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Air Force Turns Back Clock to Train Pilots on Advanced Fighter Jet

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE -- Air Force Capt. Cody Vandegriff spent two years flying a 1960s-vintage jet in exercises against the F-22 Raptor, a stealth fighter built for the 21st century.

During hours of simulated combat, he gained a keen appreciation of the Raptor's abilities. That's a nice way of saying he got killed over and over again -- which turned out to be quite a career move.

Today, Vandegriff is part of the elite Raptor community, having completed a program that moves T-38 pilots to the F-22, a transition he likens as going from Flash Gordon to Star Wars. The program, which started about three years ago, involves a handful of T-38 pilots at two installations, Langley in Hampton and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

The sleek, black T-38s play the role of enemy aircraft in training exercises off the Virginia coast, and have done so for several years. The Langley T-38s now belong to the 71st Fighter Training Squadron, which was resurrected last year after being deactivated in 2010.

Its commander, Lt. Col. Brian Coyne, said the training program allows the Air Force to get more mileage out of its old aircraft.

"Not only do we get great training for the F-22s, but we're doing a secondary mission -- helping out some young lieutenants and getting them ready to go fly the Raptor," he said.

T-38 jets, which were designed in the 1960s, are used at Langley Air Force Base for training.

1st Lt. Brent Maggard flies the T-38 and plans to graduate to the Raptor this summer. For now, he's in Vandegriff's old role, getting killed more often than not in simulated combat. The jets face off in open sky, and even though the T-38s normally outnumber the Raptor, they don't stand much of a chance.

Often, the bad news comes via radio. Maggard doesn't see it coming.

"The F-22 is an amazing machine," he said. "Sometimes it's frustrating to go against it. When it kills you, you never even knew it was there. It zooms away faster than you could ever fly."

Still, the work is satisfying.

"It's great giving them complex presentations, to the first time they see a certain challenge or a certain problem it's not in combat -- it's out here," he said.

Maggard said the T-38s pilots do their best to trip up the F-22s. It doesn't happen often -- but it happens.

"One of the best feelings is being the underdog, and the feeling that, whenever they do slip up, not necessarily that I won, but that I taught them a lesson that could possibly save their life later on in combat," he said.

Vandegriff, who is with the 27th Fighter Squadron, recalls his T-38 days fondly.

"It's old-school flying," he said. "In the F-22, you are completely ensconced with all sorts of sensors and all sorts of situational awareness. (The T-38) doesn't really have that. You build situational awareness by listening on the radio and looking outside the airplane."

Vandegriff credits his two years in the cockpit of the Talon as building "airmanship" and making him a safer and more effective pilot. And to be fair, the old T-38 presents challenges. It is skinny, almost dart-like, and its sinister black paint scheme makes it difficult to spot on open water.

But while Vandegriff enjoyed the T-38, it is nothing like the Raptor. He's been flying it now for about a year.

"I still remember my first flight," he said. "It was an incredible experience, like being on a space ship. Things are rocking. The flight is super smooth."

Because the T-38s are older and less expensive, the Air Force saves money by putting them up in the air against the F-22. It allows the T-38 pilots to log plenty of flight time. Coyne said Maggard flew about 15 times last month.

"We don't have a combat mission," Coyne said. "But the mission is just as important. We're getting the combat squadrons ready to go to war."

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