On a cool morning in central Arkansas, a group of students are up before the sunrise, ready to meet a new set of challenges. The lessons being learned here will break through cultural and language barriers. They are international military students, training alongside Air Force C-130 Airmen at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.
Each year, service members and civilians from all over the world arrive in Little Rock to train with the 314th Airlift Wing, the nation’s tactical airlift Center of Excellence. Their origins and backgrounds are as diverse as the capabilities of the aircraft they are here to study.
On any given day, the student population may feature a maintenance student from Canada or a loadmaster from Nigeria. For most of the approximately 250 international students training here this year, the experience begins at the 714th Training Squadron.
“The thing that’s really important to us is making sure this is a positive experience,” said Col. Scott Brewer, the 314th Airlift Wing commander. “It’s is about coming to America and spending time with Americans, especially the folks in Central Arkansas.”
Maj. Jason Oatley and Master Sgt. Tim Geiger, both 714th TRS international military student office managers, are the first to welcome the new students into training.
“We all work as one big team here,” Geiger said. “We have a short time to get the students into training, and it’s not really even enough time to properly introduce them to the base. We give them an introduction to what our expectations are and local laws and customs. The No. 1 goal is to ensure they complete training safely and successfully.”
Each year, more than 1,800 students pass through the Center of Excellence to meet the training needs of C-130 aircrews from the Department of Defense, Coast Guard and more than 40 allied nations.
For many of those students, Little Rock is their first exposure to American culture outside of TV and movies.
“We saw the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and all this stuff,” said Polish Tech. Sgt. Wojciech Bober, a loadmaster student. “You’ve got more interesting things because you’ve got everything here. You’ve got ocean, you’ve got sea, lakes, mountains and all this interesting stuff.”
To help international students better adapt to their surroundings, 714th TRS instructors participate in the Field Studies Program, which provides a balanced understanding of the U.S. government, society and institutions. It covers a set of pre-established objectives through events and activities and helps the students better understand American human rights, political processes, free market system, education, media, and health and human services.
“We take our students out into the local community and help them learn more about the culture and try to help dispel any misconceptions about Americans and our ways of life,” said Geiger. “We may take them to the state capital, the Clinton Presidential Library and occasionally we do overnight trips to places like Memphis or Nashville.”
That familiarity of local customs frequently plays a crucial role for international students. For some students, the time spent here may be as short as a week, while others often stay for up to seven months. They face many challenges along the way, in addition to learning the innumerable intricacies of flight.
“The courses are extremely challenging for the United States students, who speak English as their primary language,” said Lt. Col. Jon Steckbeck, the 714th TRS commander. “To bring the international students up to the level to meet the prerequisites set in place for English-speaking, high-school graduated and college-level Americans, puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them. Their training pipeline helps them with that. By going through the Defense Language Institute, they are prepared for the courses they are going to go through. We take a lot of effort to ensure the students get what they need in order to make it through the course.”
Regardless of the course, once training begins, the level of care and attention to student needs continue to be a point of emphasis within the 314th AW. The instructors often stay after class, working one on one with international students to make sure they have a comprehensive understanding of the material being covered in the classroom, flight simulators or on the aircraft.
“It’s a little bit of a slower pace because of the language barrier,” said Staff Sgt. Joseph Thomas, a loadmaster instructor with the 62nd Airlift Squadron. “But my hope is that they are going to be successful loadmasters and use the knowledge that we’ve given them and go out and make a difference.”
Many students said the instructor expertise is the highlight of their experience, while others said it’s the opportunity to train in one of the more than 20 flight training devices and simulators.
The simulators, which look like massive pod-like space vehicles, are housed in three-story-tall hangers, while the devices employ the latest technology in C-130 flight simulation. They are the key feature of the state of the art $850 million C-130 aircrew and maintenance and training system contracts managed by the 714th TRS.
“I think back home they would maybe be surprised about how much I know about systems right now,” said Singaporean flight engineer Sgt. Junrong Wu. “I think I’ve got an advantage because I’ve got more time in the ‘sims,’ learning how to deal with malfunctions.”
Once students have completed the classroom portions of their training, it’s on to flight operations at the 48th and 62nd Airlift Squadrons. These sister squadrons are responsible for flying more than 15,000 hours annually, utilizing the world’s largest training fleet of C-130J and C-130H model aircraft to accomplish the wing’s mission.
“I actually was thinking that flying as a crew was really hard,” said Nigerian Airman Peter Alafuka, a loadmaster student, “But I found out that if you have good crew resource management, that you can fly with any crew. My first flight I had a really good crew, and it went really well.”
To accomplish its mission, the 314th AW employs approximately 1,200 military and civilian personnel that make up the 714th TRS, and the 48th and 62nd Airlift Squadrons. These squadrons are tasked with training all five C-130 crew positions: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, and loadmaster.
Additionally, the 314th AW works closely with the 373rd Training Squadron Detachment 4, part of the 82nd Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, training C-130 maintainers from 15 nations.
“Just the fact that you’re flying with a known entity, and you know what training they’ve been through builds a certain level of confidence in a formation, exercise or whatever it may be,” said Lt. Col. Todd Lindell, the 714th TRS director of operations. “If you’re flying against an unknown and you don’t know what kind of training they’ve had, it requires a higher level of awareness because you don’t know what to expect out of that crew. It adds a certain level of stress to the mission.”
The proud tradition of international diplomacy at the 314th AW shows no signs of slowing. Current projections forecast a 20-percent increase in international students in 2013.
“This is a great mission with international importance,” said Col. Scott Brewer, the 314th AW commander. “We’ve been growing our international training as we’ve been reorganizing the active duty and Air Reserve component mix, which has brought some of the international training back to us. These partnerships matter. We are part of the grander engagement strategy in the United States. As countries buy and operate C-130s, that starts international agreements that bond our countries diplomatically.”