How the US plans to train armed counter-terrorism surveillance pilots

Four months after military officials selected a modified Spray Mist as America’s newest anti-terrorist aircraft, the Air Force Special Operations Command is working to answer a crucial question: How do you fly it?

“We need to pay a lot of attention to training on this,” AFSOC chief Lt. Gen. Jim Slife told reporters in September. “We haven’t operated a tail dragger aircraft on a large scale in quite some time.”

The Air Force and its special operations counterparts have been searching for a light attack and reconnaissance aircraft since 2009, but have failed at several points along the way. Their latest foray started as an Air Force experiment in 2016 and morphed into a smaller procurement program overseen by SOCOM.

The US Special Operations Command selected the AT-802U Sky Warden, fielded by L3Harris and Air Tractor, to fill the role in August. The military plans to buy up to 75 of the propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft under a deal worth up to $3 billion.

The newly designated OA-1K will replace other special operations platforms as the aircraft of choice for close air support, precision strikes and armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in counter-terrorism missions.

Aircraft like the Sky Warden, known as “tailplanes,” differ from other airframes in the key phases of flight: taxiing, takeoff, and landing.

The OA-1K’s nose is angled during ground operations, which limits a pilot’s view in front of the aircraft, AFSOC spokeswoman Lt. Col. Becky Heyse in an email on Wednesday. Its center of gravity is also behind, not in front of, the main landing gear.

“This means pilots have to be more aware of aircraft orientation and crosswinds during the taxi, takeoff and landing process,” Heyse said. “Tailplanes are more vulnerable due to rotational forces around their center of gravity [their] location in relation to [the] main course.”

Despite this, Slife said he was pleased with the aircraft’s built-in safety features.

“SOCOM has chosen a platform that I think we will make good use of,” he said. “But I pay a lot of attention to what that training pipeline looks like to make sure we don’t hit people over the head with a type of aircraft they’re not used to flying.”

Air Education and Training Command, AFSOC and L3Harris are working on a curriculum designed to guide Airmen through the intricacies of tailwheel flight. That syllabus will determine the length of each armed surveillance training class, Heyse said.

The Air Force expects to conduct airframe testing by the summer of 2024 and train its instructors to teach students by the fall of 2025. AFSOC is considering training test pilots and instructors on commercial tailwheel aircraft before moving on to the OA-1K itself.

It plans to hire nearly 200 pilots to staff the fleet.

“The formal training unit plans to begin training new OA-1K crews in the fall of 2025,” Heyse said. “Safety is our top priority and we are committed to ensuring our crews receive the proper training.”

The Air Force has not yet decided where the OA-1K schoolhouse will be located, although one option may be to combine it with other flight training facilities at Hurlburt. Conducting armed surveillance courses in the Florida Panhandle would give Airmen access to the vast testing and training area that stretches across the Gulf of Mexico.

“The training requires ammunition, appropriate ammunition stores, ammunition support aircraft, and airspace supporting live fire for the OA-1K,” said Heyse’s simulator support facilities.

Armed surveillance aircraft are designed to partially replace other parts of the Air Force’s intelligence fleet for special operations.

As of March 2021, the Oklahoma Air National Guard owned 13 MC-12W Liberty aircraft while 28 active duty U-28A Draco aircraft operate out of Hurlburt Field, Florida and Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

“Our U-28 and MC-12 units will transition into the armed surveillance platform over the next half-dozen years or so,” Slife said. “It will be mostly internal unit transitions.”

SOCOM plans to keep U-28s nearby to provide airborne intelligence in situations such as search and rescue and humanitarian assistance missions.

SOCOM chief General Richard Clarke has suggested that four 15-aircraft task force squadrons plus one training squadron would be sufficient to meet combat needs and give each unit sufficient rest.

The OA-1K fleet is scheduled to be fully operational in 2029.

“AFSOC anticipates that it will be easy for crews to transition to this expanded mission set,” Heyse said. “The challenge will be learning the intricacies of flying tailwheel aircraft, which our teams are prepared for.”

Rachel Cohen joined the Air Force Times in March 2021 as a senior reporter. Her work has been published in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, Frederick News-Post (Md.), Washington Post, and others.