Pilot training continues at Vance Air Force Base, slowed somewhat but not stopped by increasing restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Col. Jay Johnson, vice wing commander for the 71st Flying Training Wing, said the Department of Defense has classified pilot training as an essential mission, and it will continue. But, Johnson said, steps continue to be taken to protect instructors, student pilots and all other personnel on base during the crisis.
Vance Air Force Base joined all other U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense bases in elevating its Health Protection Condition (HPCON) on March 26.
The move was made in accordance with an order from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to raise the HPCON on all Department of Defense installations to HPCON Charlie.
Health Protection Condition (HPCON) ratings are similar to Force Protection Conditions, which dictate the security posture on military installations.
Charlie is the second-highest HPCON condition for Department of Defense facilities, which range from Alpha to Delta.
The upgraded HPCON has led to preventive measures on base similar to what is seen out in town, Johnson said. Food served on base is take-out or delivery only, non-essential personnel are working from home, and technology is being used as much as possible for virtual meetings and training, in place of in-person attendance.
Track select, aircraft assignment and graduation ceremonies all have become virtual affairs.
But, in order for the student pilots to learn how to fly their aircraft, at some point they have to show up to the briefing room, don their gear and then climb into the cockpit.
To mitigate the risks of spreading the virus in that environment, Johnson said Vance has changed how it conducts briefings and debriefings, and has spread out the briefing process as much as possible.
All of the training squadrons have been split into two teams, Johnson said, with the teams flying on alternating days, and using the off-flight days for virtual training. That immediately cut the number of people in the squadron areas in half.
Then, that smaller number was spread out between all of the squadron spaces, and large daily briefings, which usually start each day in the squadrons' flight rooms, have been suspended during the crisis.
Student pilots now show up in staggered time slots to brief with their instructor, with the student sitting in the center of the room and the instructor sitting at their desk on the periphery of the flight room. Debriefing after flights is conducted in the same manner.
The result, Johnson said, is a drastically reduced number of people in the flight rooms, with enough space to maintain required social distancing.
"Whereas, in a normal day you might see 20 to 30 people in a flight room, now you see two or four," Johnson said.
When pilots go to fly together, Johnson said those in the T-6 and T-38 aircraft already were using independent onboard oxygen systems, and so are protected in that way. For pilots in the T-1 aircraft, where they don't wear oxygen masks, Johnson said they've begun wearing surgical masks while in the aircraft to protect each other.
All of those measures, made for safety, have had their impact on the operational pace. Johnson said the wing is flying at about 65% of its normal pace.
"We are operating at a reduced rate, but we are still flying and training," Johnson said. "We're trying to find ways to increase efficiencies in that every day."
Johnson said he does not anticipate the flying training mission being slowed by the pandemic, any more than it already has been.
"The only reason it would get worse than that, is if we had a lot of people get sick," Johnson said.
While the wing, like the rest of society, is looking forward to the pandemic passing, Johnson said some measures that have been implemented during the crisis will likely remain in place afterward.
Plans already in place to move to more virtual education, instead of in-person classroom work, have necessarily been accelerated by the virus, Johnson said.
"We've been testing that for a while, and we started scaling it up last week," Johnson said. "It's one of those practices that we will quite honestly keep in the future."
Johnson said the leadership at Vance is working with community leaders to balance the mission-critical nature of pilot training with the need to mitigate the risks of the virus as much as possible.
"The leadership on base is balancing an essential mission with protecting folks and their health and welfare," Johnson said, "and I think we're doing a good job with that."