One Pilot’s Training Story

…The first phase of pilot training was purely academics, learning the elementary concepts of flight and navigation.  The next phase was basic flight in the T-37, a twin engine jet trainer with the pilot and student sitting side-by-side.  The 1950s era plane had an agonizing engine sound that earned it the nickname “Tweet.”  It was in this aircraft that we were taught the fundamentals of takeoff, landing, and instrument flight.  The first flight in pilot training is traditionally called a “dollar ride,” a term which is sometimes applied to the first flight in any flying training program in a new aircraft.  The student is so clueless and the instructor pilot (IP) has to demonstrate (and thus fly) so much that the student is essentially a passenger.  Traditionally, the student gives the IP of his first sortie a dollar bill as a “tip” for the ride.  The dollars are often decorated with magazine clippings (some more risqué than others), phrases, or other details that might characterize the flight, the student, or the IP.  Many UPT instructors’ desks are littered with laminated, vandalized dollar bills.  The journey from the “dollar ride” to the first solo is amazingly short. 

Only one month after my first flight, I soloed for the first time in an Air Force jet.  I took off with an IP first; after he was confident I could fly without killing myself (or getting him in trouble), we landed and shut down one engine.  He climbed out, I restarted the engine, and I launched again with an empty seat next to me.  Flying alone for the first time inspired confidence, though it was somewhat unnerving—it was well-known that solo student pilots would hear noises and feel things in the jet that they never experienced before.  There wasn’t anything wrong with the jet; the solo pilots were simply more “aware” of every creak and groan of the aircraft.  After I landed from my first solo flight I was carried by my fellow classmates to the “solo pool,” a small swimming pool where all the student pilots who had successfully soloed were dunked.  Thus began my flying career. 

The remainder of my flights in T-37s were relatively uneventful.  A few pilots were eliminated (“washed out”), and one quit (self-initiated elimination, or “SIE”) when he decided that flying just wasn’t for him.  Pilot training was challenging, and many people got discouraged when “mean” instructors were hard on them or when they “hooked” (failed) rides.  Still, a few IPs took time to encourage the students.  One of our IPs had a particularly harsh reputation.  While flying with one of my fellow students he said, “I have the aircraft,” and took control away from the student.  He said, “Take a look at yourself in the mirror.”  T-37s had adjustable rearview mirrors on both sides of the cockpit.  His student shifted the mirror to look at himself, expecting to see something wrong with his helmet or mask.  To the student’s surprise, the IP said, “Now isn’t that one of the coolest things you’ve ever seen?  You’re a pilot, flying a jet.  You are getting paid to do what others would pay money to do.  Now you are that pilot that you always thought was so cool.”  He gave his student a moment to admire the profile of his face in the helmet, with the aircraft just behind him and the Texas landscape far below; then he said, “You have the aircraft.  Now stop screwing up.”  Not long after my class had completed training the Air Force began phasing the aging T-37s out of service and replacing them with the single-engine T-6 Texan II, a tandem-seat turboprop that vastly outperformed the Tweet. 

Most of the T-37 instructors had come from heavy airframes, and many were on their last assignment before they separated and became civilians.  (At one point our flight was called “the Pasture,” because it was where instructors with a short time left in the Air Force were placed.)  They were enjoying their time and building flight and instrument hours; often they would take leave to go to job interviews or complete their airline check-outs.  They headed home early every Friday to spend time with their families or travel somewhere for the weekend.  The T-38 pilots were dramatically different.  With the exception of one former B-1 pilot they were all fighter pilots, and they were only instructing pilot training because the Air Force required it.  All were itching to return to their fighters, and while they were waiting they brought their aggressive pilot attitudes to their instruction.  They took flying very seriously.  These instructors modeled the classic characteristics of the fighter pilot personality.  They were aggressive, terse, and blunt.  Here I first learned that fighter pilots need to have a “thick skin,” because criticisms were not couched in pleasant words but were delivered with severity.  It was not meanness for meanness’ sake; but they were very critical and demanding in a harsh way, at least from the viewpoint of a young student pilot.  The criticism did have a purpose:  the second track of pilot training was not to teach the basics but the foundations of flying a tactical aircraft.

We flew more solo sorties, learned formation flying, and executed what was called “fluid maneuvering,” basically a very elementary form of dogfighting.  Besides the flying, we were taught to frame our thought processes in the same terms as a fighter pilot.  Most US Air Force fighters are single-seat aircraft, which means most fighter pilots spend their time as solo “aircraft commanders” flying in formation with another solo pilot.  (The two-seat F-15E is an obvious exception.  The Navy also has several multi-seat fighter aircraft.)  Previously, the side-by-side seating of the T-37 had made several of the controls, particularly the radio, a stretch for the left seat (student) pilot.  It was not uncommon for a student pilot to ask the IP to make a radio channel change for him.  Most instructors were open to this and even encouraged it as a “crew concept.”  In the tandem seating of the T-38, all the controls were within easy reach.  Besides that, the T-38 IPs emphasized the need for the fighter pilot-to-be to execute the complete mission without assistance.  Some IPs would sit quietly in the back and not say a word during the entire flight. 

After pilot training we still had several training classes to accomplish.  Since the Air Force now knew what aircraft we were going to fly they could send us to training tailored to our specific airframe.  For example, fighter pilots went through a slightly different water survival than heavy pilots; most fighter pilots would probably eject and be alone, while heavies might ditch and have a crew.  In the case of resistance training, which was training for conduct if we became a prisoner of war (POW), there were “special” courses for pilots assigned to aircraft with intelligence missions.  All Academy graduates had completed the forest survival portion of SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) while we were cadets; the resistance portion of the course had been removed from the cadet syllabus after a scandal occurred and was broadcast on national TV.  I completed the resistance training at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington.  After a week at Fairchild I went to water survival at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida, which houses a little-known unit of US Air Force boats.  We had also accomplished part of the water survival training as cadets; we completed the top-off parachuting course in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The Centrifuge

A more significant milestone specific to the fighter pilot is attending the centrifuge, a dastardly little machine located at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.  Made famous by its amusement park portrayals in various movies, the centrifuge was not nearly as fun to actually experience.  Future F-16 pilots were required to stay conscious under a force of 9 “Gs” for 10 seconds.  A person sitting or standing experiences 1 G, or a force equal to gravity.  At 9 Gs, a 200 pound person feels as though they weight 1,800 pounds.  Though significant, the increased “weight” is bearable.  The more challenging aspect of G forces is that the outward forces cause a pilot’s blood to pool in his legs and feet.  The potential result is a lack of sufficient blood to the brain which causes a blackout under G, called a “G-induced Loss of Consciousness,” or G-LOC (pronounced Gee-Lock).  The specialists did a good job of teaching us the proper techniques and gave us equipment to wear in the form of a chap-like “g-suit.”  Much as the movies showed, we were seat-belted into a cubicle that simulated a cockpit.  The cockpit was on the end of a long arm that spun at amazing speeds, compressing us under increased gravity (G) forces.  Sustaining Gs in the centrifuge is significantly more difficult than in the actual aircraft and is extremely physically demanding.  Fortunately, so long as fighter pilots stay current in their airframe they are not required to return to the centrifuge.  It is a “rite of passage” that I would not want to repeat. 

After completing those various training classes I went to the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) course at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.  There we flew AT-38s, a slightly modified version of the T-38 we’d flown in pilot training, and learned the basic concepts of dogfighting and bomb dropping.  The emphasis was formation flying, basic fighter maneuvers, and ground attack.  The IFF squadron was the first one I was in that was composed exclusively of fighter pilots.   

After completing IFF, I was assigned to the F-16 basic course (B-course).  It was a six-month class that started with the fundamentals of taking off and landing in the F-16 and finished with tactics and using the F-16 as a weapon.  The course progressed well, and my training report said that I was an average to above average F-16 student.  The B-course involved many long days; it was intense in a different way than initial pilot training since the F-16 had significantly more systems which required greater systems knowledge.  By this time, though, I was used to the rigor and the schedule of the training.  What was new was the fighter pilot persona that was finally displayed in full force.

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