The rapid increase in oil prices
over the last five years has forced air forces everywhere to cut back on flight
training for their pilots. That could have some interesting consequences. Over
the last half century, it's been found that combat pilots need about 200 hours
in the air each year, to build and maintain their combat skills. So it's with
great reluctance that some nations cut back on those flying hours. South Korea
recently cut its pilots back from 139 to 134 hours. A decade ago, South Korea
pilots were getting over 150 hours. That's what German and Japanese pilots
still get. But some European nations have their pilots in the air less than
South Korea. Then again, the South Korea are being practical about this,
because their most likely foe, North Korea, has its pilots flying only a few
dozen hours a year.
The nations with the reputations for the most
skilled pilots (Israel, United States, Britain, Canada) have their combat
pilots in the air 200 or more hours a year. Taiwan gives it pilots 180 hours a
year, and may increase that. This is because China is increasing flight hours,
with pilots in some elite squadrons already flying 180 hours a year (most get
closer to a hundred.) The high price of oil was caused by much increased demand
from China and India, and their booming economies.
The importance of flight hours should be a
no-brainer. During World War II, when some nations simply didn't have the fuel
available for pilot training, they saw combat (and non-combat) losses increase
as training-hours-in-the-air went down. Nazi Germany's warplanes began losing,
big time, when they could no longer
produce enough fuel to allow their trainee pilots sufficient time in the air.
This was a trend that had been ongoing since 1942. Up until that time, new
pilots got 240 hours of flying time before entering combat. By comparison,
British pilots only received 200 hours and Soviet pilots even less. Germany
ruled the skies. But in late 1942, Germany reduced training time to 205 hours.
The British now had the fuel, and increased theirs to 340 hours, while the US
was providing 270 hours. In the Summer of 1943, the British increased flying
time to 335 hours and the US went to 320 hours. At the same time, the Germans
reduced it to 170 hours. A year later, the Germans were down to 110 hours,
while the British were at 340 hours and the Americans at 360.
The situation was the same in the Pacific, where
increasingly effective U.S. submarine attacks sank so many Japanese tankers
that there was not enough fuel available to train pilots. In 1941, a Japanese
pilot trainee 700 hours of flight time
to qualify as a full fledged pilot in the Imperial Navy, while his American counterpart
needed only 305 hours. About half of the active duty pilots in the U.S. Navy in
late 1941 had between 300 and 600 hours flying experience, a quarter between
600 and 1000 hours, and the balance more than 1000 hours. Most of these flight
hours had been acquired in the last few years. But at the beginning of the war
nearly 75 percent of the U.S. Navy's pilots had fewer flying hours than did the
least qualified of the Japanese Navy's pilots.
On the down side, the Japanese pilot training
program was so rigorous that only about 100 men a year were being graduated, in
a program that required 4-5 years. In 1940, it was proposed that the pilot
training program be made shorter, less rigorous, and more productive, in order
to build up the pool of available pilots to about 15,000. This was rejected.
Japan believed it could not win a long war, and needed the best pilots possible
in order to win a short one.
Naturally, once the war began, the Imperial Navy
started losing pilots faster than they could be replaced. For example, the 29
pilots lost at Pearl Harbor represented more than a quarter of the annual crop.
The battles of the next year led to the loss of hundreds of superb pilots. This
finally forced the Japanese to reform their pilot training programs. Time to
train a pilot, and hours in the air spiraled downward. By 1945 men were being
certified fit for combat duty with less than four months training. In contrast,
the U.S. Navy was actually increasing its flight time, while keeping pilot
training programs to about 18 months. In 1943, the U.S. Navy increased flight
hours for trainees to 500, while Japan cut its hours to 500. In 1944, the U.S.
hours went up to 525, while Japan cut it to 275 hour. In 1945, a shortage of
fuel had Japanese trainee pilots flying on 90 hours before entering combat. In the
air, this produced lopsided American victories, with ten or more Japanese
aircraft being lost for each U.S. one.
This experience was remembered after World War II,
and reinforced when, in campaign after campaign, the side with the fewer
training hours per pilot, suffered the greatest losses. Now, unable to afford
fuel for training, flight simulators are being used more frequently. These
devices are becoming cheaper and more realistic, but research (mostly from
training exercises, not actual combat) shows that each hour of simulator time
is worth only about half or two-thirds of an hour in the air.