Return To Hondo


Hondo, Texas, is on the edge of the Texas Hill Country about 40 miles due west of San Antonio. This time of year, it bakes under a summer sun that reliably drives the highs to more than 100 degrees. It’s not a place for delicate constitutions.

I was in Hondo last week for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but today’s news story on the Air Force’s latest pilot screening program using Pipistrel Alpha trainers reminded me of an earlier similar program that turned into an expensive disaster of the sort that only the military industrial complex can create.

The last time I was in Hondo—it was in 1998—the Air Force had a fleet of brand new Slingsby T3A Fireflies rotting in the summer sun, save for the shelter of minimal shade hangars. And there they sat—some with close to zero hours—until the Air Force declared them surplus and crushed them like so much scrap plastic.

The story is long and contorted, but the short version is that the Air Force wanted to screen zero-time would-be pilots by subjecting them to vomit-inducing aerobatic rides, the theory being that washing them out early would be more efficient than washing them out later. Using mostly civilian contractors, they got the vomit part right, but the screening was of dubious value.

In selecting the T3A, the Air Force wanted a cheap, off-the-shelf design so it went with a variant of Slingsby’s T67M Firefly, which the U.K. had used successfully as a primary pilot trainer. The T3A was to replace the T41 Mescalero—the military version of the Cessna 172. In short order, however, the T3A developed a reputation as a pilot killer, with nasty spin characteristics. In two years, three Air Force cadets and three instructors were killed in T3A accidents and at Hondo, a Firefly was damaged in a landing accident.

Spooked by these developments, the Air Force ended the screening program and grounded the airplanes until they were crushed—all $32 million worth—in 2006. Interestingly, when the Edwards test pilot school evaluated the T3A’s spin characteristics, the report found no significant issues with spins, stalls or any other part of the T3A’s envelope. It was pointed out that the Air Force instructors killed in the crashes were big airplane guys, not fighter pilots or light airplane drivers. However good or bad military flight training was then, it may have done little better than civil training to sensitize pilots to stalls and spins.

Shortly after the Firefly fiasco, the Air Force bought a small fleet of Diamond DA40s and redesigned the screening program. Continuing the circle and as described in this story, the Air Force has again hired a contractor to screen would-be Air Force pilots to solo, this time in an ultra-cheap-to-fly Pipistrel Alpha. Appropriately, it’s being done at storied Tuskegee, Alabama.

Meanwhile, like one of those old Soviet photos retouched to dematerialize the out-of-favor apparatchik, there’s little evidence at Hondo of the Firefly’s sad demise.

Hondo Part Deux

While I was at Hondo visiting Texas Aircraft last week, it occurred to me that you could make the argument that, despite the blundering hand of man, airplanes are inexorably getting better. That’s even true, I think, in the relatively stagnant performance envelope of light sport airplanes. After all, there’s only so much you can do with 100 HP and a 1320-pound weight limit.

Before plunging onward, a short concessionary: While the blundering hand of man has been mostly contained by the constraining glove of statistical systems analysis and computer-aided design, in the 737 MAX, no lesser a light than Boeing has shown us that blunder on a galactic scale is still possible, if not probable.

Texas Aircraft Colt LSA

With that tidied up, back to the Hondo narrative. I was in town to fly Texas Aircraft’s new Colt LSA. I’ll have a detailed review and video later, but for now, the Colt is a new design from well-known Brazilian aircraft builder Caio Jordao. The company will be officially launching at AirVenture next week.

Because LSAs are all designed to the same formula, comparing them is sometimes like evaluating socks. What color do you want and over the calf or low cut? When flying these airplanes, I like to see how well the designer did with the airplane’s longitudinal stability. Real-world test pilots have a formal process for doing this, but my back-of-the-envelope method is to do a pitch displacement in one direction—sometimes called a singlet—and release the stick to see what the airplane does.

You know what it’s supposed to do. The pitch cycles through the phugoid oscillation before settling back to whatever trimmed airspeed it started at. That’s positive static stability and Part 23, which ASTM-approved airplanes are supposed to generally follow, lists this as a desirable trait. I am often surprised when the demo pilot in the right seat is either nervous about this benign exercise or professes to never having seen it done.

The Colt turns out to be aggressively damped. From a nose-up displacement, it was back to the trimmed speed in one cycle, something I’ve seen in all of the recent LSAs I’ve flown, although the  recovery period varies. Ten years ago, it wasn’t necessarily so. Several LSAs I tried were neutrally stable—displace the stick and nose stayed where you put it.

On one flight trial, I pointed the nose 15 degrees low and released the stick. We were aggressively heading for redline airspeed with not a hint that the nose would recover. That’s not good design, in my view, and could be due to manufacturing/maintenance issues as well. Also, the Colt doesn’t suffer from the feather light control forces so many LSAs have. It feels more like a Cessna 150. And that’s good.

It may be anecdotal, but I don’t think it’s an accident that I’m seeing fewer airplanes with undesirable handing. With nearly 15 years of experience, LSA designers have learned a few things both about what the market wants and how to deliver better products. I think they have better tools available, too, including sophisticated instrumentation that’s cheaper than ever, inexpensive rapid prototyping, CAD-CAM tools like SOLIDWORKS and affordable numerical control equipment on the shop side.

I wouldn’t call it a revolution as much as an evolution in the right direction. In the decades ahead, as distributed electric propulsion gains eventual traction, those tools will only evolve further and then things will get really interesting. 

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  1. First Air Force potential screening requirement…see if they get sick. So, buy a composite aerobatic trainer and have them flown by instructors who fly C-17’s. And buy a 100+ airplanes in this new venture. That number probably was determined by the number of C-17 aircraft in inventory then. Only $32 mil of our taxpayer money.

    Second pilot screening/training process after the Firefly fiasco, is buy a fleet of DA-20’s. The Diamond DA20 two-seat aircraft was flown in the USAFA Introductory Flight Training program from 2002-2007. A fleet of Diamond DA20 trainer aircraft is used for the U.S. Air Force Initial Flight Screening Program in nearby Pueblo, Colo. DA20s were once used at the U.S. Air Force Academy. A fleet of 20 Diamond DA40 piston-engine aircraft is currently flown in the U.S. Air Force Academy Powered Flight Program

    Third screening and training process went to Cirrus when Cirrus was awarded a $6.9 million contract for 25 SR-20’s by the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on March 8, 2011…with Diamond protesting.

    After investing and crushing the Firefly, the USAF may or may not be using the Diamond DA20, DA40, and Cirrus SR-20’s for screening and initial training, wanting to save costs by investing in the electric Pipistrel Alpha.

    And we wonder why the USAF has a pilot shortage? They can’t even make up their mind on initial screening and primary flight training aircraft. No surprise that they had their instructors come from the heavies to induce vomiting during stall/spin/aerobatic introduction flights in the Fireflys.

    Now that the Firefly is only a vague memory, I guess the training modus operandi for the SR-20 students is pull the chute during for spin recovery. I don’t know what they are teaching the poor student assigned a DA20 or DA40…bail out for stall/spin recovery? At least there will be no need to crush perfectly good airplanes. Eventually, they will be all wrecked.

    What’s next for the USAF prospective flight screening trainee, a Belite Ultra-Cub ultralight with a ballistic chute, being flown remotely by a non-flying pilot/instructor, in a dark room wearing sunglasses, from some underground bunker/command center? I guess the USAF can save on cleaning costs as the only one getting sick is the Ultra-Cub driver.

    • The USAF Academy had a very similar problem with the Schweizer TG-7A (SGM 2-37) motorglider in the 80’s, too. Nine were ordered for use in the Academy flight program. These airplanes had the pilot sitting on the right side so that normal military L hand / R hand dexterity could be developed. After a fatal crash there involving an instructor and cadet, and another when in use by experienced test pilot aspirants at the USAF Test Pilot School at Tehachapi, CA, the Commandant of the Academy personally requested a high priority Test Pilot School analysis of the airplane. I was involved with the evaluation which basically showed the same problem … it was a totally different airplane being flown by military pilots with little to no light airplane or glider experience. Although FAA Type Certified, with a 60′ wingspan and an O-235 engine, there was little notice of a stall which required finesse and altitude to recover from. In the end, we added a stall strip to warn of a stall and some aileron vortex generators which gave better lateral control if one was entered. These airplanes went on to serve until ~2003. Each of the TG-7A cost us about $70K in 1980’s dollars. The Firefly was likewise evaluated at Edwards AFB. Only issues with the fuel system were uncovered.

    • “What’s next for the USAF prospective flight screening trainee, a Belite Ultra-Cub ultralight with a ballistic chute, being flown remotely by a non-flying pilot/instructor, in a dark room wearing sunglasses, from some underground bunker/command center?”


  2. GEEZ! Sounds somewhat typical. And here I thought the old L-21 Super Cub was the atypical primary training aircraft. So, what do I know? That flight training was 60+ years ago but seems to me that airplane did everything required. What am I missing here? Just money. (and trials, and studies, and more stuff for Systems Command, or whoever does this stuff now)

  3. Yes, it was DA-20’s which had already developed a reputation as outstanding trainers for their safety and handling. If you could convince your mechanics that they were not working on a 172 and were neither smarter than Diamond nor Continental, they would have much the same reliability.

    Unfortunately, the USAF has to be smarter than the market, and demanded changes for their aircraft which were not necessary, but seemed not to do any harm.

    The politics would likely prevent it, but it would seem to me the best program would to be to have a flight test. Let the applicant get trained for it on the market at their own expense. This would have the added benefit of the “wanna be airline” guys getting a little education on what they were getting into and perhaps dissuade some of them thus leaving more spots for those with truly military aspirations.

    • With the current dearth of pilots in the USAF, the first class of what will be around 100 total enlisted pilots have all successfully completed primary flight training and are destined to fly drones … thereby releasing the officer pilots doing that work to go back to “normal” flight duties. Enlisted “Boomers” have been flying those little wings on the back of tankers from the beginning … now they’ll be able to point the things, too. Enlisted folks with pilot wings … it’s about time.

      Sadly, the senior leadership within the USAF is SO locked into the normal way of doing things that they sometimes just can’t see the forest for the trees. Every one of the people in this program have GA experience … some substantial. The USAF Aero Club system would be an excellent way to start that journey. Beyond that, the people in this program have shown a propensity for military service and lifestyle, too. Frankly, I’d like to see reinstitution of USAF Warrant Officer ranks and allowing enlisted people who distinguish themselves to fly for real and rise up in rank … just as the “Flying Sergeants” did in WWII. There are plenty of airframes that don’t require rocket scientists or test pilots or officers to make the houses get smaller. As you say, Eric … “politics.”

  4. Why can’t they use the system that worked in the past? I’m referring to ROTC pilot training as it was around 1970 or 72. A flight school gave USAF pilot candidates 35 hours in the schools airplanes using the private pilot program as the baseline with spins added. Many a student paid out of pocket to finish up and acquire their private license if they were not quite ready at 35 hours for their check ride.

  5. It amazes me how far south the military’s collective thinking has digresses since WWII. We have tons of tangible, verifiable information that the civilian pilot training program worked extremely well. Our greatest aviators that excelled in WWII, many continuing to fight in Korea, some flying during Vietnam, and many becoming test pilots that took us through the sound barrier and to the moon and back…spanning many decades…started flying in average civilian airplanes of the day. With those basic skills attained in light airplanes they moved into Stearmans, PT-19’s, PT-22’s, BT-13’s, SNJ/Harvard/T-6, T-28’s, T-34’s, etc eventually being assigned in various types of airplanes that made up the aerial military might that was second to none for decades.

    Since the 90’s, we the taxpayer have bought for the military Fireflies, DA20/40’s, SR20’s, after retiring the T-41’s and T-34’s for pilot screening while ignoring the many great civilian flight schools that train average citizens to be pilots for a living.

    As others have pointed out, give the applicant 30-35 hours in a 172 at a quality civilian flight school with spins. As was the case in WWII, a quality civilian flight school in average GA airplanes is an excellent screening process for future military aviators. Why mess with a successful, proven formula?