Military training: are turboprops killing jets? Here is our analysis

Trainer aircraft jet turboprop
USAF T-6 Texan II and T-38 Talon fly in a dissimilar formation.

Since the beginning of the 60s the trainer aircraft market has been dominated by jets, favoring types such as MB-326, Fouga Magister, L-29, Jet Provost first and then MB-339, Alpha Jet, L-39, Hawk.

In the last decade the trend has changed as many air forces have begun to replace old jet fleets with turboprop aircraft. One example is the recent procurement of the Pilatus PC-21 by France and Spain.

Contrary to what many think, the choice of turboprops is not linked to the lower cost or because they have the same performance as jets.

At the beginning of the 2000s the pilot training process underwent a radical change following the introduction of modern and technologically advanced combat aircraft. This has led the armed forces to adjust their pilot training.

Until a few years ago, the training of young pilots consisted mainly of three steps: initial phase with a basic propeller aircraft, subsequent passage in a medium class jet and finalization of the training in front-line fighter aircraft.

Today, fighter pilots make a further platform transition, flying advanced training jets such as the M-346.

The Italian aerospace company Leonardo was the first in the world to develop this type of aircraft by revolutionizing the training syllabus. With fighter-like performance, advanced jet trainers allow air forces to offload work done in light jets and front-line combat aircraft. This is why military flight schools may opt to conduct the intermediate phase in turboprop rather than jet.

The proof is provided by the market, today manufacturers aiming to develop new jets are looking to the LIFT (Lead In to Fighter Training) phase. Examples are Boeing T-7A Red Hawk or Airbus Future Jet Trainer. Nations that cannot introduce these types for budgetary reasons send their students to foreign flight schools such as Italy's International Flight Training School.

On very rare occasions student pilots have transitioned from turborpop to modern fighters as the gap between the two platforms is too wide. We expect France and Spain to soon introduce an advanced jet trainer to complement the PC-21.

As a USAF F-35 instructor told us in the past, "the trainers lay the foundation for successful training in modern combat aircraft, and their equipment must be similar to that of the latter."

On the performance side, modern turboprops and basic jet trainers are very similar, however, there are armed forces who believe that training in jets is more effective as the aircraft's conduct is closer to that of fighters. For this reason, the market also offers small cost-effective jet trainers such as the Aermacchi M-345.

Written by Matteo Sanzani