2nd Lt. Elizabeth Thigpen, 562nd Flying Training Squadron, flies the last T-43 simulator at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, Aug. 11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Rich McFadden)
RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas —
Combat systems officer training at Randolph won't end until the last class graduates Oct. 1, but one of the program's most durable - and essential - tools was retired last week, its final mission accomplished.
Members of Class 10-15, the 562nd Flying Training Squadron's C Flight, spent the afternoon of Aug. 11 conducting their last missions in the CSO program's remaining T45 navigation simulators, which have served the Air Force since they were first used at Mather Air Force Base, Calif., in the early 1970s.
"The T45 simulator has been around for 37 years," said Lt. Col. Peter Deitschel, 562nd FTS commander. "It's been a workhorse for the Air Force."
"Direct replicas" of what students see in the T-43 aircraft, the program's 24 T45 simulators - four student stations and an operator/instructor console in each of six complexes - prepared navigation and electronic warfare students for their future duties. The simulators helped students learn how to use radar and navigate using radar.
Colonel Deitschel said more than 20,000 students from the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard and aviators from 37 different countries honed their navigation skills using the T45 simulators at Mather and Randolph, where it was a constant for nearly 20 years.
He said the T45 simulator was "antiquated" compared to the state-of-the-art T25 simulator that was used at Randolph's 563rd FTS, the squadron tasked with the electronic warfare component of CSO training. The T25 simulator is now a mainstay at the 479th Flying Training Group at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., where the next generation of CSOs is training.
"Someone had to push buttons," Colonel Deitschel said, and the operators at the console, personnel from contractor LB&B Associates Inc., acted as pilot and air traffic controller while adjusting airspeed, altitude and headings.
"It took them a little back in time, but it was great training," he said. "It prepared them for 11 different weapon systems."
Second Lt. Elizabeth Thigpen, a member of Class 10-15, said one of the most important things she learned in T45 simulator training was "prioritization."
"We are taught to aviate, navigate and communicate," she said. "In the sim it is all on you to get the mission accomplished and solve all problems and challenges that are thrown your way, such as timing and mission deviations or equipment malfunctions."
During the height of training, the 562nd FTS ran three simulator sessions per day, accommodating 72 students. Students put in four times as many hours in simulators than they did in actual flight.
Despite their age, the T45 simulators prepared students for a wide range of in-flight scenarios - from the basics, getting from point A to point B, to real-world situations with multiple threats - and periodic technological updates improved the simulators' efficiency and effectiveness.
One of the most noticeable features of each simulator complex was its temperature - never above 65 degrees Fahrenheit - which made for some long, cold sessions.
"You need it that cold because the equipment is so old that it's heat-sensitive," said Mike Sweatt, LB&B site manager.
Mr. Sweatt, who has been at Randolph as long as the T45 simulators have been here, said the equipment served its purpose well.
"It doesn't have the gee-whiz displays, but none of the aircraft have that," he said. "It teaches the basics and it does that very well, but it's not high-tech."
Mr. Sweatt said the simulators "lasted a long time, but it took a lot of effort and maintenance." Obtaining parts also became a problem as the simulators aged.
"A lot of the switches were impossible to get, so we had to be creative," he said.
Colonel Deitschel said the T45 simulator was retired because the aircraft it prepared students for, the T-43, will soon retire. The simulators have been dismantled and shipped to the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office at Fort Sam Houston.
He credited personnel from LB&B Associates for keeping the equipment running for so long.
Carolyn Coughlin, a retired T45 simulator operator who visited Randolph for the final missions, said she will miss the simulators and the relationships she formed with her colleagues and the instructors.
"It was really fun," said Ms. Coughlin, who now lives in Gilmer, Texas. Her husband, retired Maj. Joseph Gruchacz, was also a T45 simulator operator as well as a repairman.
"I didn't intend to stay, but I enjoyed it so much, I never got another job," she said.
Both Ms. Coughlin and her husband were simulator operators at Mather before moving on to their jobs at Randolph. Ms. Coughlin, who said she loved "the camaraderie more than anything else," said it took a long time to learn the job.
"It had a long learning curve, but once you learned it, it wasn't a difficult job to do," she said.
Mr. Sweatt said his crew will also miss their work - and the relationships they formed with 562nd FTS instructors and students.
"As I do our exit interviews, everybody has said they really enjoy this work," he said. "It's somewhat difficult to learn, but we've been able to teach them. The big advantage is that you're working with professionals. They're really good people."