Top Sun

Surviving the Texas heat to become a reserve pilot

June 1, 2003

The orange sun separates cleanly from the horizon, signaling that another day at the Air Force's busiest training base is also on the rise. More than 250 aircraft line the ramp, most ready for flight. The day now dawning will see 300 sorties, after about 240 students have briefed and crew chiefs have ensured that all systems are go. The T-37 Tweets, T-38 Talons, T-6A Texan IIs, and T-1A Jayhawks (Beechjet 400As in military dress) look like they're flying, although they stand still.

The sky above knows no speed limits. In 1962 the U.S. Air Force Air Training Command took control of Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, first activated in June 1942, and in 1972 the 47th Flying Training Wing was born. The 47th continues to fulfill its mission: to create the world's best military pilots. Today, Laughlin is the biggest pilot training base for the USAF, with roughly one-third of USAF pilots migrating to Del Rio, Texas, to cut their teeth in jet aircraft.

The USAF hones its pilots in a program called specialized undergraduate pilot training (SUPT). Graduates of the Air Force Academy or university ROTC programs across the country comprise most of the 15 classes that matriculate each year. But there are, smoothly mixed in with the rest, another group of pilots who are training to fly for the nation's Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units.

Second Lt. Jason Barton is training for his assignment flying KC-135s for the 63rd Air Refueling Squadron, an Air Force Reserve unit. Barton went into SUPT with more hours than any of his classmates in Laughlin's Class 03-05 (the fifth class scheduled for graduation in the 2003 fiscal year) and turbine time earned while flying a Pilatus PC-12 as a company demonstration pilot: Barton had 2,300 hours; most students have from 70 to 250 hours. He graduated from officer training school at Maxwell AFB, in Montgomery, Alabama, in fall 2001 and began flying T-37s at Laughlin in February 2002. He graduated from the Tweets in July 2002 and entered the T-1A track in preparation for his final course, on the KC-135, in Altus, Oklahoma, in July this year.

Barton became interested in the USAF Reserve in the mid-1990s while serving in the Army Reserve. He had worked his way through college and completed his commercial and flight instructor certificates. After interviewing with three separate units, Barton found a potential pilot slot with his hometown Air Force Reserve unit, the 63rd, at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan. However, his future as a military pilot grew uncertain because of an issue with his vision, and he took a job with Pilatus Business Aircraft. After moving to Colorado, where Pilatus operates a completion center, he found out that the Air Force had granted his request for a vision waiver. By then, he was a year into flying with Pilatus. Still, the chance to earn military wings held an even stronger pull than flying a hot turboprop.

The "standard" student at Laughlin is either an Air Force Academy alum or an active-duty officer who graduated from a four-year college with an ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) program — like active-duty pilot Andy Schwaderer, 25, who went through ROTC while attending college and graduated with a degree in Russian. Students are typically in their early to mid-20s, with a private pilot certificate — which they must have before entering SUPT. For active-duty pilots, the USAF pays for the private pilot certificate, called IFT, or initial flight training. Guard/reserve pilots typically have a private certificate before approaching a unit about a slot, and quite a few have advanced ratings; most pilots with substantial time upon entering SUPT are part-timers.

Guard and reserve pilots account for about a quarter of the students at Laughlin. In Barton's initial class of 30 pilots, five hope to be reserve/guard pilots. A candidate must arrive at SUPT before reaching 30 years of age. Because many guard/reserve units interview for SUPT positions up to two fiscal years in advance, you may not be considered if you are older than 28 upon application. According to Barton, "Age waivers are possible, but rare."

Pilots come to SUPT from around the United States and allied countries. Ralen Chang, for one, speaks with a distinctive Hawaiian accent. He's 27 and will fly KC-135s for the Hawaii National Guard. He's also a full-time firefighter. Since his unit flies both 135s and F-15s, he was initially slated to go through the T-38 track (reserved for budding fighter pilots) instead of the T-1A (which is flown by potential tanker, cargo, and bomber pilots). This is to give him the basics to fly any jet and ease his potential transition to the fighter. Laughlin began training "heavy weapons system" pilots in the T-1A in 1992; before that time, all pilots went to the T-38 after successfully completing the T-37 track — even if they were destined to fly a "heavy."

The training starts with slackademics, as ground school is called because of its relatively routine nature. Once pilots hit the flight line, show times come as early as 5 a.m. and as late as 8:35 a.m. The day begins with a formal briefing, and students take their seats in a circle around the classroom in front of their respective instructor pilots' (IPs) desks. As the flight commander enters the 03-05 T-1A classroom one morning, followed by the IPs, the student leader calls the room to attention. The flight leader reports to the flight commander, "Sir, Hammerhead flight all present or accounted for," at which point the flight commander responds, "Turn and greet your IPs." After an about-face and salute to the IPs, the students take their seats, and sit with feet flat on the floor, heels together. Each student takes a turn at giving the student brief, essentially covering slides of the current and forecast weather, runway in use, and other information for the day's missions.

"The most difficult part of the formal brief is the EP standup," says Barton. EPs, or emergency procedures, are led by an IP, who takes the podium to ask questions of random students. (See sidebar, " Stand Up," this page.) When students are called upon, they must come to attention and recite the answer. Some things you can't even stumble upon, like boldface items from the checklist, which must be committed to memory. In the beginning of training, EPs are "low threat," according to Barton; as the training progresses, students must solve complex emergency situations. If the student makes an error, he or she is told to "sit down," which may preclude him or her from flying that day.

During the day, students weave in and out of the classroom constantly, readying themselves for simulator sessions or flights. When in the room, most are hacking away at the gradebook, the manual containing the pilot's syllabus and lesson records, in an attempt to keep it in order. "I cannot describe the level of frustration I've had with its endless pages of administrivia. You need to document everything. Most of the time you want to find a leaf shredder for the thing," says Barton. As the weeks wear on, Barton begins to understand all the requirements for getting the gradebook filled out correctly — which is important because "you don't graduate, your gradebook does."

First flights are jokingly known as dollar rides, for the traditional tip given to the IP for taking the fresh student for an airplane ride. Barton had two simulator sessions prior to his dollar ride in the T-37. Each lesson, whether in the sim or the airplane, is about three hours long, with a little more than an hour of flying. After two flights and three sim sessions the first week, Barton had a pretty good sense of what his strengths and weaknesses would be. "Basically, the Tweet is easy to fly. I am so thankful for my previous flying experience when it comes to that. But I am going to have problems right away with radio procedures and traffic patterns, since the military does things totally different [as opposed to civilian procedures]."

Scott Dershem, the T-1A flight commander for Class 03-05, agrees that civilian pilots bring a "general air sense and SA [situational awareness] compared to folks with no flight experience." However, those pilots are also "used to doing it their own way, and we want it a specific way. So there's some head butting" as civilian pilots enter the military regime, Dershem says.

Mark Bennett, a supervisor on the T-38 flight line, adds to this: "It's the mind frame. We're just expanding on their airmanship, teaching them to be a little more physical, to project ahead of the jet." When a pilot transitions to the T-38, he or she is preparing for the role of fighter pilot. Flying a business jet, "you have a little bit of time — 160 knots equals 30 seconds on final," says Bennett. "Our basic airspeed [in the T-38s] is 300 knots, and we routinely fly at 500 knots."

The pressure to absorb mountains of information weighs heavily, and this is one area where Barton sees his prior experience as a great aid. "I am having a hard enough time studying for the daily dose of assignments and have devoted little thought to actually flying the airplane. I could not imagine how overwhelming it must be for someone who might also have trouble flying or who gets airsick."

On Friday nights, the class blows off steam by hanging out and hangar flying, and creating silly poems extolling each other's mistakes made during the week. One week, Barton ended up with the "bone," which is a giant plastic bone he had to carry around all week in the classroom for standing up in an EP and saying, "Sir, I don't know the answer."

At the end of the T-37 phase, students track select, according to their progress within the class, their personal preference, and, for reservists and guard pilots, their assignments. Active-duty pilots enter training not knowing what aircraft they will fly for Uncle Sam. Therefore, it comes as a surprise to most whether they move up to the T-38 or the T-1A. Because reservists and guard pilots come to training with an assignment, track select isn't the gut-wrencher that it can be for their active-duty classmates. For example, Barton knew from day one that he'd track select to the T-1A, as his assignment is to fly air-refueling missions in the tanker. There is also the chance of drawing the T-44 at Corpus Christi, or a helicopter option at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

When track select approaches, students put in their preferred track. Because of the nature of fighter aircraft and missions, typically the top pilots in the class go to T-38s — unless they put in a preference for T-1As. Doing so opens up slots down the list for active-duty pilots who put in for the T-38. For example, Chang decided after flying T-37s that he would prefer not to fly fighters, though his unit flies them as well as tankers, and he joined the T-1A track rather than going through the T-38 track. If a guard/reserve pilot is low in the class rank and has a T-38 track because of his or her assignment, the pilot's unit may be called to suggest a swap to place the pilot into a cargo or tanker unit, rather than set the pilot up to fail.

Some pilots take to their specific aircraft, and past performance doesn't always shed light on future success. A student may struggle through the T-37 phase, even wonder about quitting the program. But often the move into the T-1A opens up new opportunities to excel for pilots who collaborate well in the cockpit.

During the T-1A phase, lessons stretch longer as pilots mature in the air. A day may involve a two-hour briefing, a three- to three-and-a-half-hour flight, and a one-hour debrief. Pilots have four simulator sessions (each six hours in length) before hitting the flight line. Crew resource management and flying with a copilot is introduced in this phase, and students are assigned a flying partner with whom they fly exclusively during the T-1A program. However, Barton's first T-1A partner ended up quitting two months into the phase. As a result, Barton ended up flying with just about everyone in the T-1A class.

Students go to one EP session each week rather than every day. These EPs are typically done in pilot/copilot teams to steep pilots in crew resource management techniques. Pilots work on formation, navigation, and low-level procedures while on the flight line.

Learning the mission

The West Texas plains define the idea of open space. Cars roll on the highway, bearings in an empty barrel below the T-1A's flight path. Dershem commands the jet with IP Brian Sciantarelli to model what students in the current T-1A class experience over the course of a training mission. In this case, the low-level flight takes pilots over scrub at 500 feet agl and through dusty canyons wrought by ancient water that is nowhere in sight.

Though Sciantarelli has been based at Laughlin since 2000 and has served on several other bases, many of the instructor pilots are young, even fresh out of SUPT themselves. This can cause problems for experienced pilots coming into training, so those students are typically assigned to more senior IPs. Sciantarelli sees a student's prior experience as beneficial: "Just being able to talk and fly at the same time is a plus," says Sciantarelli. However, "civilians are more verbose" on the radio, he adds diplomatically.

The T-1A phase culminates with the nav checkride. The checkride profile varies — Barton's includes a low-level segment; a low-altitude, full-published-procedure approach; a circling approach; a single-engine ILS with a single-engine go-around; and an ILS without the use of the flight director. The profile takes three and a half hours of flying, and a similar amount of time in brief and debrief. Barton scores a 2E, receiving two downgrades (for crossing through the localizer on the first approach, and a miscue on a subsequent takeoff) on an overall excellent ride.

At this point, Barton has one phase left, mission familiarization. This entails three formation flights, three formation airdrop flights, and four air-refueling flights in the T-1As in preparation for missions in the KC-135. Then he takes his final checkride — on which he scores a zero downgrade. Perfect marks cap his time at SUPT.

And the bar is set pretty high. As Barton explains it, "Even the lowest performing person in class needs to be able to hang in fingertip formation, do four- to five-G acro, and stand up in front of classmates and talk through an emergency. That is the only way you can create a type-rated, multiengine instrument pilot in 200 hours of flight time."

The price that pilots pay for the incredible amount of training they receive varies according to their slot. While active-duty USAF pilots typically commit to 10 years of full-time service upon the completion of training, reservists and guard pilots may be required to serve full time anywhere from two months to two years.

After that, the pilots revert to a schedule that includes a weekend of duty each month, plus two weeks of duty every year. In addition, they must stay current in their aircraft, for which most pilots fly a few hours during the week, every week, for a total duty average of five to seven days a month. Of course, the unit may be activated — an important contingency to plan for, given the current state of world affairs. As of press time, Barton's unit remains inactive.

At assignment drop, active-duty members of the class discover their next aircraft and base. Two guys from class FAIP (first assignment instructor pilot) are assigned to the T-6 at Moody AFB. At the beginning of SUPT, Schwaderer wanted to get C-130s; however, he is assigned the C-17 at McChord AFB during drop.

For most guard/reserve pilots, the drop is a given — for a few, it's written in their genes. Second Lt. Angela Hauck is going to Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Washington, to fly KC-135s with the Washington Air Guard. She joins her father and her brother there — the Hauck siblings are one of the very few, if not the only, brother and sister pair flying for a single guard unit.

During graduation, the newest incoming class of students sits in the rear of the auditorium to watch Class 03-05 walk across the stage. In his remarks Col. Daniel Woodward, current Laughlin base commander and a general aviation pilot, reminds them that sitting in the front seats "is an honor that you must earn," not a guarantee.

Indeed, of the 30 pilots who began with 03-05, 22 receive their wings at Laughlin on this Valentine's Day. Five students had gone to Fort Rucker, and three dropped out of the class. Those who do graduate enjoy the moment and accolades from family and friends. Chang, for example, has scored a direct flight back to Hawaii in a KC-135 with members of his unit who attended the graduation.

Amidst the graduation festivities, Barton secured five awards for his hard work over the previous year — Distinguished Graduate, Flying Training Award (T-37 and T-1A), AETC Commander's Trophy (T-1A), and perhaps one to be proudest of, Top Lobo, given by his fellow students and instructors for being an exemplary student and fellow pilot. Though everyone in the class has something to be proud of — graduation alone is an awesome accomplishment — that Barton has commanded so much honor from his superiors and colleagues speaks to his dedication. His Michigan unit offered, and Barton accepted, a full-time position — not surprising in the current climate — for three years, which starts when Barton finishes KC-135 school and returns to Michigan in fall 2003.

The payoff is high and specific for Barton. As a flight instructor by passion, he would like to return to teaching, perhaps while fulfilling his commitment to the USAF, and certainly back in the civilian world. "Every day here I find myself adding new tools to my CFI bag of tricks, plus I walk away with 200 hours of jet time and a Beechjet type rating. Not bad."

Most of all, Barton appreciates the breadth of experience granted him by the year of training. "I'm happy that I was exposed to flying an ejection-seat aircraft, advanced aerobatics, and formation, then on to the T-1 side with NDB circling minimums approaches, and formation, low-level airdrop missions. I know I will always look back positively upon the experiences of SUPT — although it wasn't always fun at the time."

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Stand Up

"Preparation on the ground is superior to improvisation in the air."

Emergency procedures, or EPs, are a critical part of USAF flight training, and a close corollary to sections of the practical test standards that general aviation pilots must pass with each checkride. However, like nearly everything else in the military, EPs are more intense than their GA brethren — yet taking a look at how these students master EPs can help civilian pilots solve problems in their own cockpits.

Pilots typically perform EPs during the morning briefing. In the first phase, they are short, primarily requiring pilots to memorize boldface checklist items. Later in training, EPs become complex, moving into crew coordination exercises for pilots on the T-1A track. No matter what phase the pilot is in, he or she must begin the EP with the phrase, "I will maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation and take the appropriate action, and land as soon as conditions permit." Its purpose is to instill proper habit patterns.

EPs emphasize that control of the aircraft is paramount. Pilots can engage the autopilot, hand control of the aircraft over to a copilot, or continue in straight-and-level flight at a safe altitude.

Next, pilots are taught to analyze the situation. In the EP, the student asks the instructor for any available information, and the IP responds according to the real-world cockpit indications, weather, and airport environment for the scenario he has crafted. If the solution is time critical, the student is expected to recite any boldface checklist items appropriate to the emergency, such as a low cabin pressure indication that requires immediate donning of oxygen masks. In a single-engine airplane, establishing best glide after an engine failure is a good example of a boldface item.

Many pilots respond to an emergency with the compulsion to act immediately. However, most EPs involve situations when it's best to take the time to think through the problem. Examine the options, make a decision, and then coordinate with air traffic control in completing the flight safely.

The final step, land as soon as conditions permit, is another mandate that all pilots should take to heart. Pressing on with compromised aircraft systems, such as an alternator failure that strikes in day VFR conditions, may seem reasonable at the time, but what if the weather changes? What if darkness falls? Instead, land at the nearest suitable airport, and sort things out from the safety of the ground. — JKB