Foreign Exchange Pilots (Including Americans!) Don’t Always Think the USAF is the Greatest

F-35A. Photo: Staff Sgt. James A. Richardson Jr., US Air Force.

In his 2007 book Canada’s Air Forces on Exchange, author Larry Milberry offers a variety of views on the USAF as seen from Canadian pilots who served on exchange, and even some critical comments from USAF pilots who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and found the Canadian service better in some ways. As I read this well-written book, I often encountered comments from Canadians who found the USAF lacking in one way or the other. In the late 1960s, Flight Lieutenant (F/L) Harvey Schaan, RCAF served as an exchange flight training pilot in the USAF, and according to Milberry, “As did all Canadians on USAF exchange F/L Schaan found the USAF training system regimented – micromanagement was the rule. Takeoffs were strictly at 3-minute intervals. Each flight was obliged to reserve its aircraft (for any given day) two weeks in advance. This was a headache for schedulers (a secondary duty for [Instructor Pilots]. Should there be an accident, all senior officers from Wing Commander and Base Commander on down could expect to be fired within hours.” (p. 134) At about the same time, a USAF pilot named Captain R.E. Lushbaugh wrote of the Canadian pilots training USAF pilots and said “Since the Canadian air force is smaller, about 35,000, they all feel that the personal contact between the instructor and student is greater, and the atmosphere is more relaxed in Canada.” (p. 141) Thus, the Royal Canadian Air Force treated its pilots like adults whereas the micromanaged USAF treated theirs like children, and that may help to explain why the RCAF often gets better results in exercises and competitions. Micromanagement is still a very familiar concept to USAF pilots in the 21st century too.

Careerism and low quality training aircraft were also mentioned by the RCAF training pilots. As Milberry put it, “Something else that Canucks at Otis [Air Force Base] note was the emphasis on climbing the USAF ladder – most officers were on career paths, so were very politically correct. In the RCAF the opposite was normal –get the job done, have fun, don’t worry a lot about your career. After all, few RCAF aircrew were careerists.” (p. 214) As for the training aircraft used by the USAF back then, some RCAF pilots had complaints and said the Canadian equivalents were better. “On May 15, 1968, F/L [Bob] Endicott first flew the T-37. Knowing the [Canadian-designed and built] Tutor well, he was not impressed by the underpowered, unpressurized ‘Tweet’ as the T-37 was nicknamed.” (p. 137). This runs contrary to the belief that many American nationalists have that the US makes the best military aircraft in the world. And again, careerism and political correctness are alive and well, sadly, in the USAF, as are badly designed aircraft like the F-35.

Some USAF pilots serving in Canada have admitted that they got their behinds kicked by Canadian pilots earlier in their careers. One such officer was Major Bill Sparks, who flew the CF-104 Starfighter on exchange in the Canadian Armed Forces in the early 1970s. According to Milberry, “He took to the CF-104 automatically and judged the Canadian low-level training system better than anything at Nellis [Air Force Base]. (p. 250)

Back in 1959, “1Lt. [first lieutenant] Sparks was assigned to the 49th TFW [Tactical Fighter Wing] at Spangdahlem, West Germany. He flew the F-100 (which he considered a typical ‘dog’ of its day), then was two years on the F-105, the main role with each being ‘tactical nuke’. Those were the days when the RCAF ‘ruled the roost’ with its Sabre 6 day fighters and the boys at the 49th would have more than their share of run-ins with the Canucks. As Sparks said in 2005, ‘On more than one occasion I was the star of the Canadian film festival,’ meaning that a Sabre had good cine film taken from his ‘six’”. (p. 249)

One last observation from a Canadian exchange pilot. A pilot named Gorm Jensen observed in the early 1970s that the USAF simply went too far at controlling its pilots, even before they get into the cockpit, which is all part of the micromanagement I mentioned earlier. At Shaw Air Force Base, where he instructed USAF pilots to fly the RF-4C, he “got used to the fastidious way that the USAF did everything, e.g. RCAF pilots usually made short work of a walk-around. Not so at Shaw – for the mandatory walk-around, a pilot had his checklist in hand. Passing the tail, it was time to flip to the next page, and flip the pilot did – every item was eyeballed and checked off.” (p. 259) Milberry concluded: “In general, Jensen’s impression was that the USAF was very much system oriented, while the RCAF depended more on the human element.” (P.260). Thus the RCAF followed Boyd’s philosophy that people come first much more than the USAF did. I am told this is still true today.

By the way, a USAF pilot named Lieutenant Colonel Ed Cobleigh who served on exchange with the RAF found out that the Brits think checklists are for the weak as well. When an RAF wing commander found out that some pilots under his command were using checklists, he said: “I presumed my instructions on the use of checklists were well-known, but evidently not. I would like to make my policy crystal-clear. If any pilot in this wing needs to use a checklist to perform his duties, he will be retrained so as to eliminate the need for such a crutch. Our men should know their jobs without reference to the written word. Have I made myself understood?” This flies right in the face of the USAF’s apparent belief that its pilots need to be watched, monitored and nitpicked to death. It sounds really paranoid if you ask me!

Like the Canadians, the Australians have high standards too, no Up or Out promotion system, and excellent combat records, and they also have served on exchange with the USAF. The Canadians mentioned above did not serve in Vietnam during their exchange duty, but I know of one Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter pilot who flew with the USAF in an F-15E in Operation: Iraqi Freedom, and he was frankly appalled by the poor training of his American weapons systems officer (WSO), and came close to suggesting that some USAF aircrew would not pass muster in the RAAF.

Wing Commander Matt Hall, RAAF (Ret.) thought his WSO was simply not up to the job: “There always has to be a lowest common denominator in any environment, and the US Air Force has a different philosophy on training from its counterpart in Australia. The RAAF has a no-loss policy in training and combat. We train to a level where we believe that we should not lose guys through errors in combat. That’s why the courses are so tough. The RAAF won’t accept people who aren’t completely up to scratch. In the USAF, they have so many assets to fill, they’ll take on people who aren’t necessarily going to be the world’s best operators but are going to be safe 90 per cent of the time. The whole thing made me even more appreciative than before to have been trained by the Royal Australian Air Force.”

Careerism. Low selection and training standards. Micromanagement. Political correctness. Some pretty lousy aircraft too, especially the F-35. This would horrify Tom Clancy, but then he never told the truth, but it needs to be heard and understood if America is to prevail in future wars with other great powers, or even lesser powers. I respect the USAF and want it to improve before it is too late.


Larry Milberry, Canada’s Air Forces On Exchange, (Toronto: Canav Books, 2007).

Ed Cobleigh, And I Lived to Tell the Tales: The Life of a Fighter Pilot (p. 179). Check Six Books. Kindle Edition.

Matt Hall; David Lyall, The Sky Is Not The Limit: The Life of Australia’s Top Gun. ABC Books. Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.