Flight School Advice

By lex, on October 11th, 2005

Got a nice email from a recently commissioned ensign, asking me for advice as he went to flight school. Thought I’d share it with you:

Lex (or Sir),

I’m a newly commissioned ensign who just reported to Pensacola and is patiently waiting in A-pool to start up API. I was bored tonight and went online to look up some info on an adversary patch I saw on a LT’s Hornet pilot’s shoulder earlier this morning. After finding out about the VFC and VF squadrons I finally made it to your site and came across some really great stories. Although I can’t relate to the aviation ones (yet), I am a member of USNA ’05 and definitely had my share of King Hall food fights. Anyways, being as new as I am to this aviation thing, I’m addicted to your stories and have dreams of one day flying something with a pointy nose and twin tail. I was wondering if you had any advice that you could give me. Unfortunately you don’t run into too many fighter pilots in the halls of Annapolis, and the helo guys all say it’s complete luck (which I’m not sure I buy into). My plan is to work hard and stay humble, but if you had anything else for me I’d really appreciate it. Thanks for any help you can give me, and for giving me a glimpse of what might hopefully be in my future.

Very Respectfully,

(name withheld)

My reply:

“Hiya xxx,

You’ll probably get tired of hearing old guys tell you that they’re envious of what you’ve got before you. But on the chance that you haven’t heard it all yet, trust me when I say that I’d trade it all with you in a second. You’re going to have a lot of fun. Maybe not every moment of flight school, but most the times with the friends you meet, the classes you share, the first fleet squadron you get to. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that – or at least, it does, but not in the same way. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense. In 20 years or so, trust me – it will. If I’m still kicking 20 years down track, holler at me, and see if it isn’t so.

Getting your wings and arriving at your goal (fighters – good man!) is a long road. You can’t do it all at once, and there’s no point to look at it in its entirety up front. Focus instead on the task(s) at hand, while keeping the destination in sight out there in the middle distance whenever you get a chance to ease straps for a bit on the daily ruck and look downrange. It’s easy to focus on the obstacles in your path, rather than the pathway itself. That’s the reason I guess why so many folks who leave the road while driving cars end up hitting the light post, even though there’s much more space between the light posts than there is space occupied by light posts. They end up staring at the obstacle, and that’s what they hit. Look to the path.

The path is made up mostly of hard work. There’s an innate part of flying that can’t be taught – you either have that or you don’t. Having it will make certain things easier, but other things harder. For example, it’s hard to teach when you’re a “natural.” Because you can’t know whether or not you’ve got the innate thing inside you, you have to act as though you didn’t. Hurl yourself into the learning of your trade as though your life depended upon it. It does.

The good news is that the innate thing is not a critical ability, just a “nice to have.” Just about anyone can do what’s required – what the Navy is looking for is those who can learn it in the minimum time. Be attentive to your instructor when he talks about technique. He wants you to learn from him. He wants you to want to learn from him. Teaching you is his mission. It’s what he does, it’s what he’s for. It might not always seem that way, but it’s true. You are his job.

The helo guys who tell you that it’s all luck are exactly right. What they maybe didn’t tell you is that you make your own luck. Get a little bug-smasher time at the local flying club, if you haven’t already done so. Get comfortable in the element. It’ll be different in a military plane, all strapped in at seven points and with a parachute behind you, but it’s not that different, and the air doesn’t care. On top of everything else, the fact of the matter is that the company you’ve joined treasures performance above everything else. If you’re number one in what you’ve done, all doors are open unto you.

Someone has to be number one. It might as well be you.

The academic portion of flight school only counts for maybe 15 per cent of your total grade point average. Which makes it really important to do well. It’s not hard, compared to what you’ve already been through at USNA. It’s just different. A lot of your classmates will blow it off, settle for mediocre scores, content themselves with average. There’s so much else to do in Pensacola, now that you have your freedom, clear of “Mother B” and her suffocating embrace. My recommendation to you? Moderation in all things – have fun, because there’s a lot of fun to be had, but work hard at the academic side, too – a couple of points on the Navy Standard Score bell curve? it might make all the difference.

Do by all means be humble. Your instructor may ask you what you want to fly, when you finish flight school. If you’re in Primary, odds are that most of your IP’s are prop and helo pilots. No reason for an ensign to tell them, “I want to fly FA-18′s or nothing.” Be truthful, but keep it small – “I’d kind of like to fly jets,” is a good answer. Your grade sheet will have room for above average marks, average marks, below average marks and unsatisfactory marks. You’re trying to get “above average” checks – one or two per flight, while limiting the “belows” and eliminating the “unsats” entirely. If you tell him you want to fly jets, that can turn a “one above” flight into a “two above,” or maybe an average flight into a one-above. After all, he wants to see you succeed, if you’re at all a decent sort. He cares about his grade point average, because he doesn’t want to be seen as a candy-man. But he’ll help you if he can, and every little bit helps, especially over time.

Be prepared for every brief – there will be “emergencies of the day” on the flight schedule. Know them cold. There will be procedures for each maneuver that you’re expected to know by heart. Know them. Be on time for every brief or lecture.

PS – five minutes early is on time. On time is late.

When you get to basic jets? Ground school. Scroll up four paragraphs. Repeat. Your goal here is to get to advanced jets. The guys a class or two ahead of you can be good sources of “gouge.” Just be careful – they know more than you, but they don’t know that much. If they tell you that LT Jones is a stickler for NATOPS knowledge in the brief, well then, that’s good gouge. If they tell you that it’s OK to break your minimum descent altitude, if only for a moment, take that one with a huge grain of salt.

Instrument flight – you’ll get a lot of simulators to train you on instruments. Treat every one of them like they were coming out of your retirement. To this day, I’ve never done anything as hard as a partial panel S-3 pattern in the TA-4J trainer. But “above averages” in simulators count just like above averages in flights. If they let you get practice time on your own (the policy changes from year to year), pay your dues in the trainer on your own. It will make you better.

When you get to advanced jets? Ground school. By now, you know what to do. The challenge will be to do it. Don’t ease off in the final lap. The early familiarization flights, instrument flights and form flights are all about smoothness, competency, procedures. When you get to ground attack and basic fighter maneuvers, the focus shifts a bit – now it becomes about the will to win, aggressiveness and accuracy. Care deeply about getting the first bomb in the bulls-eye ring, like maybe lives were at stake on the other end. Someday, they will be. Make winning in air combat personal, like you’re in a knife fight in a phone booth, and someone has to die before anyone gets to leave. Could just happen, some day.

If you get to the finish line, and get fighters? Be humble. Because now the learning begins. If it didn’t happen? Then you gave it your best shot, and you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell the kids that follow after you that it was “all luck.”

You’ll get there if you want it bad enough, although it’s hard.

Is it worth it?

Oh yeah. It’s worth it.

Good luck,


I know I’ve got at least two readers who are also results of “the process” – what did I leave out?

08-29-2018 Ensign P., who was asking for Lex’s advice, reports back 3 years later – Ed. 


10-19-20 Lex, in another post that I just picked up from the Wayback Machine, said that “The real value, I think, was in the comments. It still stands up.”

So here they are:


SDCarroll Says:

October 11th, 2005 at 10:35 pm


Any truth to the rumor that MS’ Flight Simulator with local maps are a huge help with terrain familiarization?

Just curious.


Beth Says:

October 11th, 2005 at 10:43 pm

Someone has to be number one. It might as well be you.

A full-throated version of some things I heard from a friend recently… 😉

Dave Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 7:09 am

Beware of the possibility of being too good.

My son’s story:

Distinguished Graduate from Advanced jets.

Top Gun Award for ACM

Top Hook award for 10 for 10 at the boat.

First Choice .. F-18’s East

Assignment…VAQ 129…Prowler’s. Now VAQ 139

Conversation with CO of Training Squadron.

“Did you see my ACM grades?”

” Yes, I also saw your boat grades ”

Final Comment: ” If I had seen that coming I would have flown down the right side of the boat instead of trapping.”

Be careful out there.

Kwame Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 7:21 am


You got just about everything, all I would add is

1)Primary-Trim, Trim, Trim then Trim again. If you aren’t trimming you’re being lazy, and that is a mortal sin.

2)Advanced- In Meridian at least, there are always backseats open, jump in them as much as you can, you’ll be surprised how much you learn. Also every morning between 6-7am there is free practice time in the simulators. You have to be there at 5:30 to get one. Again laziness is a mortal sin.

You are going to make mistakes in the plane, lots of them. IP’s talk about studs as much as we talk about them, if you have a reputation as a solid hard working student, they may assume that your mistakes are a one time thing.

If you have time check out http://www.airwarriors.com lots of good gouge.



Prowler RAG Student

Kwame Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 7:26 am

Dave, Sir,

Ah good old quality spread, I too was a distinguished grad, I too got my sixth (and last)choice, but in the end the only thing we can do is work hard.

Btw is your son “DickieB”



Idaho Joe Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 7:30 am

Capt. Lex, great Post. I’m going to make sure “the Cat” reads this and then brush it off in 6 years when she (hopefully) is at the same point in time as the original student. She’s still on course and speed towards the Academy and NROTC.

As for Frogger’s advice about the Air Warriors site I concur. A bit of advice though is to lurk for a while and read old posts before jumping in. Those guys can be brutal if you show any weakness or stupidity. Good practice for a future Naval Aviator and Officer.

lex Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 10:09 am

Steve – I’ll bet they do help, if the terrain is in fact representative. Most of primary training and at least a good part of basic and advanced jets is navigating visually, which is definitely an acquired skill from the air, at least at first. Point Stuckey’s, as I recall, was a key reference point in Pensacola, as was Picken’s Gate, Saufley Field, I could go on and on.

I wonder how many of those are left since last year’s hurricane?

Dave – I’m hoping your man will be happy where he’s planted. There’s a reason why guys with great boat grades are often placed in Prowlers – compared to the Hornet, it’s more challenging to land, and it’s a super-expensive airframe with four souls on board – but all of this you know, as he does I’m sure. But Kwame’s also right, you do the best you can and hope for the best. In the end, there will always be the “needs of the service,” and there are very few guarantees.

Jonboy Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 10:58 am

To repeat Kwame:

TRIM. Develop the habit early. And it should become a habit.

If you are gripping the stick tightly to control the plane, it’s out of trim. I held a pen between my fingers on my stick hand when flying, and it would bite into them if I started to grip hard. If you can let go of the stick and nothing happens, at least for a few seconds, then you’re close.

You will get distracted by having to talk on the radio, or read your instrument approach chart, etc., but if the aircraft is trimmed up, it won’t go anywhere on its’ own real fast.

In primary flight, they had a long complicated set of maneuvers that I think they called a yoke pattern. It was outlined on a kneeboard card and was performed on instruments in the back seat under the hood. During my debrief from that hop the instructor asked me if I was reading the card during the pattern as there seemed to be a significant pause between sets of maneuvers. I answered affirmative and he gave me an above average on trim. I didn’t know that most students memorized the pattern and flew it from memory. I was afraid I’d forget a step so I was very familiar with the procedure but didn’t trust my memory, so I followed the card. That was a nice surprise.

Academy grads generally tend to go in two directions in flight school, especially early on. One group finds the freedom of being out of the Academy too much to resist and may party themselves out of flight school. The other set knuckle down and do their best. The second group still has a hell of a lot of fun, but knows how to set priorities.

Everything counts towards your goal, which is to be the best you can be. So go for the gold in ground school and in the air.

Everything is graded. Flight maneuvers are graded on a sliding scale over time.

Some maneuvers are first demonstrated by the instructor and then the student tries it as an introduced maneuver. Many are directly introduced with the student doing it for the first time and the instructor correcting errors or showing the entire maneuver correctly.

The first few times you do a maneuver you aren’t expected to do it well.

These same maneuvers are then practiced on successive flights until the check ride where they are reviewed. By that time they should be performed flawlessly.

I discovered that the earlier you can stick the maneuver, the more above averages you can accumulate. By the time the check ride approaches you are expected to nail it so the same performance later is considered average.

Good luck, and I envy you for the adventure and challenges that await.

badbob Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 11:44 am

I wish Algore invented the internet back in ‘76. I needed all the help I could get. Great gouge.

I take it API is what they called AI? Ground school. Don’t go out every night, maybe just 4-6 nights and you’ll be fine. A cakewalk.

Is primary still Whiting and T-34C’s? Could be Texans now- and joint, right?

Stop going out UNTIL you solo- be a monk for a couple months (look at it as practice for cruise). Over & above trainer gouge is real good. Ask questions- lots of them. 13 flights to solo goes fast.

About getting jets. Under no circumstances listen to the P-3 guys tell you how much they get for per diem. That’s how they lure the unwary. Plus, you might end up flying E-2’s- badddd. Helo’s? Well if you get ‘em you’ve screwed up Lex’s and mr. jonboy’s advice above.

Flying gouge- I’d say keep your head out of the cockpit as much as possible when you can. Later on you’ll get all the distractions added in. Concentrate hard on your landings and get a good start. Learn something new each flight. At night before a flight spend an hour or two going over every aspect in your mind. By this I mean sit on the couch and talk your way right throught the flight. Move your hands, too. If you can visualize it before flight you can do it.

re- Being pissed at flying Prowlers- don’t- for all the reasons above and the simple fact that it’s actually easier to get Hornets! Everybody flies Hornets nowadays. Plus, you get to live in Whidbey. Have you ever been to Lee-more, CA? Anyways if you hold on long enough you’ll get to fly Growlers…maybe.


lex Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 12:16 pm

Lee-moore. I spent all of flight school trying to get to Lemoore (it’s in California!) and the rest of my career trying to get out of there.

But they’ve got a Wal-Mart now. Blockbusters, too. Very sophisticated.

FbL Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 12:31 pm

A Blockbuster Video?! We don’t even have one of those in my current hometown! *wide-eyed awe*

Jonboy Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 1:18 pm

Say, what do they call the citizens of Lee-moore?

Dave Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 1:49 pm

Prowlers have been great to him. The point of the post is don’t get hung up on what you think you want because you can actually out do yourself into something that isn’t on your preference card.

A 28 year old bachelor who owns a home on Whidbey with a view of the water and two cars has a life that ain’t all that bad. His only complaint is that when the girls turn 16 and get their drivers licenses, they find out you can leave the island and they apparently never come back. A more metropolitan setting

( F-18’s East ) would have been preferable on the social front. Professionally, life is great according to him.

Just doesn’t match the social life of my SWO tours in Long Beach, Pearl and Guam ( well maybe like Guam ) before coming ashore.

lex Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 2:00 pm

Lee-MORONs. As you very well know 😉

Dave – “A 28 year old bachelor who owns a home on Whidbey with a view of the water and two cars has a life that ain’t all that bad.”

I should think not 🙂

API Ensign Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 4:59 pm

Thanks to everyone for all the great advice. It definitely seems like this is a great time to be starting a career in naval aviation, regardless of where you end up. Right now I’m in API (Aviation Preflight Indoctrination) or ground school. Next will be Primary at either Milton or Corpus in T-34C’s. After that I’m hoping to select Jets and Intermediate/Advanced will be in either Kingsville or Meridian. All Jet training for Navy pilots is now being conducted in the T-45 Goshawk. As far as getting some experience in the air, I completed IFS flying Cessna 172’s back in Annapolis, and decided to pay out of my own pocket for a few more hours and a private pilot’s license. It was worth it just to get to keep flying when I wanted to, as I’ve learned that even time in a Cessna is time in the air, and every moment up there can be spent perfecting the art. The FAA reviewer on my check-ride for private pilot happened to be a former fighter pilot and showed me some great tips on trim. I’ve definitely learned to appreciate what it can do for your ability to stay ahead of the airplane, and I know that will become very important as things will only happen more quickly from now on. It’s awesome to be able to spend time talking to pilots who have been there and done that, and most importantly – are willing to pass on a little of what they’ve learned along the way. Thanks again for all of the great gouge – I couldn’t have asked for a quicker and more informative response. Oh and as for the crazy partying and wild nights, I was lucky enough to get most of that out of my system as a TAD Ensign over the summer in Naptown. This is where the rubber meets the road. Thanks again.



Desult Says:

October 12th, 2005 at 8:34 pm


This was very inspiring to me and I’m not even going in the Navy. Maybe there will be a flight opportunity in the Army one day (what I originally really wanted…helo’s of the sorts.)

Idaho Joe Says:

October 13th, 2005 at 7:31 am

API Ensign, You ought to come back occasionally and update us on your career. I’m sure Capt. Lex would be amenable to a guest blog from flight school every few months. I’ve got a 16 year old daughter who wants to be right where you are in 6 years. It makes a father happy to know she’ll be asssociating with people of such high caliber.

Good Luck to you. Hope you get jets.

Beth Says:

October 13th, 2005 at 8:36 am

Ensign, allow me to second Idaho Joe’s suggestion. I certainly would be very interested to read an occasional post from you. Best of luck in pursuing your dreams!

Dan Says:

October 14th, 2005 at 9:57 am

Great post. I know I’m a little late in reading it but school has been keeping me busy – but it’s beginning to pay off – got invited to a Visitation Weekend to USNA 🙂 . Keep up the great posts and advice!

Neptunus Lex » Flight school update Says:

June 16th, 2006 at 6:04 am

[…] Several months ago, a newly commissioned ensign heading down to Pensacola asked for some flight school advice. Your humble scribe offered up what few scraps and tatters he could dredge up from the deep well of ancient history, but what really added flavor to the stew were the comments from other naval aviators, past and present. […]

Neptunus Lex » He got jets! Says:

September 8th, 2006 at 5:53 am

[…] Congrats are in order to ENS P, who once asked the odd assortment of graying noggins who haunt this place for the gouge: Sir, I just wanted to drop you a note and let you know that I’ve selected – JETS, MERIDIAN.  Also, I’ve attached some pictures, one of me in the bag and another from my formation solo inbound for the break at Navy Corpus.  I’ll give you a more comprehensive update soon, but just wanted to thank you again for all of your help.  I’m absolutely psyched and can’t wait to get started up in Meridian. […]

Back To The Index 


Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Flying, Lex, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Flight School Advice

  1. NaCly Dog

    Great advice for life in general, if you want to succeed.

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  3. Mike Worthington

    Very good stuff. we had a lot of USNA guys spend too much time at Pensacola Beach, which allowed the bottom feeders like me to slip into jets.

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