The air in the room was tense at 5:00 A.M. The students of A-Flight sat at attention in chairs forming a “U” shape around the center of the flight room. In the center of the room a masking tape outline of the runway traffic pattern lay taped neatly to the floor. The aromatic smell of fresh coffee was no comfort to any of us. Not today. It was our first day on the flight line – the “honeymoon” phase of pilot training was over. Now it was time to prove that we belonged here.
The flight room resembled a man-cave of sorts. The walls were adorned with pictures of aircraft, various awards won by the flight instructors, and even a prominently displayed neon “beer light” that would have been equally at home in the window of a dive bar. The instructors’ desks lining the walls behind our circle of chairs were piled high with flight publications, notebooks, and models of the aircraft they flew prior to coming back to instruct UPT. Although we would be spending the next five months in this room, our minds were not on our new surroundings this morning.
Each of us waited nervously as the Instructor Pilot (IP) running morning “Stand-Up” eyed each of us rookies with what could only be construed as contempt. We had already stumbled through the time hack, the weather and NOTAMs brief, and now found ourselves anxiously awaiting the stand-up. For the first three weeks on the flight line we would each have to stand up in front of the rest of the class and recite from memory the Notes, Warnings, and Cautions in the T-37 pilot’s technical order (known affectionately as the “Dash 1”). If you messed up, you were told to sit down while the IP directed the item you messed up to the next student. If you were told to sit down three times, you were removed from the flying schedule for the day and required to hit the books. We each wanted to make a good impression on the IPs as we began the flying portion of our training.
Class Video of Vance AFB Class 05-13
The first flights were scheduled very quickly after we showed up on the flight line and none of us was really sure we were ready. We had only a couple of hours of full-motion simulator time when we jumped in the left seat of the venerable old airborne workhorse known by all those who flew it as the “Tweet”. The Cessna T-37 got its nickname from the high-pitched whistle made by its small turbojet engines. Some of the older pilots called it the “6,000 pound dog whistle.” It made an unmistakable sound and you could easily tell from the ground when one entered the pattern.
I remember skipping breakfast the morning of my first Tweet ride. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the aerobatics, so I figured better safe than sorry. I had hardly slept the night before and felt much like a kid waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. The first flight is called the “Dollar Ride” because everyone gets a pass. You’d have to do something pretty stupid to fail, or “hook”, your Dollar Ride. Because the ride was considered a freebie, you had to give your IP a dollar when it was over. We all got creative and decorated our dollars so the IPs would want to hang them proudly above their desks.
The five months I spent flying the Tweet were divided up into different phases of instruction: Contact, Instrument, and Formation with a brief introduction to Low-Level flying thrown somewhere in the mix. Each phase of flying ended with a check ride you had to pass before progressing to the next phase. A smattering of solo flights were thrown into the Contact and Formation phases as confidence builders.
The Tweet was an interesting bird. Because you sat side-by-side with your instructor you were under constant, close scrutiny. This setup opened up a realm of possibilities for the instructors to inflict all kinds of torment. For the most part, you could count on a simple hand slap if you reached for the wrong switch or dial at the wrong time. The worst recourse I ever experienced was from an old crusty Reserve instructor who liked to reach over and grab the student’s oxygen mask and give it a good shake if they did something he didn’t like. This would not only cut off your air supply, but also give your brain a good rattle.
Throughout all the studying, memorizing, and flying, the competition was always in the minds of those who wanted to fly fighters. We knew the line would be drawn at the end and we wanted to be on the fighter side of that line. During this second phase of UPT a lot of things changed from that first day of academics. We lost five students from our class; four gave up on their dreams and self-eliminated (SIE) while one was washed out. A couple of the guys who quit had wanted to be fighter pilots from the beginning. It was sad to see these guys give up all possibilities of flying the fighter of their dreams, but when I talked to them about it they all said the same thing. They just didn’t think it was worth the effort.
Let me just say right now – if you are going to UPT, or trying to go to UPT, and want to fly fighters, IT IS WORTH IT! Yes, it’s a crazy amount of work and a little bit of punishment, but when you climb into that single seat, supersonic, 9g capable jet and point the nose of the aircraft skyward, you will know that it was all worth it. Don’t give up. Enough said.
The real delineator of primary flight training, when it comes to who is going to fly fighters, is the formation phase of flying. You are introduced to the very basics of military visual formation flying and must perform above average if you want that fighter cockpit. You will spend hours sweating it out in fingertip formation with your wingtip just three feet from that of the other aircraft. You will practice formation takeoffs and landings, and even begin to explore the basics of lead, lag, and pure pursuit. This is also your introduction to being a flight lead as you are responsible for keeping the formation in the confines of the airspace when you are leading the two-ship through your maneuvers. All of this needs to be second nature by the time you get to tactical formation later on in UPT.
With roughly 90 hours under our belts and check rides complete after five months in the mighty Tweet, the moment of truth finally arrived. All of the students in the squadron gathered in the auditorium one Friday afternoon to see who would be going to each “track”: fighters, heavies, or helicopters. The students in my class stood along the wall at one side of the auditorium. We were called up one at a time and were told to face the audience. Our assigned flight commander would tell the audience a little something about the student standing in front, share a funny experience from training, and then flash a picture of the aircraft they would be flying next up on a screen behind the student while telling them to turn around.
My heart was racing as I went to the front of the room. I felt pretty confident that I had done the best I could. It was completely out of my hands at this point, and I just hoped my best was good enough to get a shot at flying fighters. My flight commander put the picture up behind me and I turned around as the other students cheered to see the picture of a T-38C displayed on the wall. I made the cut!
While track select night was a happy occasion for most of my class, it was a sad one for a couple of guys. This was the first time I would witness the tearful receipt of an assignment during my Air Force career. It wasn’t the last time I would witness student pilots crying in such a public setting. We had poured ourselves into the task of learning to fly the Air Force way. I didn’t blame them for the pain they must have felt at not getting their shot at the title, but the fighter pilot in me forced me to focus on the next hurdle. The final phase of UPT would be the most challenging yet. It would be fraught with highs and lows I had yet to experience in my flying career, and at the end of it my path in the Air Force would be set.
After a brief celebration that weekend with my class, I was back in the game for the final stretch. There was still a long way to go before I got my wings and that fighter assignment I had dreamt of for so long.
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