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