Lt. Cmdr. Shalen “Sugar” Cain, the officer in charge of training 70 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviators at RIAC, stands beside a T-34C. The training will continue through April. (Jill McLaughlin Photo)
Navy and Marine aviators learning to fly over Roswell have created a stir around town as 25 white-and-orange planes buzz the airways six days a week.
The Naval Air Station Corpus Christi-based group of 70 trainees and 30 instructors moved training operations to the Roswell International Air Center this year in an effort to save money and time, said Lt. Cmdr. Shalen “Sugar” Cain.
“The weather (in Roswell) is more conducive to training on a consistent basis,” Cain said. “Back home in Corpus, it isn’t really as nice as it is here.”
The training has traditionally taken place in Las Cruces, but with funding cutbacks, the aviators needed to find a more economical location. The crew plans to train at the airport until April 16.
“Roswell was willing to give us better deals,” Cain said.
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said the move to Roswell was a positive step for the region.
“One reason they are here in Roswell is that it offers extraordinary training opportunities,” Pearce told the Record.
The weather and the ability for the airport to provide simulated training allow the aviators to compress six weeks of training into three weeks. The boost for the local economy and the savings for the military are good for the economy, Pearce said.
“It’s a win, win, win for everybody. Everybody is under a budget crunch here,” Pearce said. “We have to do everything more efficiently and effectively.”
AVFlight at RIAC, a private fixed-base operator, was contracted to provide a hanger office space and fuel. It bought out Great Southwest Aviation’s facilities in January and remodeled a large hangar/ office building on site. The facility allows the military unit to train and provide class time to its aviators.
“We love that they’re here,” said AVFlight’s general manager Liza Hamilton. “Not only is it great for us, but it’s great for the economy of Roswell as well.”
The 25 T-34C Turbo Mentor aircraft used in training were flown from the Corpus Christi base. The older planes will eventually be replaced by T-6B Texans that have twice the horsepower and are equipped with ejection seats. But the T-34s still manage to get the job done.
“It’s a great plane that’s been through a lot of wear and tear,” Cain said.
Some 50 contracted maintenance workers are assisting with training at the airport.
“We take the guys out here who are in the first stages of primary training,” Cain said. “Most of the kids who come out here have very little flight experience at all. We take them from first strapping into a plane to flying solo.”
The process includes some 20 hours of flight time, simulator and classroom training. The students are flying six days a week. All flights are made in designated working areas approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The training aircraft used in Roswell can fly up to 250 knots, or miles per hour, and reach up to 25,000 feet.
Sometimes, the training is easily noticed.
“There are times we do go down and put the plane into a safe position to make a crash landing,” Cain said. “And if people see us kind of low, that’s what we’re training for. We’re not going down there and buzzing houses.”
Training in Roswell will consist of visual flight rules, Cain said. Once this is complete, students will learn instrument flying at the Corpus Christi base.
Second Lt. William Nutting said the most rewarding part of the training in Roswell has been reaching the stage of taking the airplane out alone.
“It’s taken a long time to get to that level,” Nutting said. “We’re not only learning how to fly but how the military want you to fly.”
After training at the intermediate level, the aviators begin to learn specific aircraft and “potentially will be going into combat,” Cain said.