908th partners with 23rd FTS preparing aircrew for future training mission

  • Published
  • By Bradley J. Clark
  • 908th Airlift Wing

The 908th Airlift Wing has looked to the U.S. Air Force’s subject matter experts when it comes to training helicopter crew members in preparation for the wing’s new mission, the formal training unit for the MH-139A Grey Wolf helicopter.

The MH-139A is the military variant of the AW-139 helicopter and is a direct replacement to the Air Force’s aging fleet of UH-1N Huey helicopters. It provides the ability to cruise 5o percent faster and farther than the Huey, while also having a 30 percent larger cabin and capability to lift 5,000 pounds more.

After the 908th divested the last of its C-130s in April 2022, aircrew members throughout the wing had some decisions to make. They had to find another C-130 unit that had positions open for them to transfer to, or they could retrain to become pilots or special mission aviators on the new aircraft.

For the enlisted members that decided to become SMAs, and the officers that chose to become helicopter pilots, that meant having to spend some time training at Fort Novosel’s Cairns Army Airfield in southeastern Alabama with the 23rd Flying Training Squadron.

The 23rd FTS belongs to the 58th Operations Group, 58th Special Operations Wing, 19th Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, U.S. Air Force.

The mission of the 23rd FTS is to train undergraduate aircrew members in all aspects of helicopter operations for follow-on training in special operations, combat search and rescue, missile support and distinguished visitor airlift missions.

Starting in September 2021, when the 908th sent Lt. Col. Jeffrey E. Randall, 908th Operations Support Squadron commander, to attend the TH-1H Rotary-Wing Fundamentals course, to now, when the 908th currently has Lt. Col. Justin McCullough and Maj. David Castillo temporarily assigned to the 23rd FTS as instructor pilots, the relationship between the two units has grown and become invaluable to each other.

As most people familiar with the military know, and in line with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff guidance to accelerate change, sometimes plans are altered when Airmen find a better or more effective or efficient way to accomplish a task.

“The plan, before I joined the team, was for 908th converts to attend the Rotary Wing Fundamentals Course at Fort Novosel with the 23rd FTS,” recalls Lt. Col. F. Derek Cumbie, the AETC active-duty liaison to the 908th Program Integration Office. “At the time, there was no plan for training beyond RWF.  As I researched RWF, I discovered that it will only give C-130 operators an intro to helicopters.  Bottom line, the C-130 pilots would receive a certification at the end of the course, but they would not be qualified on anything.”

That’s when Cumbie had an idea.

“We wanted the crew to have an avenue to get qualified,” explained Cumbie. “We also wanted the pilots with lower numbers of flying hours to get experience flying and teaching students. The best way to accomplish both was to send them through the Instructor Pilot Course. The course would qualify them as instructor pilots. Upon this qualification they could start flying with students and gaining experience.”

Cumbie knew the perfect people to speak with to help the idea gain traction, Lt. Col. Joseph Davis, commander of the 23rd FTS, and Lt. Col.  Daniel Coughlin, director of operations for the 23rd FTS.

“I reached out to Lt. Col. Davis and Lt. Col. Coughlin, as fellow Air Force helicopter aviators,” explained Cumbie. “The AF helicopter community is small. I’ve known these two for a long time and knew they would help if they could. I wanted to get their take on having 908th members qualify as instructors in order to train students. They communicated that the relationship would be mutually beneficial. That kicked off the plan. The 908th members would be trained and qualified as TH-1H instructors, and the 23rd FTS would be allowed to employ these new 908th instructors for student throughput.”

After Davis, Coughlin and Cumbie got the ball rolling, Mr. Todd Taylor, director of the 908th PIO started working with Col. Derek Price, 58th Operations Group commander. Then, Col. Shane Devlin assumed command of the 908th Operations Group in August 2022 and took over getting to the point that the two units could create and sign a Memorandum of Agreement.

“We leveraged the 23rd’s need of instructor help with the 908th’s need of seasoned pilots and SMA’s on helicopter instruction,” explained Cumbie. “We wrote the Memorandum of Agreement and worked with both commands to agree on a way to meet the needs of both. The result: 908th members are now training students at Fort Novosel, gaining experience, and helping AETC meet their mission.”

The relationship goes beyond the 908th PIO and the 23rd FTS, it has expanded to the 58th Operations Group and the 908th Operations Group.

“Working with the 58th OG commander, we have a great relationship now,” explained Devlin. “The relationship is mutually beneficial. Actually, it benefits the entire Air Force helicopter enterprise.”

Devlin explained how the relationship is a win-win for both parties.

“The 23rd has had some manning issues,” said Devlin. “So, our members working down there for them helps them out with manning. It benefits us because they are providing our aircrew members with a pathway from learning rotary wing to being instructors in helicopters. In turn, we send our pay for our members to be temporarily assigned to them as instructors. Our members gain instructor experience, and it alleviates the manning burden they are facing.”

Since the start of the partnership, the 908th has had five enlisted members go through the 23rd FTS as SMA students and then five enlisted members return on temporary duty as SMA instructors with the 23rd FTS. On the officer side, the wing has had six members go through as students and then two members return on temporary duty as instructor pilots.

Staff Sgt. James Needler, a special missions aviator instructor with the 23rd FTS, expanded on how the partnership between the two units has been extremely beneficial for both parties.

“I’ve worked with both the SMAs and the pilots from the 908th as both students and instructors,” explained Needler. “As students they brought a lot of air sense with them, and while the switch from fixed-wing to rotary-wing might be difficult for some at first, their confidence, experience and abilities are great assets. From the SMA side of the house, having 908th members here has helped us greatly with manpower and work-life balance. Being able to share the workload and experience has been great.”

As far as the quality of instruction the 908th members are providing, Needler sees no difference between them and the 23rd FTS instructors.

“They are on par with the rest of the squadron, which has been really helpful for us to continue to train,” explained Needler.

Even current 23rd FTS students can’t tell a difference between 23rd FTS instructors and 908th instructors.

“I can’t tell a difference between Lt. Col. McCullough, Maj. Castillo, and any other instructors,” explained 1st Lt. Julia Baldasare, a current student with the 23rd FTS. “I had no idea that they have been flying helicopters for less than two years and instructing for even less than that.”

For 908th members like McCullough and Castillo, the partnership with the 23rd has been invaluable to them and other 908th members.

“Being able to get helicopter instructor experience has been great,” explained McCullough. “This is getting us and keeping us prepared for when the MH-139s get to Maxwell and start our training mission.”

“This gives us a chance to work through any potential issues,” explained Castillo. “It has been extremely rewarding.”

“Having 908th instructors at the 23rd Flying Training Squadron enables us to not only expand our scheduling and mission efficiency but also allows us to bring an enhanced knowledge to our students as we continue to mold the minds of the newest Air Force helicopter pilots,” explained Capt. Matthew Case, 23rd FTS chief of plans and programs. “With the background that 908th instructors bring with their history in fixed wing aviation, we can now impress upon students the importance of the lessons they are learning and how they apply to both rotary and fixed wing assets alike.  This preps them for their future in the joint ops worlds that they will undoubtedly be flying within.”

Devlin touts the success and benefits as a total force team up.

“I believe this relationship is invaluable,” said Devlin. “It shows how the enterprise as whole can work together getting us as a viable formal training unit in fiscal year 2026 that is ready for training. Getting that buy in, it’s impossible to do without each other.”

VIDEO | 02:09 | 908th Partners with 23rd Flying Training Squadron