Trainer Engine Troubles Worsen U.S. Air Force, Navy Pilot Shortages


Engine issues on the T-38C have slowed the Air Force’s output of student pilots.

Credit: Senior Airman James R. Crow/U.S. Air Force

Both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy have been plagued by a stubborn shortage of pilots despite several efforts to increase their ranks, and both services have faced the same specific issue blocking progress.

In short, old engines on aged training aircraft have forced a cutback in training flights, in turn worsening the shortages.

The Air Force relies on the aging T-38C Talon II jet trainer, which is powered by a GE Aerospace J85 turbojet that dates back to the early 1950s. Recently, J85 problems have decreased the T-38C’s readiness rates into the low 50% range, disrupting the Air Force’s training plans.

  • USAF wants to produce J-85 parts itself
  • Navy looking to decrease carrier requirements

“The entire system is struggling right now because there are not many people in the world that are flying J-85 engines,” says Maj. Gen. Clark Quinn, commander of the 19th Air Force.

For the Navy, the news is not much better for its old T-45 Goshawk fleet. Following a series of hypoxia--like events in 2016 that caused a large decrease in mission capability, the fleet had started to improve. However, three “black swan” events involving the Rolls-Royce Adour engine have placed limits on the aircraft’s flight hours. In October 2022, for example, a compressor blade shot through an engine at NAS Kingsville, Texas, and the service grounded the fleet for 4.5 months.

For both services, the engine issues highlight the need to move beyond the old T-38s and T-45s as soon as possible. The Air Force is looking forward to fielding the Boeing T-7A Red Hawk with initial operational capability expected in 2027. The Navy is starting its Undergraduate Jet Training System acquisition plan, with a request for information released in August (see page 34).

Quinn, who took command of the 19th Air Force in May 2023, says the U.S. Air Force’s total pilot shortage is at about 2,000 pilots. That number is approximately the same as it was in 2019, a year after the service first stood up a task force to target the issue in 2018. Along with a series of syllabus changes, such as increasing simulator use including virtual reality in early training, the service planned to address the shortage by moving student pilots through training more quickly.

In early 2022, the service had planned to train about 1,500 students per year. However, the T-38’s engine problems made that goal impossible. That, combined with a shortage of instructors, has limited Air Education and Training Command’s (AETC) ability to chip away at the shortage.

After dialing back flying hours as engine issues first emerged on the T-38 in 2022, the problem has not specifically gotten worse, but it has not gotten better, Quinn says. The service relies on StandardAero under a 2020 contract to overhaul the J-85 engines, but because the GE powerplant is no longer in production and parts are in short supply, the Air Force itself is looking to get involved in more maintenance.

“We, the government, is looking at perhaps doing some in-house . . .  parts production to try and help facilitate getting the engine back healthy,” Quinn says.

The idea, which is in its infancy, would focus on the government putting together parts that are most needed to be fed into depot maintenance instead of looking to contract out more production, he says.

Beyond just the engine, the Air Force has recently stood up a broader T-38 effort called the Talon Repair Inspection and Maintenance (TRIM) program. This effort focuses on inspecting and repairing critical structure areas on T-38s—not just aircraft used in AETC, but also those used by Air Combat Command, Air Force Global Strike Command and the Navy. TRIM replaces nearly 200 primary structure components, including longerons, bulkheads, skins and many others. The program also handles inspections of more than 150 other components, AETC said in a statement.

In the meantime, the Air Force faces a backlog of more than 900 prospective pilots who are awaiting training. AETC says that about 25% of these pilots have a wait of more than nine months, with most waiting between three and nine months to start training. During this time, lieutenants do required initial flight training and survival training, and some are assigned to operational or staff organizations.

The number of pilots awaiting U.S. Navy training is about the same. There’s good news on the initial T-6 and rotary wing training, both of which are at about 105% of the overall goal, according to a briefing at the annual Tailhook Symposium on Aug. 25. However, T-45 training is at about 80% following the grounding.

This comes after years of underproduction at the Naval Air Training Command, which fell about 10% below its goal last year. This caused a backlog of about 1,000 pilots. At one point, students were waiting 14 months to start training. Like the Air Force, the Navy has stood up new efforts to ensure that this time is not wasted, including certification programs and a Student Naval Aviation Junior Officer course for preflight instruction.

Coupled with T-45 issues, the Navy has seen a lingering issue with a strike-fighter pilot shortage.

For example, the Navy’s main strike fighter—the Boeing F/A-18—has not been receiving enough pilots in recent years, according to the briefing at the Tailhook conference. In 2016, the T-45 trained 113% of the required F/A-18 pilots, until engine issues hit the fleet. That caused the percentage to drop to just 43% by fiscal 2018, before starting to rise. In 2023, the percentage of pilots trained for T-45s reached 71%.

With regard to the “black swan” events that the Navy has seen, an inspection found the engine compressor blade was manufactured out of tolerance. The fleet has since been fixed to return to flight after the grounding, Naval Air Systems Command says.

In an attempt to accelerate pilot training, the Navy in 2022 started a program called the Carrier Qualification Pilot Project (CQPP). Under this program, students will not actually land on an aircraft carrier before going to fleet replacement squadrons (FRS)—a paradigm shift for traditional naval aviation. The service says early indications show that these pilots are nearly indistinguishable from those who go through the original syllabus.

At the time of the August briefing, 32 pilots had gone through CQPP. When they got to the FRS for their first carrier landing, 30 made it on the first try. The remaining two came around and landed “just fine” the second time, says Rear Adm. Richard Brophy, chief of Naval Air Training.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.