The summer of 2004 seems like yesterday – has it already been nearly 10 years? I was a newly minted 2nd Lieutenant fresh out of Air Force Officer Training School, but I felt as if I held the world in my hands. I had just cleared the final hurdle prior to attending Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) by finishing up Introduction to Flight Training (IFT) at the local FBO. I was finally starting to feel like a pilot!
The first day of UPT is still as clear in my mind as it was bright that morning in late July 2004. I left my dorm room at Vance Air Force Base decked out in blues and set a course for the academic building. I watched as students further along in the program headed towards the flight line in their flight suits. I couldn’t wait to get past the academic phase so I could start flying (and not have to wear blues!).
The academic building resembled one that could be found on college campuses across the country. The aroma of books and old wooden desks wafted through the hallways – a smell which took me back to my days as a college student. A medium sized lecture hall was located in the center of the structure surrounded by several classrooms that gave off a late ‘80s vibe. Around the perimeter of the building were administration and instructor offices.
Several other students were already in my assigned classroom when I arrived. They were all talking quietly, and a nervous air hung about the room. I saw right away that we had a couple Marines and a handful of Navy students in the class, which I guess I wasn’t really expecting. We were all 2nd lieutenants (or ensigns for our Navy friends) with the exception of two Air Force captains. We each asked the others what they wanted to fly at the end of UPT. It became readily apparent who was gunning for a fighter slot. I summed up the competition and tried to calculate my chances of beating the others out for the opportunity to fly fighters. There were thirty of us in that room, and only five of us would find ourselves in the fighter track at the end of Phase II. I tried not to think about the reality of having to compete against others with more flying time than me. I had to get past Phase I of UPT first: academics.
Over the next several weeks we learned about all things flying related. We tackled subjects ranging from meteorology to instrument flight rules. We practiced parachute-landing falls by parasailing behind a blue government-issue van in a farmer’s field adjacent to the base. We became familiar with the nuances of high altitude flight when we tested our hypoxia symptoms in the altitude chamber. Every day was something new and interesting. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid – however small the paycheck – to do this!
In the evenings I would find myself hanging out with my classmates at the dorms or at one of the few restaurants in downtown Enid, Oklahoma. We took turns trying to impress the waitresses by telling them we were pilots. It was obvious they weren’t impressed by our claims to aviation prowess, but they knew if they played along they would get a good tip. Although the members of class 05-13 became fast friends, there was something in the back of each of our minds that reminded us we were competing for a chance to fly the aircraft of our dreams. Still, knowing that stark reality wouldn’t keep us from forming strong bonds that would last to this day.
As the academics of Phase I drew to a close, our class remained intact. We hadn’t lost any students in all the studying and testing. No one left by either self-elimination or getting washing out. It was with high confidence and wide grins that we started day one of our flight line training in Phase II.
I was up well before dawn that morning. I wanted to make sure everything was ready for my trip to the flight line. I pulled on my flight suit, which up to this point had only been worn while looking in the mirror to ensure it captured the true essence of my awesomeness. I grabbed my T-37 checklists and made my way over to the 8th Flying Training Squadron where I would be taking to the skies as a member of A Flight.
Over the next five months, my class of 30 would be whittled down to 25. Friendships would be tested as the “honeymoon” phase of academics gave way to the stressful reality of the flight line. These realities would be a wakeup call for some of my classmates who decided they didn’t want to be pilots after all. For me, the daily stress of the flight line was fuel on an already raging fire. I wanted more than anything to climb into a single-fighter cockpit and own the skies. It would just be a matter of proving to the Air Force, and myself, that I was capable of doing it.
A few things have changed since I went through UPT. The Air Force retired the Cessna T-37 as their primary flight trainer in favor of the more modern Raytheon T-6 Texan. IFT is now IFS (Initial Flight Screening) and is it’s own Air Force training program. Wiz wheels are no longer issued in the academic phase of flying and students are no longer required to fly a fix-to-fix to pass a checkride. Regardless of the relatively dynamic nature of UPT, one thing stays the same: you get paid to do something you love.
Catch up with us again in a few days as I continue to tell my UPT story. If you missed the story of how I ended up going to pilot training, check it out here: Why I Did It. If you have a story of your own you’d like to share, please email us! admin@TallyOne.com.
Tally One Editor Rob Burgon