 


Somehow, Havens managed to find a way to keep flying without actually flying. 


Havens, 62, has served as simulator instructor at Columbus Air Force Base since 1996, which represents a homecoming of sorts. Havens had trained at CAFB at as pilot 20 years earlier. 


When students come to Columbus for pilot training, they are first taught to fly the T-6. Once they have mastered the art of flying the single engine propeller, they are selected to fly either the T-1 or the T-38C. Those who are selected to fly the T-1 will go on to fly "heavys" or larger aircraft such as the C-5, the C-17, or the C-130. Those who are selected to the train on the T-38 will later fly the fighter jets such as the F-22, the F-16 or the F-15C. When they leave Columbus, each student pilot will have over 200 hours of flying time.  


Havens is one of 86 instructors at CAFB who teach the young pilots both academics and the simulators Classified as civil service workers, the simulators instructors --­ sims for short -- refer to themselves the "blue suitors," a nod to the blue flight suits that make them distinctive among a sea of the familiar green flight suits.  


Making up their own fraternity of sorts, Havens refers to sim instructors as the "Fifth Flying Squadron," and hopes that he and the other instructors can use their experience to train a new generation of pilots.  


"We over here are all fliers with hundreds of years of military time and thousands of hours of flying hours in the military environment," Havens said.  


Of the other sim instructors, a multitude are former colonel and lieutenant colonels like Havens.  


"It's the foundation of all the people we have doing this job," Havens said. "We're giving them the foundation they need to succeed at the flight line. Experience is the key that we have here. 


"The experience we bring to the table allows us to see that early and tailor it to each student. That's a huge, huge factor," he said.  




Off we go.... 


Student pilots who take the T-38 route have three levels of simulators to prepare themselves for their real-world assignment. Those in the T-1 have two, with the first simulator made of plywood and plastic. The second simulator however, is a different matter all together.  


In an experience that feels as though it is straight out of a Hollywood movie, the final simulator that T-1 student pilots learn in offers a 220 degree visual with graphics that mimic a low terrain Google Earth.  


At the touch of a button, sim instructors can pick a location anywhere in the United States and alter the time of day and weather conditions, even putting snow on the mountains that surround Las Vegas, for example.  


From the East Coast to the West Coast and at an altitude of anywhere from 100 feet to three thousand feet, the sim shows visual terrain that looks shockingly similar to the view most civilians see out the window of a commercial flight  


While the simulator is stationary, the average person gets the sense that he is flying as the nose of the plane goes up. Suddenly, the student is soaring into a blue sky. Below, cars and trees quickly fade into specks as the plane gains altitude.  


In a matter of seconds, the weather can go from a bright and cloudless sky to a torrential rain, depending on the whim of the sim instructor. 


"The weather is always bad in the simulator," Havens said with a gleam in his eye.  


Located in a massive concrete building that once was a fallout shelter, the sim experiences is vastly different for both the students and the instructors of the T-1 and the T-38.  


T-1 students must successfully complete 21 sims sessions, six of those before they are even allowed to fly the T-1 Jawhawk. Furthermore, T-6 students are not allowed to look at a sim until they are selected to fly the T-1 or the T-38.  


"They need to concentrate on what they're doing, not what they might be doing," Havens explained.  


Of the year long pilot training, approximately six months are devoted to learning to fly wither the T-1 or the T-38.  


In the T-1, instructors teach a sim to two students at a time because once they receive their wings, those selected to fly the heavys will fly with a crew. In the T-38, one student mans the simulator.  


Since the T-1 sims involve two pilots, the teaching time is longer than in the T-38 sim.  


Before the students are allowed in the sim, the must debrief. In the T-6 and T-38, pre-briefing is approximately 45 minutes. In the T-1, pre-briefing is an hour and fifteen minutes.  


In the T-6 and the T-38, sim "missions" are a little more than an hour. In the T-1, missions are two hours, 40 minutes. De-briefing is 45 minutes for all students. Recently the Air Force added two sims to students training to educate them on air refueling.  


Havens said that he tries to share his own experiences with the young pilots to give them a sense of the value of sim instruction and knowledge they can take with them to their "next pilot life." 


"This is what you're future life is going to be like. You think you're tired because you woke up at 4 a.m. and now it's 10:30 and you haven't had breakfast yet. You still have to perform what I'm asking of you and you've still got to find a way to make that happens," he said. 


Marathon mission 


Havens recalls a story from his own flying days, a 33-hour hour mission. It was 1990, and the country was in the middle of the Gulf War. Havens and his crew flew their C-5 out of Germany and headed to Oman. The plane needed to refuel and Havens had to find a fellow American tanker plane.  


"I had to find a tanker over the Red Sea without any communication at night," Havens said, shaking his head.  


After successfully refueling, Havens and his crew completed their mission and flew to Spain to land. As they were approaching Madrid, they were told they could not land at the base.  


"I had my landing gear down, that's how close we were," he said.  


The C-5 then diverted to Germany to land. "I asked this time before (we landed)," Havens joked.  


"I had to do the mission almost 10 hours beyond what was legal but I had to get it done," he said. "That long, long day I had to do certain things at certain times and be ready." 


Havens said the flying wasn't the most challenging aspect of the marathon mission, but managing a crew for 33 hours was the most challenging part of the mission.  


"We can't all be awake for 33 hours and all be good at the end of it," he said. 


Havens noted that more airplanes crash in the last eight minutes of flight time than any other time they're in the air. For that reason, and perhaps that reason alone, his good-natured demeanor and easy laugh is quick to disappear when talking about the safety and the training of his fellow pilots.  


Walking through the hallways, surrounded by patches of students he has taught in years past, hundreds of men and women flying missions around the world, Havens points with pride to different patches of the newest generation of pilots.  


For him, you can tell instructing these young students is as vital as his mission during the Gulf War and the military man in him shines through.  


Whether he's flying a C-5 over the Red Sea or sitting on the ground in a simulator teaching the men and women who will be following in his footsteps, Havens knows he must complete the task at hand and get the job done.

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.