The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

June 29, 2013

Light at end of the tunnel: Vance Class 13-13 still has work to be done

By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — A year ago, the members of Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 13-13 eagerly were anticipating taking the first steps on their road to earning their wings.

At that time, they still were some three weeks from the official start of their instruction.

Today, they see light at the end of the tunnel, faint though it may be, more than a month from their scheduled graduation.

“It was a long road to get here, but it’s finally approaching,” said 2nd Lt. Jonathan Payne. “Just the stuff that we have learned while we have been here is just amazing.”

However, the students know there is a lot of work left to be done.

“I’m just trying to get through the day to day,” said 2nd Lt. Ryan Schieber. “I’m not really looking at the long-term schedules, just trying to get through it one day at a time.”

“I guess so,” said 2nd Lt. Eli Weyen, when asked if the end of his training was coming into view, “as soon as the nav check’s over.”

For the T-1 students the navigation check ride accounts for some 30 percent of their final grade, so the stakes are high.

“The amount of general knowledge you have to know for the nav check ride is significantly increased from the transition check ride,” said Weyen.

T-1 students have finished the transition phase of training and are within a few flights of their navigation/low level check, their second of three, while the T-38 students are coming up on their third and final check rides.

The T-1 students have been spending most of their time lately doing “out and backs,” flying to another base or civilian airport before returning to Vance.

“One student will fly to an out-base somewhere, we’ll do instrument approaches, we’ll land, grab lunch, have a brief and then it will be the same thing the other direction, only the other student will do the flying,” Weyen said.

“It’s nice to get out of the level of Vance and go to some of those far-off bases that you don’t typically get to go to,” said Payne.

Among those far-off destinations have been Omaha, Neb., Lake Charles, La., Shreveport, La., and Branson, Mo.

“It’s nice because you get to see all kinds of different approaches, different airports, different procedures,” Payne said, “and it’s not canned, so everything has the potential to change at a moment’s notice and you have to adjust to the situation at hand. It’s more like what it’s going to be when we leave here.”

Their instructors are focusing on the students’ ability to follow checklists and on “crunch points” that factor into doing instrument approaches and departures into and out of a variety of unfamiliar air fields.

The more hours they spend in the cockpit of a T-1, Schieber said, the more comfortable they are becoming.

“You begin to get used to the flow of things, as far as where all the different controls and buttons are,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m completely comfortable with the aircraft, it takes a long time to do that.”

Weather has been an obstacle for the students of late, Weyen said.

“We had about two or three weeks of bad weather, so that kind of crunched all our flights together,” he said.

That means more flights over a shorter period of time, Weyen said. In the past three weeks, 13-13’s T-1 students have flown as many as four times a week.

Payne said the time since they began their training last July has, well, flown by.

“In hindsight, it’s gone really fast, but in the process it has not gone fast at all,” he said. “That (the beginning of training) seems like more than a year ago.

“Now the weeks just seem to be flying by. It seems like you start on Monday and it’s Monday again. The next thing you know a month’s gone and now it’s a month and a half until we graduate.”

Following their nav check rides, the T-1 students will move into mission familiarization, during which they will fly formation, air refueling and air drop sorties.

The T-38 students are in the formation phase of their training, during which they learn to work closely with a wingman.

“Formation is a large part of T-38 training, so it makes up a large part of our grade,” said 2nd Lt. Payton Jeppesen.

The students are getting used to being at the controls of a jet capable of climbing from sea level to 30,000 feet in just 60 seconds. When they first transitioned from the T-6, the students learned that everything happens fast in the high-powered T-38.

“It still happens really fast, but I think our ability to react and our overall situational awareness has increased,” Jeppesen said.

“I’d say the pace of the training isn’t really slowing down, but you get used to moving at a faster pace with the jet the more you fly it,” said 2nd Lt. Kayla Bowers.

Weather likewise has been a challenge for the T-38 students, since their airframe is more quickly grounded by storms than the T-1. Weather delays cause schedule changes, which can be frustrating.

“We have to change our plans last-minute, so it’s hard to prepare,” Jeppesen said. “If you’re planning to do a formation ride or a transition ride and they automatically send you to an instrument ride because of weather, that’s a big change.”

“Once you’re in the air, too, you have to adapt to whatever weather might pop up,” Bowers said. “The T-1s can fly through a lot of weather, they’re very resilient, but we have hardly any weather that we can fly through when it gets bad.”

However, the students acknowledge that adaptability is a valuable real-world skill for a fighter pilot.

“I think that’s another reason why they do it, because it’s training us to be more professional and able to adapt to changing scenarios,” Jeppesen said. “A real situation in the real world would change pretty fast and we won’t have that much time to prepare mentally. It’s great training, but it’s difficult.”

The best part of T-38 training, the students said, is formation flying, during which they will fly at 200 to 400 mph a mere three feet from the wing of another jet.

“I trust my wingman more than I trust people on the road,” Bowers said.

Looking back on nearly a year of pilot training, the 13-13 students say they can’t believe how far they’ve come.

“Coming into it, just looking at the T-6 cockpit was mind-blowing,” Payne said. “Now it’s just a memory.”

“I remember being in ROTC before I even had a pilot’s slot and wondering what the rest of my life was going to be like,” Bowers said. “It is pretty amazing, getting to do what I want to do.”

In the coming weeks, the students of 13-13 will fill out their “dream sheets,” in which they list what aircraft they hope to be assigned to next. They will find out their follow-on airframe Aug. 2 during the class assignment night at the Vance Collocated Club.