By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Student pilots at Vance Air Force Base face a grueling schedule of 12-hour duty days, followed by hours of study at home, interrupted only by meals and periods of sleep.
So once in awhile it is good for them to kick back, relax and think about something other than learning to fly, at least for a while.
That is one of the goals of the class sponsor program, which involves local businesses and individuals volunteering to take a class under their wing.
And despite the fact a new class begins training every three weeks at Vance, finding sponsors is not that difficult, said program director Mary Feightner.
“Nearly everyone I call, they don’t turn me down, hardly,” she said. “Because they know that we need this base here. I think it helps them (the students) to think good things about our community.”
The sponsors represent a broad cross-section of local businesses, with some individuals involved in the program as well, Feightner said.
When each class begins, Feightner recruits a sponsor and takes them to meet the class. Throughout the more than a year the students will be in pilot training here, the sponsor coordinates activities with the class’ senior ranking officer, or SRO.
Sponsors are asked to plan and host at least one activity each quarter for their class, though they are welcome to do as many as they want, and can fit into the students’ jam-packed schedules.
These activities can range from hosting a cookout for the class or, as one sponsor chose to do, taking the class to an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game.
“It’s up to them really what they want to do,” Feightner said. “It’s just according to what they want to spend on it.”
The purpose of the program, which has been in effect some three decades, is twofold, Feightner said.
“We just want to get them off base so they can have some free time between their studies,” she said. “It gets them out into the community and away from their studies, and kind of clears their mind a little bit. And also, it gives them an opportunity to know more about our city and what we have to offer here.”
That includes entertainment options like Gaslight Theatre or Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, or more mundane concerns like the best place to get a car repaired, she said.
“Some of them are a long way from home,” she said. “They’re from all over the country.”
Sponsors receive a pass granting them base access in case they want to hold a class activity inside the gates of Vance, Feightner said.
The feedback she receives from sponsors generally is positive, she said.
“They have a good time with the guys,” she said. “They really do.”
Feightner, one of only 10 friends of Vance designated as a Partner in the Sky, attends each class graduation banquet.
“I see that every one of them gets through,” she said.
Bruce Jackson, president of Jacksons of Enid Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM, and George Pankonin, Com-munity College of the Air Force adviser at Vance, are co-sponsors for Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Train-ing Class 13-13.
Pankonin, an Air Force veteran, knows the value of allowing students to blow off a little steam now and again.
“They are under the microscope for 53 weeks with nearly no respite,” he said. “It gives them a chance to get off base, get away and leave the books at home and just unwind.
“It gives them that opportunity to refresh themselves and come back and perform at a higher level.”
For the sponsors, Pankonin said, it gives them a chance to interact with the young people who are the future of our armed forces.
“You can’t help but enjoy watching tomorrow’s leaders as they develop at the early stages of their careers,” he said. “You meet some nice young citizens of this country, who one day might come back and be a wing commander.”
In September, Jackson and Pankonin hosted a pool party for members of 13-13 at Jackson’s home.
“It’s not all the time that you can get everybody together and hang out,” said 13-13 student 2nd Lt. Ryan Schieber. “We had barbecue, the pool, horseshoes.”
The evening included a volleyball game between Air Force and Navy students — with the exception of Air Force 2nd Lt. Matt Smokovitz, who was recruited to play on the Navy squad. The losing team had to jump in the pool, which turned out to be the Navy and Smokovitz.
“We all ended up jumping in the pool,” Smokovitz said.