By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
A 17-year-era of joint pilot training at Vance Air Force Base came to an end Monday as the last Navy student flew his final training sortie.
The joint pilot training mission is being discontinued, said Navy Cmdr. Steve Grant, as a cost-saving measure.
Under the program, some 70 Navy students annually would spend 22 weeks at Vance undergoing primary aircraft training in the T-6A Texan II, after going through aircraft indoctrination at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Then they would be sent to different Naval air stations for advanced training — Pensacola, Corpus Christi, Texas, Meridian, Miss., or Kingsville, Texas.
“They have to pay all their moving costs to get them here for six months, and the majority of the time they go right back to Pensacola,” said Grant, who is commander of the 8th Flying Training Squadron at Vance.
Until last summer, about 30 Marine students also trained every year at Vance, but that ended Aug. 27 when 1st Lt. Daniel Ouellette flew the final Marine student sortie. Talk of ending the Navy training mission at Vance began at about the same time.
“It was an initiative that came after the Marines pulled out for cost-cutting reasons,” said Grant. “The Navy and the Air Force got together and started looking at it.”
Roughly half the Navy students at Vance every year were assigned to fly helicopters, said Grant, which meant they returned to Pensacola. Some 20 percent received “Maritime” or multi-engine aircraft assignments, for which they were sent to Corpus Christi, and 30 percent went on to fighter, or “Tailhook” training, for which they would move to Kingsville or Meridian.
Mike Cooper, city of Enid military liaison, called the end of Navy pilot training at Vance “unfortunate.”
“We hate to see it go away, but it makes sense to do it,” said Cooper. “The services have decided it was just a little bit too much for their budgets. That’s what happens when you have a budget crunch.”
Cooper pointed out the end of the Navy pilot training mission is a “net nothing” proposition, since the student slots that formerly went to Navy pilots now will be filled by Air Force students. As part of the joint training program, some Air Force students were sent to train at NAS Whiting Field, Fla., a program that likewise is ending.
As a reflection of the end of Navy training here, the word joint has been dropped from the designation of Vance’s pilot training. It is now simply referred to as Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training.
Ensign Ryan Bush, a native of Louisville, Ky., flew the final T-6 Navy student training mission at Vance, landing early Monday afternoon.
“It’s kind of nice,” said Bush, a member of pilot training class 14-02. “It’s just another thing to put in your pocket. They’ve been doing this program for a while.”
The final mission was a low-level flight to the east of Vance, involving flying as low as 500 feet above ground level.
“We were watching the cows and people out on the lakes,” he said.
Bush said his time at Vance has been positive.
“It’s been very demanding,” he said, “probably more so than my Navy counterparts back at the Navy bases. You fly a lot more often, the schedule’s a lot more rigorous, but they get you done on time, get you done a lot quicker.”
The Navy’s presence at Vance is not ending completely, as 18 Navy instructor pilots will continue training students here, but something will be lost with the departure of Navy students, Grant said.
“One thing you can’t put a price on is the friendships they make here,” said Grant. “I think that’s where you get the most benefit out of it. But I think the cost benefit outweighed what you would really lose for a student.”
Likewise, 18 Air Force instructor pilots will be assigned to Training Squadron 3 at NAS Whiting.
Grant, who will relinquish command of the 8th FTS in June, will be the squadron’s final Navy commander. He will retire after turning over his command to an Air Force officer June 21.
He said his experience at Vance has been beneficial, giving him the opportunity to learn to operate in the Air Force aviation environment.
“I think I’m a better pilot now, a better officer, a better leader,” he said.
Since the joint program began in 1996, approximately 1,700 Navy and Marine students have trained at Vance.