NAS Corpus Christi, Texas –
Training Squadron (VT) 28 “Rangers” are projected to become the Navy’s first undergraduate primary training squadron to fully integrate the Project Avenger syllabus in April. Project Avenger is a part of Naval Aviation Training Next (NATN), an initiative to update the Navy’s approach to producing higher quality pilots. “We’re making better aviators,” said Capt. John Hammernik, Project Avenger instructor pilot. “Their flexible minds are able to adapt and handle changing scenarios. Implementing cross-training with instruments, formations, and normal contact landing pattern flying, they integrate those elements and seamlessly switch between different contexts of flying.”
Hammernik said Avenger instructors have the freedom to reintroduce procedures and techniques to students throughout the course of training. This is a hard turn from the traditional “Charlie” syllabus that followed a more linear structure of simulator and flight events.
“They [traditional Student Naval Aviators] don’t integrate their formation training with their instrument training with their contact training. It’s all individual boxes,” Hammernik said. “Now we’re trying to build them into an aviator with a more flexible mind; it’s going to be inherent in their DNA as a pilot.”
This flexible syllabus allows for instructors to make the most out of each flight. Instead of canceling or “incompleting” a flight due to cloudy weather, an Avenger student will practice an instrument departure, travel to an area with good visibility to fly Visual Flight Rules (VFR), and then fly an instrument approach back to the airfield, without the instructor feeling like they have devalued the training quality of the flight.
Ensign Ryan Quintall is a University of Notre Dame graduate and an Avenger student in the final stage of the program called “mission phase.” Students must complete a considerable number of requirements in the span of six to eight flights. Mission phase is unique to Project Avenger and traditional students do not have an equivalent evaluation.
“It’s like a capstone phase of training,” Quintall said. “You’ve learned everything that you need to learn in primary at this point. And now it’s just a matter of completing everything that I need to in the most efficient manner, while also being expected to adapt and flex in flight. For example, when all of a sudden your instructor says, ‘Simulated, the weather at your destination is not good. We have to go to our alternate.’”
Quintall solo piloted the T-6B Texan II Turboprop Trainer after only four flights in the aircraft, an accomplishment he attests to the effectiveness of the program.
“The amount of exposure we get in these virtual reality events, plus normal simulators, even before getting in the plane for a first flight, is way more than you would have gotten in the old syllabus,” Quintall said. “The rate at which you learn in the plane is exponentially faster. You can definitely see and feel how much more comfortable you’re getting in the plane with each flight that goes by.”
The first pillar of NATN is focused on utilizing technology. The virtual reality trainers known as Immersive Training Devices (ITD) allow students to use virtual reality headsets and see in 360-degrees while simulating flight. These trainers are readily available for students to practice procedures, develop sight pictures of the local area and refine their communication skills by talking to real air traffic controllers. ITD simulator events have been integrated into the Avenger syllabus to give students more practice with an instructor before moving onto the traditional simulators. The ITD network can be interconnected so students can fly and communicate with each other in the same virtual airspace.
“When I was a flight student, I sat in my chair and I had a plunger between my legs. And I was chair flying, imagining what it should look like, what it should feel like. They don’t have to do that anymore,” Hammernik said. “We’re leveraging technology to put all these students in the same world. So, for example, when they go do the Goliad pattern party, we put eight students in the pattern at Goliad, which is a lot of people. They have to get used to communicating and functioning with other people in the pattern.”
The teaching concept is not the only thing that has been reimagined. The entire VT-28 organization will be restructured in order to support the Avenger program expansion.
“It’s a total culture change. It’s a total mentality change,” said Cmdr. Sean Dougherty, Commanding Officer of VT-28. “We had to break the mold a little bit from what we were doing before into a new concept and reestablish business rules, reestablish the way the flight schedule comes together, so we could continue to execute efficiently on a daily basis.”
During the testing phase, Project Avenger operated in a detachment (det) mentality. Small groups of students and instructors trained independently in a dedicated classroom setting, separate from the VT-28 spaces. Now the program is expanding to the entire training squadron.
“We think of dets in the Navy as going out over the horizon, operating independently, alone and unafraid and executing autonomously,” Doughtery said. “Here in Avenger, there’s a lot of parallels to that. There is a lot of autonomy given to our Flight OIC’s and to our Flights to manage, operate, and execute their individual flights. However, I still want to think of them as VT-28. They’re organic subdivisions, they are part of the unit.”
Avenger Flights are empowered to manage their students from an administrative perspective as well. Flights track their students’ progress through the program more closely than the traditional model, then tailor care to each student’s specific needs. In this smaller scope of control, weaker flight students are more easily identified and instructors give them the attention necessary to meet training standards.
“We’ve had the opportunity to provide intervention along the way for a student who might not have made it through the legacy syllabus, and now we are as confident in them as we were in the average legacy syllabus completer,” Dougherty said.
Competency-based syllabus progression is another pillar of NATN, meaning if a student has shown mastery of a skill or procedure in a certain phase of training, they can “validate” remaining events and move on to more challenging concepts. This allows stronger students to push themselves to new limits and complete the program in less flight hours.
“There’s an opportunity here for higher expectations and a better aviator student,” Dougherty said. “Students are really rising to that challenge. They are achieving more than I think they have achieved in the legacy syllabus.”
The Avenger method not only provides the military with a strong Naval Aviator, but it also benefits the American taxpayer.
“Quality is the fundamental reason to go to Avenger,” Dougherty said. “Not only are they coming out better, theoretically they’re coming out faster. And we’re also doing it with less flight hours and less sorties, so that bundles into time to train, but there is also a real cost associated with that where we have some savings to capture.”
VT-28 will be the first of four undergraduate training squadrons in the Navy to fully adopt the Avenger Project.
Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) trains, mentors and delivers the highest quality Naval Aviators who prevail in competition, crisis, and conflict. Headquartered at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, CNATRA comprises five training air wings in Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, which are home to 17 training squadrons. In addition, CNATRA oversees the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron—the Blue Angels—and the training curriculum for all fleet replacement squadrons.
Ensign Winslow Blow is a member of Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) public affairs.