Trainer Aircraft…With Training Wheels

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Cirrus Aircraft

Cadets at the Air Force Academy are now flying Cirrus SR-20s like this one.

It was one of the saddest stories Battleland ever did: reporting on the three cadets at the Air Force Academy who died, along with their instructors, in a trio of separate crashes of the T-3 Firefly trainer aircraft from 1995 to 1997.

Parents grieved as the young men they sent off to Colorado Springs came home, a short time later, dead. The story, and its pain, always echoed the James Taylor song, Fire and Rain: “Sweet dreams, and flying machines, in pieces on the ground.”

The Air Force eventually scrapped the T-3s, plagued with numerous problems, and leased safer trainers instead. Then last year, they began buying a new fleet of 25 Cirrus Aircraft trainers. The service rechristened its Cirrus SR-20s as Air Force T-53As.

Air Force photo / Mike Kaplan

On Sept. 7, Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Staci Rouse became the first cadet to fly one solo. “I had much more confidence flying the aircraft than I expected I ever would after my first flight,” the Woodbridge, N.J. native said. “When I landed, I felt everything I worked for had paid off.”

Two other things worth noting about the T-53A:

— It is the first production general-aviation aircraft outfitted with a parachute that can lower the entire plane (somewhat gently) to the ground if something goes wrong. There should be far fewer “pieces on the ground.”

— About the same time the Air Force decided to buy the T-53As, Duluth- Minn.-based Cirrus announced it would be bought by the China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co. Ltd. — the Chinese government, in other words.

Bottom line: all those F-22 and F-35 pilots who some expect will someday be waging war with China, will learn how to fly in a trainer now built by a Chinese-owned concern.