The US Air Force has abandoned plans to return its troubled fleet of Slingsby T-3A Firefly trainers to flying status. Instead it will contract out all student pilot screening to private schools on a permanent basis to cut costs.

Enhanced flight screening (EFS) using the T-3 has been suspended since July 1997, when the USAF grounded its three-year-old trainers. This followed three fatal crashes and continuing uncommanded engine shutdowns. The T-3 is a version of the UK-built Firefly with a 194kW (260hp) Textron Lycoming AEIO-540.

The air force has already begun modifying the T-3 fuel system and flight testing individual aircraft, but estimates it would take another 18 to 24 months to bring the entire trainer fleet and pool of instructor pilots back on line. Furthermore, it claims contracting private colleges would cost only $10 million a year compared to the $26 million needed to operate EFS annually.

No decision has been taken on the fate of the 110 two-seat T-3As, which cost the USAF $32 million. "Disposition options are under study," says an official.

As an interim measure, private flight colleges have been conducting introductory flight training (IFT) since October last year. The attrition rate for candidate pilots is running at 8.8% compared to the EFS programme's 7.8%. The air force hopes to further reduce attrition with an expanded IFT programme involving 150 schools.

The new course will include increasing flying time from 40h to 50h, requiring additional solo time and qualification for a private pilot's licence before students advance to undergraduate pilot training at the USAF academy.

Slingsby Aviation managing director Jeff Bevan says the company is "naturally disappointed", but will aid the USAF if it decides to dispose of the aircraft. He acknowledges that the "problem is one of image when the major customer is not flying the aircraft."

Source: Flight International