MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Since the end of October 2018, the skies above MacDill Air Force Base, Florida roar a little louder than normal.
On any given day, the Tampa Bay community can look to the skies to see the robust KC-135 Stratotanker fly overhead en route to fuel warfighters around the world.
However, their buzz is currently drowned out by the U.S. Navy's visiting fleet of training jets.
Members of the Navy’s Training Squadron 86, also known as the VT-86 Sabrehawks, journeyed to MacDill to complete pilot training in lieu of the U.S Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels’ homecoming at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.
“Instead of crowding the airspace above Pensacola, we’ve temporarily moved to Tampa to continue our blocks of training,” said Lt. Brandon Brown, an instructor pilot and officer in charge of the VT-86 detachment at MacDill.
Students with the Sabrehawks learn to fly the T-45C Goshawk, a carrier-capable trainer with a maximum speed of 645 mph. Once their six to eight month training is complete, the students move on to pilot the F/A-18F Super Hornet, the U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornet or the EA-18G Growler.
One student, Ensign Shelby Hairr began naval flight officer training in August, and was one of the first groups to fly to Tampa from the panhandle.
“Currently, I’m still going on familiarization flights, getting to know the aircraft and learning the different systems,” said Hairr. “Our instructors demonstrate aerobatics and stalls to give us hands-on training in the Goshawk.”
Their curriculum involves five stages of training on subjects such as strike flights, air-to-ground missions, basic fighter maneuvers and close air support.
“The entire training syllabus is very dynamic,” said Brown. “With 13 aircraft, we’re training 65 students to become naval flight, or electronic warfare officers, depending on the aircraft they’re assigned.”
Despite being 485 miles from home station, the Sabrehawks are constantly flying missions to train the Navy’s future pilots in the orange and white aircraft.
“MacDill to me is a great place to train because it’s new to students,” said Hairr. “We’re able to get real-time training as if we’re in an environment we’ve never been before, instead of flying over Pensacola.”
Training isn't solely with the Navy and Marine students, but with air traffic controllers with the 6th Operations Support Squadron as well.
Since the arrival of VT-86, the workload on the MacDill controllers has tripled.
"When our workload increases, so does the complexity and when those two factors are boosted, our [controller] trainees have opportunities to test and solidify their skills," said Tech. Sgt. Jordan Applegate, a watch supervisor assigned to the 6th OSS. "Normally, training new controllers can be challenging due to the limited number of unique aircraft operations and having a small airspace surrounded by four bustling airports."
Applegate explained how T-45Cs are quick and nimble, requiring air traffic controllers to make rapid decisions. Their speed combined with the use of different landing approach techniques require new controlers to solve problems, practice good judgement and gain a broader perspective on ATC.
"Visitors test us in new ways each time," added Applegate. "Whether its coordinating flight plans with Tampa or Miami Center, achieving an expeditious flow of higher volumes of aircraft or responding to unexpected problems, controllers love the challenges presented by these tasks and we look forward to the next sortie."
At the end of the day, new ATC Airmen at MacDill learn to control fast-moving trainer jets, while Navy and Marine student pilots learn to fly in a unfamiliar environment, allowing their training to benefit the joint warfighter as a whole.
Soon, the Sabrehawks' roaring engines will fade off as they depart to home station to resume training where it left off at MacDill.