ENID, Okla. —
Standing in two more or less straight rows, decked out in their sharp dress-blue uniforms, the members of Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 13-13 were minutes away from one the biggest milestones in their lives.
They flanked the sidewalk on the south side of Bldg. 550, the Vance Air Force Base auditorium Friday morning, awaiting their graduation ceremony, chattering among themselves.
Capt. Gabe Corrales, T-38 flight commander, stepped up and gave the group its final instructions.
He told them where to stand, when to enter, where to sit, the procedure for receiving their wings and when and how to exit.
“If anyone is going to screw up, screw up together,” he said.
Nobody screwed up, though a couple nearly forgot to salute 71st Flying Training Wing Commander Col. Darren James before leaving the stage.
They had reached the conclusion of the 54-week journey that began July 19, 2012, in a classroom in the 71st Student Squadron Building, not far from the base auditorium.
On that long-ago morning, then-Lt. Col. Michael Merritt cautioned them about the long road that lay ahead.
“Probably two, maybe three of you will not make it through phase two,” said Merritt, referring to academic and primary aircraft training.
Of the 29 young officers in the briefing room on that bright, hot July morning, three did, indeed, not make it through phase two. The six Navy students in the room that day left after phase two for continuing training at Naval air facilities, while four Air Force students left for helicopter training at Fort Rucker, Ala. Two students moved, or rolled back, to other classes, one to 13-14 and another to 13-15. Eight joined the class for phase three after their initial training at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Fla., and one rolled back from class 13-09.
There were 29 at the beginning, 23 present on graduation day.
Before long it was time, and they marched smartly into an auditorium filled with family, friends, distinguished visitors, instructors and even an entire class of students, Class 14-13, whose graduation will come about a year from now.
The room was filled with men in suits and ties and women in fresh frocks and heels. There were babies in their best bib and tucker, the tiny girls sporting big bows on their nearly bald heads.
A video compilation of highlights from 13-13’s year of training played on the big screen up front, accompanied by Carrie Underwood singing, “Whenever You Remember.”
“As they follow in the footsteps of those before them, may Class 13-13 defend our country and our allies, and may Your protection be over them as they fly,” said Chaplain (Capt.) Jon Bravinder during his invocation.
James then told the graduates’ friends and family there were “a number of reasons the graduates are sitting down here in the front row, but the main reason is all of you. You provided the foundation, the principles and the necessary work ethic to allow them to get to where they are today.”
The commander congratulated 13-13 on “an incredible milestone in your career,” and reminded the audience that for every 500 people in 13-13’s age group, only three are medically qualified for pilot training, “fewer are selected and fewer still are able to achieve what they have been able to achieve by being down here in the front row.”
Guest speaker Col. Daniel L. Pond, is special assistant to the director of regional affairs, Secretary of the Air Force International Affairs, at the Pentagon. He began by showing a photo of a younger, thinner version of himself on the day 27 years ago when he graduated from pilot training at Columbus AFB, Miss., with Class 87-02.
He remembered that day as “full of promise, full of hope, full of wonder.”
After acknowledging members of Class 13-13 likely would not remember who spoke to their graduation, he then went on to tell them “You are embarking on the greatest adventure of your lives. It can take you to unexpected places.”
Pond’s career certainly has. Just five months after he received his wings, on his eighth ride in a KC-135, Pond and the rest of the crew were forced to jump out of a burning aircraft that had landed, nose gear up, at Edwards AFB, Calif.
Four years after he got his wings, Pond was a KC-135 flight commander in the second wave of aircraft just after the start of the first Gulf War. Mission planners had told them the night before that 20 percent of them wouldn’t make it home. Pond was so nervous that day, he gripped the control yoke with his knees so his crew wouldn’t see his legs shaking.
“I wasn’t afraid of dying that night, I was afraid of screwing up, I was afraid of failing my fellow airmen,” Pond said.
Pond completed his mission, and all the aircraft returned safely.
“I didn’t fail,” he told the men and women of 13-13, “and when your test comes, you’re not going to fail, either, because of the work that you’ve done here and the airmen that you are.”
Ten years after receiving his wings, Pond was deputy chief of Presidential Flight Support at the Pentagon. In that role he found himself standing in Red Square in Moscow with President Bill Clinton.
“You have no idea what lies ahead of you, it’s exciting,” Pond said.
Twenty years after receiving his wings, Pond was assigned to Africa, where he served as military liaison. During his time in Africa, he negotiated a peace treaty with rebel groups in Darfur, then was assigned to peacekeeping duties in that troubled region.
During his time there, he was called upon to help rescue two Americans kidnapped by rebel groups in Darfur.
“I got a call from the U.S. ambassador. He said, ‘Dave, there’s an American missing in Darfur, go find him.’ There is no playbook for that.”
Both Americans later were found and returned home.
After Pond’s remarks concluded, it was time for class awards. Flying training awards went to 2nd Lt. Justin Robins in the T-1 track and 1st Lt. David Benes in the T-38 track.
Robins and 2nd Lt. Eli Weyen shared the T-1 distinguished graduate award, while Benes was the T-38 recipient.
The Air Education and Training Command Commander’s Trophy went to Weyen in the T-1 track and Benes in the T-38 track.
Then came the moment Class 13-13 had been working for since July 2012. It was time for them to receive their wings. Each student walked across the stage, receiving a diploma, handshake and salute from James, then from Pond, before having their wings pinned on by their loved ones.
After the last student received his wings, the newly minted pilots turned and faced the crowd behind them, receiving a loud, prolonged ovation. Then the ceremony was at an end and they began filing out, one by one, into the lobby, where Corrales took their wings away from them.
But not to worry, the wings they were returning were merely the ceremonial, magnetic wings their families had just placed on their lapels. Magnetic wings are easier to deal with than the traditional pinned models. Those they received just moments after giving up the ceremonial wings.
Then it was time to celebrate, as they filed out into the bright mid-day, receiving hugs, handshakes and pats on the back as the warming sunshine glinted off the shiny wings for which they had worked so hard, so long.
All that was left was the graduation banquet that night, and then their first steps into the next phase of their lives.