Interview with the "Air Boss"

Proceedings: What were the symptoms?

Shoemaker: It was hypoxia-like, tingling, light-headedness. When they would execute the emergency procedures and go to 100 percent oxygen, those symptoms were not being relieved. There were a few events where instructor pilots were impaired as they came back to land. That information was shared through the Chief of Naval Air Training (CNaTra) chain of command up to Naval Air Systems Command (NavAir). We were trying to keep the instructors informed of what we were doing, but there was information in the instructor pilot social network when these events were happening. There were emails going out when they landed, ahead of the ability of our normal reporting chains to keep up. It all came to a head with the instructors not being fully informed of all the things we were doing, but wondering why we had not taken action, or more definitive action, based on the serious events in March. That led to the ORM pause at the end of March, followed by a visit by the NavAir team in early April.

I visited each T-45 training site right after that team. We took an operational pause to work through the root cause process. Unfortunately, we do not yet know the root cause. I recently visited Kingsville, Meridian, and Pensacola to let the instructors know what we have done to modify the airplane, the hygiene work we have done, and our plans to move forward. I cautiously reminded them that we have not found a root cause yet, so we may have another physiological episode. The pilots are now flying with contaminant collectors called Sorbent tubes and hydrocarbon detectors. These give us the ability to collect any contaminant, find out what it is, and when it was present at what level of concentration with a time stamp. We will not miss an opportunity to collect if something happens again.

Proceedings: The last we heard, only the instructor pilots were flying, and only below 10,000 feet and maneuvering with less than 2Gs. Are the aircraft “full up rounds” again?

Shoemaker: Not quite. We just finished the testing. One of the key things we put in the aircraft was a water separator. We worked with Boeing and some of our international partners who have been flying T-45s, and we looked at some of the F-22 work the Air Force did with NASA. Every airplane in the fleet that flies with OBOGS has something that takes moisture out of the system—except for the T-45. That was a key issue. The OBOGS concentrator turns normal air into concentrated oxygen by using filters that remove nitrogen. Those filters do not like moisture in the system. One hypothesis was that moisture in the system may be off-gassing some kind of contaminant. We did a lot of testing with Cobham, the company that builds the concentrators, and we could not replicate anything like that. But we understand, in general, that any airplane works better with cooler, dryer air going into the OBOGS concentrator. We expect Boeing to have water separators installed in all T-45s by the end of September. The NavAir team at Patuxent River has been flying with them the past few weeks to understand the envelope and find any restrictions from installing those new components in the system.

The T-45 is not like an F-14 Tomcat or an F-18 Hornet that puts out a lot of bleed air to do all the cockpit air conditioning and pressurization. The T-45 engine is not as powerful, so we have to be careful pulling air off the engine that we do not reduce the pressure too much. We found there was very little drop in pressure across the water separator, but it was successfully removing moisture. We also installed a new oxygen monitor that allows us to track the pressure, concentration, and temperature of the air coming into the concentrator, which provides a better alert indication to the aircrew. Every aircrew will fly with Sorbent tubes and hydrocarbon detectors as they resume flying. We also have cleaned the entire system and added an ability to evaluate system hygiene before and after the concentrator.

Every airplane will be tested to make sure there are not any organic compounds of concern, anything we would not expect to see in the system. Once NavAir finishes their flight tests—and we have full interim flight clearances—we will have our Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) discussions and corrections for all aircrew. Then we will start flying instructors on full OBOGS with all the modifications. As the instructors get current, students will start flying again. [Editor’s Note: Students began flying training syllabus flights the first week in August.]

Proceedings: What has been the impact on students?

Shoemaker: Since the end of March we have only been doing some instructor pilot currency and proficiency flying, staying below 10,000 feet and wearing a modified oxygen mask with a flip cap that allows the pilot to breathe ambient air directly. That was working well for the IPs, so students are now also doing proficiency flights just to stay current so that when we do get back to the full system, we will not have as many warm-up flights to do.

We normally complete the training of about 50 tactical aviation (TacAir) pilots and naval flight officers every two months from the pipeline. So the deficit will be about 150. It will not affect the fleet for about another year to 18 months, and we are already making plans to manage and mitigate the impacts when that shortfall reaches the fleet. The young aviators in training I have talked to fully realize this adds to their timeline. Their service requirements do not start until they get their wings, so we are doing everything we can to get back to full production.

In the past, we have put mitigations in place when we were short of junior officer aircrew. For this shortage, we will have to extend some aircrew in their squadrons. In the turnaround cycle, we may not give every squadron a full complement of aviators at the beginning. Some JOs will have to be “retoured” and some others extended, which we will have to watch because it will impact initial shore tour production. We need to be careful as we ramp back up. The naval air reserve has been leaning forward to get us a dozen or so extra T-45 pilots for the next couple of years. That will keep some instructors in CNaTra rather than rolling them back to second sea tours. It will be a “pig that moves through the snake” for a while, and we have to manage it through first sea and first shore tours.

Proceedings: Switching from a current problem to some success stories, what is naval aviation doing right now over the skies of Syria and Iraq, in the counter-ISIL fight, or even off the coast of the Korean Peninsula?

Shoemaker: An F/A-18E Super Hornet from Carrier Air Wing Eight shot down a Syrian fighter on 18 June. I’ve seen the HUD tape—the heads-up display—from that cockpit. It was very good work by that pilot. That tactical proficiency is typical of what we are seeing from our forces forward. In Iraq and Syria right now, the antiaircraft threats we face over land are not significant, but the rules of engagement are tough.

I do not think we give ourselves enough credit or celebrate the excellence that happens every day over the skies of Iraq and Syria. Those young men and women have to be very careful in terms of the collateral damage assessments; positive target ID has to be managed; and the mission must be executed precisely because the strategic consequences of not having all that “suitcased” is significant and consequential. I applaud Air Wing Eight and the George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) team as they finish up.

If you shift over to the Pacific theater, we are operating and flying in the most politically sensitive environment around—the East China Sea and South China Sea. In the Seventh Fleet, it is not a kinetic fight but a strategic presence operation in a very sensitive environment. We are there to reassure our neighbors with presence of U.S. forces. We need to be in that part of the world.

Recently the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) carrier strike group came home to San Diego. Now the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) is on station. The USS Nimitz (CVN-68) will make a pass through the South China Sea as she heads to the Persian Gulf. As you watch things happen in and around Korea as well, the Carl Vinson strike group operations around the peninsula—on the eastern and western sides—were very important to Seventh Fleet, Pacific Fleet, and to Admiral Harry Harris, the U.S. Pacific Command commander. Operations in the western Pacific and in the Middle East are different, but I could not be more proud of the work our aviators and carrier strike groups are doing forward.

Proceedings: How is operational tempo now in terms of normal deployment length?

Shoemaker: The CNO has asked us to get back to no longer than seven-month deployments, as long as we are meeting requirements. The Carl Vinson just came home, just shy of seven months. That was successful. The Nimitz is headed out on a similar deployment. The George H. W. Bush will be right at seven months as well.

The preponderance of deployments recently coming from the West Coast has put stress on those forces. The USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) is finishing up her maintenance availability in the Pacific Northwest and will start preparing for workups. The USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) is working up and will deploy in a few months. There has been a shift of the global force management requirements to the West Coast. There has been some stress on the strike fighter force in Lemoore, as we try to make sure they have enough airplanes and manning in those squadrons. In a couple of months, we will get back to East Coast forces in the rotation. It is a fairly steady pace. Since 9/11, it has been stressful in terms of rotations and impacts to readiness. My job is to generate the ready forces we send forward while recovering readiness lost as a result of the fiscal challenges that started with sequestration in 2013 and continue to impact us today.

Proceedings: There is talk of another continuing resolution coming for 2018. How is flight hour funding?

Shoemaker: In the past, we did a pretty good job of making sure, as we built budgets, that the flight hour accounts were healthy. We realized as sequestration wore on, however, that there are other readiness enabler accounts (some that pay directly for flight line readiness, some that pay for maintenance, and some that pay for parts) that are important. Some of those accounts were severely under-resourced for years. One example was the account that pays for parts. It provides for spare parts and fills the shelves on our carriers and in our naval air stations. We have added to those accounts now, but for five years in a row, we were operating around 70 percent of the requirement. When you do that for five or six years in a row, you end up challenged in terms of spares which are needed to keeping airplanes up and flying.

The CNO and Vice Chief are very supportive of making sure those accounts are funded to healthy levels. Because we focused on readiness accounts in 2017, next year we will be in pretty good shape. Across the five-year defense plan, I am seeing good trends now, not just in the flying hour account. Because of the challenges we had in readiness, we were not able to fully execute the flight hours we had. That was frustrating because the money ended up being taken and used elsewhere.

The F-35 introduction has slid a bit to the right and is a couple years behind schedule, which has driven higher utilization on our legacy and Super Hornet force. In the past, we stood up a couple extra Super Hornet squadrons out of hide, meaning we did not buy the extra airplanes that account for fleet replacement squadron (FRS) training, long-term maintenance and attrition. There are procurement needs for the “Rhinos”—the Super Hornets—that are being recognized in the Pentagon and in Congress.

Proceedings: What is the sundown plan for the legacy Hornets?

Shoemaker: We would like to be able to upgrade those squadrons into Super Hornets. Eventually the Rhino squadrons will transition to the F-35C, and those older Rhinos will give us airplanes to replace the legacy Hornets. At Lemoore, we just reestablished VFA-125, the old F/A-18C FRS, as the F-35 FRS. The first two fleet F-35C squadrons will both be in Lemoore, and they are flying Super Hornets now.

Proceedings: Where do drones fit into your scan?

Shoemaker: We are using them right now in the helicopter community and will soon have them in the maritime patrol and reconnaissance community. The MQ-8B Fire Scout is flying. Detachments have been operating around the world with MH-60 Romeo and Sierra detachments very successfully from the littoral combat ships (LCSs). That is a good fit to be able to operate the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter side-by-side with the manned fleet helicopter. That is a good construct where we do not build an unmanned community flying just the Fire Scout. We do it all together in one detachment.

In the maritime patrol community, the leadership has developed a plan to bring the MQ-4 Triton—the large-area maritime surveillance unmanned aircraft—online. The Triton will operate in the Pacific in early 2019, and it will be a great wingman to the manned P-8, able to cover a large ocean area for an extended time, providing cueing to the P-8. Triton is designed to operate forward with a small detachment of UAV pilots who will be on a second sea tour. They will do this as part of the P-8 community instead of standing up a separate unmanned community. Those are two examples where we already have introduced unmanned aircraft or drones.

The MQ-25 eventually will be added to our carrier air wings. We are looking at the manning construct of that right now. We will likely operate the MQ-25 in the same fashion—creating a small detachment of officers who run the MQ-25 and operate it on deployment. The pilots will come from the Hornet, E-2, Growler, and F-35 communities and go back to those communities. I don’t envision Naval Aviation having an unmanned community in and of itself.

Proceedings: So MH-60 pilots also will fly the Fire Scout; and P-8 pilots also will fly the Triton; and VFA, VAW, and VAQ pilots also will fly the MQ-25?

Shoemaker: Yes. Controlling unmanned aircraft is a matter of keystrokes on a keyboard right now. There is an air vehicle operator, and then there are the folks who control the mission systems. The vision for the Triton is like the Air Force concept of operations for Global Hawk and Predator, all operated from Air Force bases here in CONUS [continental United States]. We will do the same thing with Triton from Whidbey Island and Jacksonville. The systems will be run from home base, and a detachment forward will just launch and recover the vehicles.

Proceedings: Will the Triton be under the tactical control (TACON) of the carrier strike group or the numbered fleet commander?

Shoemaker: As a former carrier strike group commander, I would love to have TACON of the Triton, but it will be a numbered fleet asset, an operational-level asset. That is why we pushed hard for the MQ-25 to be an air wing asset that can be used inside the strike group.

Proceedings: The MQ-25 is primarily seen as an aerial refueling asset. What about expanding its capabilities as a stealthy bomber or for suppression of enemy air defenses?

Shoemaker: Right now the focus is to make it a tanker to extend the reach of the air wing and reduce some of the fatigue life expenditure on our Super Hornets. The only tankers we have in the air wing are the Rhinos. The MQ-25 will give us the ability to extend the air wing out probably 300 or 400 miles beyond where we typically go. We will be able to do that and sustain a nominal number of airplanes at that distance. That will extend the reach of the air wing, and when we combine that with additional weapons we are buying, we will get an impressive reach. So, the MQ-25 will start primarily as a tanker, but we will keep our options open in terms of additional capacity or capabilities.

Proceedings: How much fuel can the MQ-25 give at a 200-mile range?

Shoemaker: The specific parameter is to try to maximize fuel give at 500 nautical miles, not at the 200-mile range, and I think we’ll see something on the order of 15,000 pounds or so.

Proceedings: Is that greater than a Rhino’s give at that range?

Shoemaker: Absolutely. And it will be more efficient. A Rhino would have to carry five fuel tanks, “a five-wet tanker,” as we call it. That burns a lot of gas to get that much gas to range. The MQ-25 will be much more efficient than the Rhino, and it will give us the ability to get out there and refuel four to six airplanes at range. It will also work as a recovery tanker for cyclic ops with the ability to cover at least three cycles. Launch one airplane, and it goes overhead, drops back down for the recovery, and goes back up to altitude to wait for the next recovery.

We will not be putting any wear and tear on Super Hornets for the tanking mission, which is good. We also have precision-landing modes we are delivering in Super Hornets and Growlers that will make landing on the carrier much easier.

I think the combination of having extra gas airborne and the precision landing modes will reduce the number of tankers needed because of the air wing’s ability to recover much more efficiently.

Proceedings: Tell us about the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). President Donald Trump [who visited the carrier recently] said we are going back to steam.

Shoemaker: We will commission the Gerald R. Ford in a couple weeks. [Note: The carrier was commissioned on 22 July.] Regarding EMALS, we did significant testing with loads—weighted sleds—before she ever got under way. I am confident that the system will operate as designed and get to the point where we can launch very heavy loads and light loads flexibly and reset quickly. There are several systems on the carrier that had technology that was not as mature as we would have liked when we started building her. We are working through that, but EMALS will be a success story. [Editor’s Note: The first successful catapult shots with EMALS and the first successful landings with the advanced arresting gear (AAG) were completed on the Gerald R. Ford on 28 July.]

Proceedings: What other major systems are different from the Nimitz class?

Shoemaker: The island is farther aft and smaller. That was designed for a better layout on the flight deck to give the ability to recover, turn airplanes, refuel, and rearm quickly, which improves the sortie generation rate.

The advanced arresting gear has a totally new design that will allow us to expand the envelope of aircraft we can recover—heavier and lighter airplanes, in case we start flying smaller drones or airplanes off the carrier. The new arresting gear has been successfully tested at Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. After we commission Ford, we will have the opportunity to operate her with Super Hornets, which are the initial operating envelopes we have already tested for the arresting gear turbines. We will continue to expand the envelope with all the other airplanes we need to take to sea on Ford.

The ship has a new dual band radar—a new system that is both a multifunction radar and an air search radar—and it has some CATCC [carrier air traffic control center] functions that will improve the ability to control airplanes around the carrier. We have not ironed out all the kinks yet in the dual band radar.

There is a new engineering plant. Admiral James Caldwell, Chief of Naval Reactors, was on board for the ship’s builder’s trials. He was very impressed with the operation of the new plant.

The last new system is the advanced weapon elevators which will improve the ability to turn airplanes quickly and move ordnance to and from the flight deck. Those elevators are unique. They do not have the pulley assemblies we had in the past to raise the elevators. They are all electromagnetic and very precise.

Proceedings: Do you anticipate putting a full air wing on board the Gerald R. Ford in 2018?

Shoemaker: We will have Super Hornets doing some initial testing on Ford during the 100 days built into the schedule for shakedown-type operations. Then there will be a post-shakedown shipyard availability for eight months beginning around April 2018. By then we will have flown Super Hornets and maybe some other aircraft from her—plenty of catapults and arrestments as we head into the post-shakedown availability. The ship will come out of the yard in early 2019 and start working up with a full air wing.

Proceedings: We appreciate you giving us your time here at the Pentagon today.

We hope to see you at the annual USNI/AFCEA WEST conference in February 2018.



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