|PRIVATE COMPANY GIVES MILITARY PILOTS THE CHANCE TO PRACTICE WITH OUTSIDE FLIERS
By Scott Hadly
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Jeff Parker isn't a bad guy, he just plays one in aerial combat training. The 44-year-old pilot is the CEO and president of ATAC, Aerial Tactical Advantage Co., a private business with its own squadron of mostly retired Navy and Air Force pilots, many of whom are former Top Gun fliers.
Their job is to stage aerial dogfights or mock attacks, such as trying to penetrate groups of Navy ships at sea. Last week, some ATAC pilots were participating in training exercises with the Marine Corps near San Diego, while Parker and other company pilots were heading to Fallon, Nev., to play the enemy in simulated aerial combats with some of the Navy's best pilots.
"We're the bad guys, so to speak," said Parker, who served for nearly seven years with the Air Force before leaving in 1994 to form ATAC.
While visiting some employees at Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, Parker said there are advantages to enlisting his company. It saves the military money by reducing the wear and tear on the frontline fighter jets, such as the F/A-18 Hornets and F-22 Raptors.
Beyond the cost savings, Parker said, ATAC throws military pilots something they're not used to seeing.
"Instead of practicing against each other, they're seeing something dissimilar to what they normally see," said Parker, who with aviator glasses and a flight suit looks like Val Kilmer's "Iceman" character in the movie "Top Gun."
ATAC pilots sometimes win the simulated fights when a military pilot hesitates or makes a mistake, Parker said, but "it doesn't happen often."
Using private contractors
The work is a perfect fit for former fighter pilots who love flying, which is part of the reason Parker started the company.
"This really merged our interest in flying and seeing a business opportunity," he said while walking through the company's hangar on the tarmac at Point Mugu.
Over the past two decades, the military has embraced using private contractors to perform work traditionally done by men and women in uniform.
That's particularly evident in Iraq, where private security firms guard bases, private contractors prepare meals for soldiers and Marines and civilian truckers transport goods and material.
But using a private company for jet fighter pilot training — flying military jets — is relatively new.
There are a handful of other civilian companies that offer similar services, but ATAC is the only company that flies in the complex training scenarios of Top Gun, company officials said.
While other companies do "merge with fighters," turn with them in the air, they aren't equipped to do aerial mock combat, officials said.
The company has also maintained a stellar safety record with no accidents, according to company officials and data kept by the National Transportation and Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration.
The use of private companies for jet fighter training is something that's only been embraced in the last decade, said Richard Plutt, a civilian who runs commercial air services for the Navy.
"It's far more economical," he said.
ATAC can offer its services at an attractive price by operating leaner than the military. Instead of using the military model of assigning more than a dozen people to maintain each jet, ATAC has about two and a half people do the same work for its jets.
Parker said the concept was adopted from a system used by the Swedish military; it involves relying on individual mechanics with complete knowledge of the jets, as opposed to having several individuals focus on certain parts of the plane.
In addition, the Navy is able to extend the life of its F/A-18s because they don't have to be used as much for training exercises, Plutt said.
Plutt notes that not just anyone can get a job with private companies such as ATAC.
"The majority of these guys with ATAC are what we call 'patchwearers,' " he said. "They've been through Top Gun or (Air Force) Fighter Weapons School. They are the cream of the crop."
But private companies face major hurdles in finding jet fighters as well as mothballed or obsolete aircraft, Plutt said.
They must get State Department approval to import planes. And once obtained, the planes must pass FAA inspection.
The companies are thoroughly vetted by the military as well.
Some companies recently had to replace many foreign mechanics who could not get clearance to get onto military bases, Plutt said.
ATAC, which is based in Virginia, has a team of mechanics and pilots who fly out of Point Mugu to support Navy training missions on the West Coast.
The company also has operations in Hawaii and Japan. Almost all the employees — just over 70 — are former military mechanics and pilots. Some pilots are still serving in the Navy or Air Force Reserves.
'Keep living the dream'
The company this year won three large Navy contracts that could total about $43 million over five years if all options are exercised.
Part of that contracted work includes the operations out of Point Mugu, said Matt "Race" Bannon, a former military pilot who is deputy director of business development for ATAC.
The contracts represent a big score for a company that generated about $14 million in revenue last year.
Parker said larger defense contractors have expressed interest in buying the business, but he's not selling. He expects the company to see steady growth as the military seeks to reduce costs by using civilian contractors.
He also has tapped into the desire of a lot of former Air Force and Navy pilots to "keep living the dream," as they say in the military.
"I have no shortage of résumés," Parker said.