The thrill of being selected for the fighter-bomber track for Phase III of UPT was relatively short lived. As my class gathered in the squadron bar to celebrate, my new T-38 flight commander rounded up the five Active Duty and one Guard student that would be under his command for the next six months. After an unceremonious introduction he handed us each a packet of T-38C “gouge” that included the boldface emergency procedures.
“Have these memorized by Monday,” he barked as he left the room without so much as a “see ya later.” After clawing our way to the top of the pile over the past several months, my new flight mates and I now found ourselves once again at the bottom of the barrel. Our new instructors didn’t care how well we could fly the Tweet. We were starting all over.
When the flying portion of the T-38 syllabus began we quickly learned just how challenging Phase III would be. The T-38 wasn’t a difficult jet to land, but it was very difficult to land well. The T-38’s symmetrically cambered wing, with a wingspan 11 feet shorter than that of a Cessna 172, required a minimum approach speed of 160 knots (175 knots if flying a no-flap approach). Ground effect is essentially non-existent in this jet. Needless to say, there were some ugly landings. All of us were glad in the beginning to have an instructor in the back seat to save our bacon and keep us from putting the struts through the wings.
The syllabus phases in the T-38 were similar to those in the T-37: Contact, Formation, Low-Level, and Instrument. The Contact phase saw us practicing landings, stalls, and aerobatics. It also saw my first “hooked” ride. Each ride in UPT is graded as an overall Excellent (E), Good (G), Fair (F), or Unsatisfactory (U). We called the “U” a “hook” or “taco”. If you taco’d the ride, you’d have to do it over. My steaming taco came on my first T-38 solo.
After taking off, I checked in with RAPCON for my area assignment. All of the close working areas were taken, and I was assigned an area in the outer ring of the airspace. After my G-awareness exercise I got set up for my first maneuver, a loop. Loops in the T-38 take roughly 10,000’ of altitude to accomplish and are started at 500 knots. I was excited to be performing this maneuver by myself for the first time and I was determined to finish it in less than 10,000’. I pushed the throttles up to MIL and dumped the nose to pick up the requisite entry speed. As soon as I got my airspeed, I pulled back on the stick nearly planting it in the seat pan. A fraction of a second after I did that, I heard a sound that nearly stopped my heart. It was a two-pitch tone alternating high and low and accompanied by a text message in the HUD: “Over-G”.
Yes, in my attempt to be awesome I nearly ripped the wings off the jet. The high speed required for a loop, the pitch sensitivity of the T-38, the lower G-limit for high fuel weight, and my inflated ego all combined to form the perfect storm keeping me from passing the ride.
I didn’t exceed the G-limit by much, but in the digital world of the C-model T-38, even a hundredth of a G above the calculated limited would result in an over-g warning and require maintenance action. That hundredth of a G would also mean the difference between passing and failing the ride. I walked back into the flight room that afternoon with my cranium hung low, certain my dreams of flying a fighter were all but thrown out the window. Luckily for me, such big decisions are not based on one stupid incident.
The Formation phase was where we started to feel like fighter pilots. Although we were constantly hammered to perfect our rejoins, fly stable close formation, and keep our tactical formation from drifting outside of a mile, we felt like we were actually progressing. The pinnacle of the Formation phase for me was the formation solo. That day, my instructor jumped in the front seat of his jet without a student, and I settled into my “quiet” cockpit. Two jets for two pilots – “Just the way the good Lord meant it to be,” my instructor said.
It’s funny how different flying can be without the safety net of an instructor in the cockpit. My first solo in a Cessna 172 and my first formation solo in the T-38 had several things in common. Of note, I noticed every little sound the engines made, and felt every little bump or vibration made when I moved the flight controls. The adrenaline had made me hyper sensitive to anything that could possibly go wrong. Thankfully, everything went right and the formation solo went off without a hitch. After landing I felt like King Kong. I wanted more than anything to get into that single-seat fighter cockpit.
Although the instrument phase would prove to be much less exciting than the aerobatics and formation, it brought with it its own element of excitement. We were given the “keys” to the jets and allowed to take them cross-country over a weekend. Our instructors had to tag along of course, and asking one on a cross-country was similar to asking a girl to high school prom. You had to choose the right one, otherwise the several hours of flying straight and level might get awkward. Once you had chosen your instructor, you had to ask him or her to go with you without looking or sounding awkward; a task which proved to be quite difficult.
Me: “Capt Clark, I was…uh, wondering if you would…uh, go on cross-country with me? If you’re already going that’s totally cool. I just…you know…thought it might be fun if…”
My IP: “Shh…stop right there. You had me at ‘cross-country’”.
The IPs liked to get off station and have a little fun, so they were usually pretty excited to get asked out on cross-country. I don’t remember all the details of our trip around the midwest, but after the three-day weekend I felt like a more competent instrument pilot and was more convinced than ever that tactical flying was what I wanted to do.
At the end of a grueling six months my entire class found ourselves at the O’ Club in front of an audience of hundreds of Vance students and family members. The flow was similar to that of our track select night. The student would go up in front and face the audience while a picture of their assigned aircraft was flashed up on the big screen behind them. I was hoping against hope to turn and look to see a Viper displayed on the big screen.
We had all filled out our dream sheets, listing out in order of preference the aircraft we wanted to fly. I listed all of the fighters first, followed by FAIP, followed by bombers. Not all of those aircraft would be in our drop – only what the Air Force had available at the time. I stood calmly facing the audience. While I desperately wanted my single-seat fighter, I was going to be ok with whatever showed up on that screen, fighter or otherwise.
After giving a brief introduction about me, my flight commander finally told me to turn and face the screen. I slowly turned to see a familiar pointy nosed jet staring back at me. It was the venerable T-38C with a Vance tail flash. At first I thought it was a joke, then reality set in. I was going to be a FAIP (First Assignment Instructor Pilot). Although it wasn’t what I wanted, I was flattered that the squadron liked me enough, and trusted me enough, to ask me to stay as one of them. Given the rest of the drop my class received, I felt pretty good about my assignment.
I couldn’t help but smile as I shook the hand of every instructor in the squadron. They were the bros who would continue to prepare and help me to eventually get an assignment that, at the time, I didn’t even know would be a possibility.
A couple of weeks after assignment night Class 05-13 gathered together one final time in the base auditorium. We were decked out in our service dress; our families and friends once again present. This time, they would be pinning wings to our chests. For me, the “winging” was confirmation that my dream had finally come true. I was a rated pilot in the United States Air Force. But there was still a lot of work to do in order to get where I wanted to go.
Be sure to read the other articles our series recounting one pilot’s road to a fighter cockpit: