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Mon, Apr 17, 2023

USAF Probes English Language Training of Foreign Pilots

Communication Breakdown

On 19 February 2021 a Japanese Air Force pilot and his American instructor perished when the T-38C Falcon in which the pair were conducting a cross-country training flight crashed during a VFR approach to Alabama’s Montgomery Regional Airport (MGM).

Comes now 2023, and U.S. military aviation officials are evaluating the effectiveness and possible culpability of a U.S.-run program by which foreign aviators are taught, ostensibly, to speak, read, and communicate in the English language. Personnel of the U.S. Air Force’s Aviation Safety Division are currently looking into the quality of the instruction provided by the USAF-led Defense Language Institute’s English Language Center—a Texas institution to which pilot training units from across the United States and around the globe send students to brush up on aviation’s worldwide official language—English.

The lost T-38 was flown by Captain Renshi Uesaki, a Japanese Air Self Defense Force student pilot under the auspices of Instructor Pilot Scot Ames Jr., 24, of Pekin, Indiana—an aviator the USAF’s official report on the accident characterized as having “had a reputation as one of the best and hardest working” instructor pilots at the Flying Training Squadron.” The report further stated Ames “was respected by his leadership and fellow instructors and had great rapport with his students.”

Ames and Uesaki departed Mississippi’s Columbus Air Force Base (CBM) on a cross-country training mission that was to have taken the pair to Tallahassee via a planned stop at MGM. According to the USAF report, Uesaki, while on visual approach to MGM Runway 28, undershot the turn from base to final. Recognizing the developing situation, Ames calmly advised Uesaki to “roll out” and to commence “slowing down to green speed.” Ames’s command, however, elicited a highly unusual response from the Japanese student pilot, who retarded the T-38s power levers to flight-idle—where they remained throughout the turn, despite a dramatic decrease in the jet’s airspeed and an accompanying and extreme increase in its (downward) vertical speed.

Realizing the aircraft’s speed had deteriorated to a dangerous degree, Ames took a more aggressive tone, stating: “Oof...start climbing.”

Ames subsequently took control of the aircraft, advancing the jet’s power-levers to full military power in an attempt to regain flying speed.

Regrettably, the T-38 descended, struck power-lines, and came to ground in a wooded area some 1,800-feet from the end of MGM Runway 28. Both pilots lost their lives on impact.

The USAF’s official accident investigation concluded Ames and Uesaki had made errors in judgment to which the accident was primarily attributable. Investigators noted also, however, that Captain Uesaki, despite completing six months of English training in 2019, continued to struggle with the English language. The report went on to state that Captain Uesaki’s difficulties with English “directly impacted his ability to receive and process instruction as well as listen and talk on the radios. This challenge was exacerbated while flying instrument sorties, which required more frequent communication.”

Notwithstanding his having passed a battery of English comprehension tests, Captain Uesaki required additional time and practice to improve his conversational English. According to the accident report, Uesaki finished the English language course as an “average to slightly above average” student. Nevertheless, his difficulties with English—speaking and understanding technical aviation vocabulary—persisted, adversely impacting his ability to comprehend instructions and make radio calls while flying. His difficulties with radiotelephony often overwhelmed Uesaki, causing him to lose focus in the cockpit—so stated USAF investigators.

In conclusion, the USAF accident report determined: “The cause of the mishap was [Ames’s] loss of situational awareness on final approach and failure to take timely and necessary actions as a dangerous situation developed. [Uesaki] substantially contributed to the mishap after becoming task-saturated in the traffic pattern and placing and leaving the throttles in idle.”

Speaking to the subject of a possible language-barrier between Ames and his Japanese student, Defense Language Institute instructor Terry Harsh set forth: “The Japanese are nervous because of what happened. They come through here, asking, ‘I don’t want the same thing to happen to me; why did he die? Why did a professional American instructor pilot die with him?’ These are language issues, and they’re very concerning.”

Foreign pilot deaths in U.S.-led military training are infrequent but not unheard of. Since 2012, at least four non-U.S. aviators have lost their lives: Uesaki; two Iraqi pilots, Brigadier General Rasid Mohammed Sadiq and Captain Noor Faleh Rassan Al-Khazali; and Taiwanese airman Major Kao Ting-cheng. All but Uesaki were flying F-16s over Arizona, going down in discrete 2015, 2016, and 2017 incidents.

Since 2013, foreign deaths have accounted for approximately six-percent of the eighty individual’s who’ve perished in USAF-affiliated aircraft mishaps. The loss of an American Instructor Pilot, however, occasioned an unprecedented degree of scrutiny of the program—Harsh disclosed. The T-38 accident in which Ames and Uesaki died prompted meetings both within the USAF’s training community and with Japanese military officials. Subject meetings comprised, primarily, discussions of past fatal incidents and means by which to curtail future losses of life.

Harsh, a former USAF helicopter pilot who’s taught at the Defense Language Institute’s English Language Center for over a decade, remarked: “The Air Force command structure went into a different gear. They were like, ‘What do you teach? What’s going on at DLI?’”

The English Language Center has been, for thousands of aviators, the first step on the path to a military flying career. The institution’s college-level aviation program is a single facet of the center’s broader security cooperation mission—an initiative that instructs some six-thousand students yearly. The school offers a general English curriculum and remedial classes ahead of more difficult courses by which troops are prepared for military jobs. The nine-week aviation course prepares airmen to hold conversations with pilots in flight, non-flight-crew aircraft personnel, and air traffic controllers. Students are drilled repeatedly on NATO’s “alpha-zulu” phonetic alphabet and modern aviation’s niche vocabulary of acronyms and argot—a rapid-fire poetry that crackles in syncopated perpetuity across the world’s VHF and UHF aircraft and air-traffic installation radio frequencies. Impediments to clear, concise English—to include accents—are strictly verboten.

The center endeavors, also, to mitigate cultural differences the likes of over-deference to older or higher-ranking airmen and the inclination to refrain from speaking unless spoken to. Such deeply ingrained orthodoxies are detrimental to safety of flight and have contributed to many of aviation’s most infamous disasters.

In February 2023, Air Force international affairs staffers, flight instructors, and members of the Defense Language Institute, Air Education and Training Command—a subunit tasked with managing pilot training—met to review the English language course’s curriculum and the means by which it is delivered.

In the long months following the Ames/ Uesaki accident, the English Language Center worked on a rubric by which instructor pilots gauge the development of their international students’ English language skills. Instructor pilots, likewise, are helping the center create training videos for purpose of better familiarizing international students with pre-and post-flight briefings. Similarly, pilot training bases have provided the center scripts by which students can rehearse conversations pertaining to the execution of normal, abnormal, and emergency flight procedures.

On the first anniversary of Captain Uesaki’s death, a Japanese Defense Forces liaison delivered an envelope to USAF Lieutenant General Brad Webb, then the head of Air Education and Training Command. Therein, General Webb found a note from Uesaki’s mother: Thank you for caring.

FMI: www.af.mil

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