Skyhawks in the "RAG"s
The Birth of the "RAG" concept.
A revolution in readiness.
A pair of powerful F-8U Crusaders thunder off the deck at NAS Cecil Field and streak toward a practice intercept over the Atlantic Ocean. The flight leader is a very junior lieutenant; his wing man is a prospective air group commander in the final phase of his training before he reports aboard an attack carrier.
A few miles away, at Mainside NAS JAX, a flight of bantam-sized A4D Skyhawks is launched for an imaginary nuclear attack against an enemy - each plane carrying in one package the destructive power of many thousands of WW II bombers, battleships and artillery regiments.
Simultaneously, F-11F Tiger interceptors are being launched from NAS OCEANA on intercept and CAP missions while prop-driven AD-6 Skyraider attack planes take off from the same base for attack against an imaginary enemy.
In the same dawn half-light, FSH Demons and FGD Skyray night fighters are returning to Key West from simulated night intercepts.
Though separated geographically and as complex as the several incidents would appear, each component of activity has several common denominators, and each fragment of the operation fits into a neat, well-planned slot. The planes, the pilots who man them, and the mechanics who maintain them are components of Carrier Air Group Four, until recently designated Replacement Air Group Four.
The training flights in which they are engaged are part of a brand-new, yet very old, concept which in reality is a return to the Advanced Carrier Training Groups of World War II.
The missions are being flown in an aggressive and concerted effort to raise the level of combat readiness in the Attack Carrier Fleet to its highest possible degree. Success of the program, still in its first year, is already being realized in the fleet.
Naval Aviation News went to CVG-4 headquarters at Cecil Field to write a progress report on the replacement training program; to learn why and how it started, how the program is administered, and how effective it is, plus what effect it will have on fleet striking power.
Captain Robert G. Dose, group commander, who bosses the program from four small office spaces in a Cecil hangar, explained: A fighter or attack pilot ordered to an air group in World War II was processed through what was then called an Advanced Carrier Training Group. He mastered the fighter or attack plane he was to fly before he reached the carrier. In short, he was combat-ready when he reported. After the war the ACTGs were disbanded and the whole process of training replacement pilots changed complexion. Everything was pegged on a particular carrier's deployment schedule. When the ship returned from a cruise, its air group was so thoroughly disbanded that in some instances only one or two trained pilots were still aboard for the next deployment. The new air group came aboard grossly untrained and began its real training after the ship sailed. In my opinion, it was worse than a rugged training method; it was pernicious. Readiness naturally suffered until all pilots and maintenance crews became proficient.
Then in 1956, when six new high performance jet types were introduced to the fleet, the accident rate in new type aircraft reached alarming proportions. This accident rate, coupled with a reduced inventory of airplanes, focused attention on the need for a revised approach to training.
The late Rear Admiral James H. Flatley, Jr., was assigned to write a comprehensive study on the situation. The Aviation Plans Division of CNO drew up plans for the replacement carrier air group training concept. In essence, CNO's plan would marry one air group to one carrier. The group would deploy with the carrier and would be shore-based in the vicinity of the carrier between deployments. When next the ship deployed, the same air group would be aboard. Replacement pilots and maintenance crews, either by squadrons or individually, would be trained thoroughly in a replacement group before going to sea. For every airplane in each of the group's squadrons there would be at least one trained and experienced pilot, ready to carry out the squadron's mission. There would be additional pilots in training who could move up into the 'qualified' category through squadron training to replace those pilots transferred out of the squadron. For example, a fighter squadron with 14 aircraft would have 14 trained pilots and four others in training. Thus the expression 'Level Readiness' was born.
Admiral H. D. Felt, then Vice Chief of Naval Operations, ordered the plan placed in effect and gave ComNavAirLant and ComFairJax the responsibility for putting it in action. Atlantic Fleet carrier air groups were reduced in number to one per carrier, plus a Replacement Training Group. (Simultaneously, Replacement Carrier Air Group 12 was placed in service on the West Coast.)
To put Replacement Carrier Air Group Four into operation, several former training units and squadrons were meshed into one organization. VF-174 (present complement 20 F8U-1 Crusaders) absorbed the enlisted men of VA-45 and began operations at Cecil Field. VF-101 ( 18 F3H Demons, 23 F4D Skyrays, 12 F3D Skyknights) absorbed the enlisted men of VF-171 and merged with Fleet All Weather Training Unit to begin operations at Key West. VF-21 (18 FllF Tigers, seven F9F-8T'S, 12 TV-2'S and four T-28's) absorbed Detachment Bravo of FAWTULant to begin operations at Oceana. VA-44 (25 A4D- 1'S, nine A4D-2's, 10 F9F-8T'S, 13 TV-2'S and five T-28'S) was readied for training duty at NAS Jacksonville.
CVG-4, at that time an operating air group, returned from the Mediterranean and absorbed the men and aircraft of Air Task Group 202, which was decommissioned. Commander Gordon Brown, ATG-202's commander, became commander of RCVG-4 and served until he was relieved July 3, 1958, by Capt. Dose. The last squadron to join CVG-4 was VA-42 (AD-6 Skyraiders) at NAS Oceana. All newly assigned replacement pilots (RP's) were ordered to the RCVG-4 staff at Cecil Field for further assignment for four and a half months to a specific squadron at Oceana, Cecil, Jacksonville or Key West. 'Simultaneously, all rated men in Group Nine aviation ratings reporting to a sea-going CVG were ordered to one of the RCVG-4 training squadrons.
Captain Dose explained what the program would achieve and how CVG-4 went about training RP's and mechanics. 'The main things we will accomplish are improved fleet readiness, longer deployment service from individual pilots, and improved safety records in squadrons using new aircraft. Important side issues will be smoother harmony in squadron operations because every pilot will know his machine and how to use it; and we will get a return to the hard core of Naval Aviation as we knew it in World War II wherein an air group or a squadron will have as high as, or higher, a unit pride and esprit de corps as the smallest destroyer, minesweeper or other surface ship in the Navy'.
He then explained how such a goal is being met by CVG-4. 'Our operations and our success depend on four key words: Support, Professionalism, Standardization and Technique. From the outset we have had absolute Support in money, machines, personnel and facilities-from CNO, BUAER, BUPERS, COMNAVAIRLANT and COMFAIR JAX. As for Professionalism, we were allowed to hand-pick for group and squadron staffs those officers and men who had a lot of fleet experience in the aircraft we use. To attain Standardization, we called on the professionalism of these experienced officers and men and wrote a syllabus for each type of aircraft. The syllabus is sound. No matter who comes to us for training, a prospective group commander with 4000 flight hours or an ensign straight out of pilot training; a 20-year chief petty officer or a third class mechanic, each must master the syllabus. Testimony to, and the effectiveness of, professional training instruction is shown in statistics. From the start of the program until the first week in November, VF-174 had flown 4396.9 training pilot hours in Crusaders - without an aircraft loss attributable to a replacement pilot. In the same period, VA-44 flew more than 1000 hours with the same results, VF- 101 had only two accidents and VF-21 at Oceana, one accident'.
'Our training technique is our highest source of pride', Capt. Dose continued. 'We do not have an 'Instructor - Student' relationship among pilots; nor a Ship's Company-Transient relationship among the enlisted men. Rather, the spirit is 'Naval Aviator to Naval Aviator' between instructors and replacement pilots, while replacement enlisted men are worked into the training squadron as members of the squadron with squadron responsibilities.
How do you combat the psychological fears a replacement pilot might have built up from hearing such unfair comments as 'The Crusader is a high-wing, single-engine ensign-eater?' he was asked?
'That, too, is solved by our combination of Professionalism, Standardization and Technique,' he replied. 'In the first weeks of his training the RP gets thorough ground schooling in the aircraft he will fly. The lessons include lectures from expert pilots and sessions in the Operational Flight Trainers in which every conceivable emergency is simulated time and time again. Even the peculiar noises the RP will hear in flight are simulated. The end result is that the RP knows, before he flies, just what emergencies could arise and how he would cope with them. You might call it a conditioned reflex to emergencies.'
'But the preparation does not end there', he continued.
'The RP is watched very carefully as he learns to taxi his plane around the strip without taking off. This way he gets the feel of his airplane. Then when he is ready to solo the plane for the first time, his instructor follows him closely in a chase plane and coaches him in climbs, level flight, approaches and landings. Any mistakes made by the RP are brought home to him by the instructor immediately. The instructor's biggest problem', Captain Dose explained, 'is to teach his students how to handle the power that is built into their aircraft. For that reason, we take each successive step very gradually, while stressing and re-stressing the power of the aircraft and how to cope with it'.
'In CVG-4's standardized program of instruction all pilots begin alike-instrument training at Jacksonville with VA-44 or at Oceana with VF-21, then ground school at a specific squadron, followed by completion of the 50-hour syllabus for their particular type of aircraft. Since the fighter airplanes are more complicated than the attack planes, VF day fighter pilots must spend a longer time mastering their machines before advancing to the techniques required to carry out their squadron's mission'.
'By the same token, the night-fighting VF pilots spend a good part of their syllabus on instruments. VA pilots, flying the A4D and AD-6, require less time to master their aircraft and can thus advance more rapidly to weapons delivery. VA pilots attend a three-week weapons delivery course at FAETULANT in Norfolk during the course. From the day the RP's training begins, he is part of a one-instructor and four-student team. The team remains intact until the four RP's are graduated. Students train, work, talk, eat and relax with their instructors throughout the course, yet the observer found no instances of animosity toward an instructor nor haughtiness toward a student. He realized that under a program of strict standardization it must become necessary for the instructor repeatedly to give specific instructions to his charges'.
Captain Dose was asked whether or not an occasion had ever arisen where a prospective group or squadron commander had become vexed that he was being taught and 'told' by an officer very much his junior?
'As a matter of fact,' the Captain smiled, 'the senior officer RP's are our happiest pilots. One of them told me that this was the first time he had ever been able, when transferring from a shore billet to carrier duty, to concentrate on his training without being encumbered with all the administrative responsibilities of command while he was getting his feet on the ground. The most senior RP is receptive because he realizes that his instructor knows more about the aircraft than he does. He knows further that when he gets to his group or squadron, no other pilot in the group can buffalo him.'
How would new types of aircraft be introduced to the fleet under the new replacement program, and how would a new attack carrier be provided with its initial group?
'Let's take each problem separately,' Captain Dose said. 'When a new type aircraft is accepted and goes through BIS trials and service tests at Patuxent, CVG-4 will get the next production batch. These planes will be sent to a CVG-4 squadron for the Fleet-Introduction Program. The prospective squadron commander will be paired with the training squadron commander, prospective exec with training exec, and prospective plane captains with training squadron plane captains. The pilots will learn to fly the planes, the men how to maintain them, and training will be conducted as an integrated squadron before the first squadron goes to sea. Thus the squadron would be trained before deployment.'
'Now let's put that hypothetical attack carrier into commission,' he said.
'We have two methods of solving the problem; normal and crash. Under the normal course we would train the squadrons in exactly the same manner we now train replacement squadrons who are making the transition from older aircraft to the new high performance models. By that I mean we would work the squadron's pilots in with our training squadron pilots and the maintenance men in with our men. We could man that carrier in four and a half months with a trained, proficient group. Until the replacement training program began, it would have taken more than a year to reach operational readiness.'
Should circumstances require a 'crash' approach, Captain Dose said that two existing air groups could be stripped of a third of their pilots and maintenance men and those personnel used to form the new air group, augmented with other pilots from the replacement training program. 'That is another reason we are so anxious to reach 'Level Readiness' at an early date where our squadrons have at least one qualified pilot per aircraft, with several others in varying stages of readiness.'
Specific areas of CVG-4 training were explored next; instrument training at VA-44, enlisted maintenance training and the part played by factory representatives, and the non-training but related collateral duties.
'You will be surprised to learn,' said CDR William C. Raposa, VA-44's instrument training officer, 'that a lot of people, including some Naval Aviators, don't believe single engine jets are allowed to fly under instrument conditions. Yet here we can train an input of 10 pilots per week to fly when the soup is so thick we can't see a plane across the strip. Frequently our students make 1.5 hour flights under conditions so bad that the commercial airliners are grounded. We consider it good training conditions when visibility is 1/4--mile and ceilings are 100 feet and GCA is available.'
'Our pilots, instructors and RP's, fly an average of 1000 total instrument hours every month and our average instructor logs between 45 and 50 hours in the TV-2 and F9F-8T monthly. The instrument course here (and at Oceana) is of greatest value to the young pilots out of flight training,' concluded LCDR Raposa.
Ensign. Ben Newlon, a former ADl, also of VA-44, explained what makes CVG-4's enlisted maintenance training program the envy of longer-established training activities.
' 'When we hear that a draft of replacement mechanics are coming in, we meet them with transportation and take them to their barracks. Our front office gives them information on the 'human' aspects of the base and our own mechanics accept them as a part of our squadron, not as transients.' The replacement maintenance men (rated AD's, AM's, AE's, AT's, PR's and AO's) get classroom instruction and sessions in the maintenance trainers which affect their rates, then they are integrated into the squadron's maintenance program for on-the-job training. Before graduation, each replacement mechanic has watched each piece of equipment repaired and has been given an opportunity to repair each piece of equipment. Factory representatives are always on hand to help squadron or replacement mechanics solve unexpected problems. The system must be good because we've had nothing but compliments from the squadrons who got our graduates.'
A collateral duty which has been imposed on Air Group Four is the delivery of replacement aircraft to operating air groups in the Mediterranean.
'In the future we may be able to kill two birds with one stone,' said CDR C. A. McDougal of VA-44. If replacement pilots are required in the Med at the same time replacement aircraft are needed, we plan to send the pilots directly to the carrier in their new aircraft.'
If an observer, fresh back to his Pentagon desk after a field trip to CVG-4 headquarters, were forced to point out the one-feature of the CVG-4 story which most impressed him, he would most certainly attest to the simplicity with which such a complex business is run and to the professional qualifications of its key leaders.
Eight officers in key leadership positions, Captain Dose; CDR. A. G. Russell, his chief staff officer; CDR. J. B. Cain, CVG-4 Ops and Training; CDR W. G. Coulter, CO of VF-21; Captain G. C. Duncan, CO of VF-101; LCDR. J. F. Davis, CO of VF-174; CDR C. A. McDougal, CO of VA-44; and CDR R. Linwick, CO of VA-42, share these accomplishments:
More than 32,600 total flight hours, including 5703 hours in jets; 2600 carrier landings; heavy combat experience; and responsible positions in squadrons and air groups employing the type aircraft they now use.
The intense training activity is administered in a quiet, matter-of-fact, business-like calm on the part of the CVG-4 staff.
'How is this possible?' Capt. Dose was asked.
'First of all, we've got a good job to do and we haven't got time to shuffle a great deal of unnecessary paperwork across our desks,' he said. 'Secondly, we've got very capable leaders in each of the squadrons.'
'And see that sign,' he pointed across his desk.
It read, "How Do We Fight?"
'That's the question we ask ourselves 24 hours a day. If we concentrate all our actions on the implications of that question, we will never have time to become 'empire builders' or to become overloaded with staff responsibilities'.
Another sign in the Captain's office, a reproduction of Thomas A. Edison's motto, "There's a Way to do it Better - Find it,' also seems to be observed and practiced quite diligently. Staff and squadron officers regularly visit other squadrons in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force to learn better ways to train replacement pilots.
'Finally,' said Captain Dose, 'our superiors in Washington and COMNAVAIRLANT are as interested as we are in streamlining operations. They prefer simplicity and action to a lot of administrative overhead and superfluous reports. As a matter of fact, the only report I file is a comprehensive bi-monthly photograph of our status board.'
End of interview; end of visit.
What highlights mark the CVG-4 progress report as the program reaches the end of its first year?
1. Trained, confident pilots are reaching the carrier fleet from the replacement pipeline.
2. It has been proven that high-performance aircraft are not high-mortality aircraft. In the words of LCDR Davis, VF-174 skipper, 'We know now that the F8U, highest performance of all operational Navy aircraft, is not accident prone and that with a minimum of 80 hours of sound instruction behind him in his 4 months here, a Navy pilot can fly this aircraft safely and effectively.'
3. More deployment time per individual pilot will be realized by keeping one air group wed to one carrier.
4. Maintenance crews will report to air groups and squadrons prepared to keep today's performance aircraft ready for immediate action.
5. A return to the 'hard core' of Naval Aviation, with well-qualified pilots and maintenance crews, and with good fighting spirit, seems indeed to be just around the corner.
NavAirNews, courtesy of John Gabbard.