Solo!

If you're going to be a U.S. Air Force pilot, you're going to Pueblo first

October 1, 2008

Here’s good advice for the next time you are flying within 25 nm of Pueblo, Colorado. Watch for white and green-striped Diamond DA20-C1 two-seaters from dawn to dusk Monday through Friday, anytime the weather is VFR. The Doss Aviation Initial Flight Screening program, operating under contract to the U.S. Air Force, conducts 24,000 training flights a year.

The purpose of the program may seem cruel, but weeding out is what it does. It’s up to the student to prove that he or she deserves to be there. The Air Force can save a great deal of money (like $1 million per student in later stages of training) by finding out early who should not be there. Sometimes a student will show himself or herself the DOR, so to speak, as in “drop on request.” It could be that a student is fulfilling a parent’s dream but lacks the personal commitment, or maybe the eye-hand coordination for landing just isn’t there.

At this stage of training, the students are like any other student pilots. They want passionately to fly and are trying to solo. They have 19 flights and 25 flight hours in which to do it, and that time includes a confidence-building solo trip to the practice area plus a post-solo dual flight that precedes a final checkride.

Those who have never flown an airplane before struggle the most, while those who soloed or got a private certificate prior to training have an obvious advantage. “If you’re gambling your whole career on passing this course, it pays to get [prior] flight training,” said instructor Paul Spear. Some who come with a flight instructor certificate, like Lt. Nathan Mueller, are asked to perform at a higher level. “I was trying to keep that under wraps,” recalled Mueller, who arrived as an instrument flight instructor incognito. “When it finally came out, they raised the standards and made sure I was challenged.”

Like us, a passion to fly

Think of what got you interested in flying. It’s the same for these college-graduate lieutenants. “I have enjoyed looking at airplanes ever since I can remember,” said Lt. Josiah Smith. “Airshows had a big effect on me, especially if they included the Thunderbirds. They let me see that I could do that, too.” He soloed a Cessna 152 to improve his chances of getting accepted into pilot training.

A discovery flight at the local airport received as a gift from an uncle helped fire a passion for flight in Lt. Tim Newschwander. Although he hopes for F-16 training, he said he “will take anything with wings” and is one of several candidates to voice decidedly anti-Navy sentiments.

“I didn’t want to live on a boat for eight months in a box about as big as a table,” Newschwander said. Another student, Lt. Andrew Maston, added, “I’d rather have a longer runway than land on a carrier.” Those may be harsh words for Maston’s dad, a former naval aviator. A third student, Lt. David Foster, was accepted for admission to the United States Naval Academy but turned it down because he felt the Air Force had a greater variety of airplanes.

There were no pilots in the family when University of Texas graduate Lt. Kelly Wolter got her private certificate on her own. Her previous flight experience helped her take in stride the 10- to 12-knot crosswinds on the day she made her solo flight at the Pueblo airport. “Maybe I am starting a family tradition,” she said. The Castroville, Texas, native voiced an amazement echoed by several of her classmates: “You get paid to learn to fly!”

For those who have never flown before, the solo is as memorable as it is in the civilian world. Lt. Anil Nathan said, “Putting the training into practice—and being able to do that by yourself—was awesome.” Rewards were immediate during the flight; he got to change the call sign, usually “Tiger” (meaning an instructor is onboard) to “Kitty” followed by his own flight number. And there was the patch with the slogan, “Diamonds in the rough,” that was Velcroed to his shoulder and set firmly in place by a traditional punch from his instructor. (For the record, women candidates are not socked in the shoulder. Their patches are patted on, but in a politically correct way.) “It’s a good bruise,” said Foster.

Time for humor

Lt. Kevin Milgram became a class legend when, not wanting to bust a checkride on stall recovery procedures, he shook the control stick and told the instructor, “There’s the shudder,” well before any airframe buffeting developed. He then demonstrated an amazing recovery with no loss of altitude.

In a class prior to Milgram’s, a student on his first solo takeoff was a lot more nervous than he seemed. Soon everyone at the airport knew that, as the student accidentally squeezed the microphone button on the control stick during takeoff. As the Diamond gathered speed and lifted off, those tuned to the tower frequency heard a continuous refrain of, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”

It would have been understandable if Lt. Ben Gleckler had become rattled during the climbout on his first solo flight when two F-16s chose that moment to make a low pass along a parallel runway, afterburners roaring. Later he was asked whether it had distracted him. “I was thinking, ‘Eighteen months,’” Gleckler said. He wasn’t distracted at all—just eyeing his next goal from a very good seat.

An instructor recalled another student who, whenever he had a problem, blamed the wind, no matter what the problem was. The wind had powers to disrupt stalls, steep turns, slow flight, patterns, and—of course—landings.

Physical plant

Bidding took place two years ago for the flight screening program. It was once done by Doss at Hondo, Texas, and there followed an experiment with civilian flight schools. Now Doss has won it again after competing against aerospace giants like Lockheed Martin. Students live down the hall from their classrooms, the cafeteria, and even the barbershop and snack shop; their aircraft are only 100 feet outside the door. Their 195 “hotel” rooms are on the first floor of a building once used by Lockheed Martin to make military avionics. While Program Director Paul Walker, a former General Dynamics FB-111 pilot, prides himself on maintaining “three-star hotel” standards, there are no mints on the pillows at night or bed-turndown service, and only the room for visiting generals has windows.

Instructor pilots, known as IPs, come from a mixture of civilian and military backgrounds. Representative of a civilian background is Tanith Hicks, who has no military service but likes “a structured teaching environment” and gave flight instruction at the United States Air Force Academy. She is an assistant flight (class) commander and proudly displays a dollar bill with a picture of a baby pasted where George should be. First training flights are known as “dollar flights” because each student owes the instructor a dollar afterward. One of her students took note of her pregnancy and decorated the bill accordingly. Typical of those with prior military service is the commander of D Flight, Kip Warton, an Air Force Academy graduate and former Air Force lieutenant colonel who has 3,300 jet hours and 450 general aviation hours. Like Walker, he flew FB-111s and also instructed in Northrop AT-38B (fighter-bomber training aircraft) and T-38C (glass cockpit) aircraft.

Maintenance personnel patrol the flight line in a golf cart to repair any squawks quickly and keep 45 aircraft in the air. There have been few problems with the Diamond trainers. The main one so far was engine hesitation caused by the altitude-compensating fuel pump on the 125-horsepower Continental IO-240 engine. Although there is a mixture control on the console, students need never move it. After all, there are no mixture controls in the Air Force fleet. Engines are replaced when the time for the first overhaul is reached to keep problems to a minimum. Students talk about how light the aircraft are—“Lighter than my Jeep,” said one—and also the aircraft’s tendency to float during landing thanks to its glider heritage, but they genuinely seem to enjoy it.

There seems to be a clear sense of purpose shared by the civilian security guards at the gate, cafeteria personnel, housekeeping staff, and managers that something important is going on here—and there is no doubt that the Air Force is watching. Doss Aviation is making tigers out of kittens.

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.