Waiting for Wings

I have been told since I was a little boy that patience is a virtue.  I was reminded of the importance of this advice on a daily basis as I eagerly awaited my pilot wings course. The various military training and professional development courses that I was required to complete, as well as my “on the job training” that occurred in between my training courses seemed to take forever.  I was very eager to begin my military flight training, so the two years of lead-up prior to commencement of my pilot course seemed like watching a pot of water on a hot stove.  However, my anticipation was mixed with a healthy amount of fear. I was completely aware that everything that I had accomplished up to that point in my life would mean nothing if I did not succeed in my basic pilot training course. It is a widely known fact that the failure rate of pilots at the start of basic pilot training is approximately 30 to percent.  The numbers for primary flight training are even worse, with approximately 50 to 60 percent of students failing out at that point.  The failure rate statistics decline with every pilot course that a  candidate successfully completes.

That was comforting to know but I was still apprehensive because up to that point in my Air Force career I had yet to touch the controls of an airplane.

Eventually all good things come to those who wait.  As I sat in my first day of ground school during my basic pilot course I remembered thinking that no matter what happened from this point forward that at least I would be able to say that I flew a jet.   There was not much time for feeling good about myself while on my pilot course, because the course was specifically designed to jam as much information as humanly possible into my head in the shortest time possible.  The expression of “drinking water through a fire hose” has been used for years to explain the process of how information is passed to the pilot trainee. Courses such as aircraft operating instructions, meteorology, jet engine design, instrument flight procedures, visual flight procedures, and aerodynamics were all very demanding.  The ground school instruction was only part of the syllabus and after only one month of focused aircraft operating instruction (which left me with the ability to pretty much make my own jet from scratch, a la MacGyver), I found myself commencing the flight training portion of the course. Due to the fact that this was a career military course, I was required to attend leadership classes and log a certain amount physical fitness time each week.   This was in addition to everything else.  Needless to say, I was very busy during my basic flight training and time management became a very important skill to master.  My whole life revolved around my flight training during the year that my basic flight course took to complete.  I ate, slept, and talked flying.  I loved it!

I was like a horse chomping at the bit by the time I made it to the flight line to begin my flight missions.   It was my responsibility to brief my instructor pilot on the weather of the day and be prepared for the training requirements that were to be covered on any particular flight.  The training requirements of each flight were spelled out in a flight-training manual.  I was always prepared and, although I made mistakes on occasions when my instructor asked me pointed questions, I truly enjoyed the professional manner in which the instructors always presented themselves with.  Together, we were there to do a job and accomplish a mission.   That mission was to train me as a pilot for the Air Force and it was my experience that the harder I worked to improve my flying skills the harder my instructors worked to help me in my quest.

I found that the pilot candidates that failed out of basic flight training — any flight training for that matter — tended to be focus on not “screwing up” vice, focusing on how they could master the art of flying.  I believe that the reason I managed to get through this challenging part of my life was because I had developed a habitual way of thinking that I could be successful.  That mindset, coupled with a hard work ethic and dedication to my successful completion of the course was the foundation of all my future flight training as well.

My flight training was progressing smoothly, and I was nearing the end of the flight syllabus and basic flight course when I was presented with a scenario that I was not prepared to deal with.  An innocent sports accident led me to break my leg and ankle as I was nearing the end of my training.  However, my broken leg was not the worst part.  At the very beginning of my basic flight training course, I dislocated my shoulder while playing a contact sport. Due to my injury I had to be re-coursed to the next class. I could not fly with a dislocated shoulder and, as such, I would not be able to keep up with my peers.

After my dislocated shoulder incident, I was ordered by my Commanding Officer not to play any contact sports while I was undergoing pilot training.  As it turns out, Commanding Officers do not like it when young officers like myself disobey their direct orders!  He was very unhappy with me when he found out that I disregarded his direct order to not play contact sports and I was immediately invited into his office for a meeting.  When I say “meeting” I  mean that I was on the receiving end of a one-way conversation. I was not the one talking.

Unfortunately, I found myself on the receiving end of a one-way conversation from my Commanding Officer a second time later in my training, but that was because of a social event that went astray. I found out that not everyone in the Air Force lived by the Fighter pilot mentality of “work hard….play hard”, especially while being a student pilot on a training base.  My explanation of  “Oops” did not go very far to ease the waters.  Neither did my extremely long time in the penalty box, when I was ordered to secondary duty acting as the Base Duty Officer every weekend for the following six months. But that, as they say, is a different story.

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