The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

October 6, 2012

Surviving the stock tank: Class 13-13 student pilots dunked after solo sorties

By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Members of Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 13-13 survived several crash-landings in recent days.

But there were no T-6A Texan II training aircraft falling from the sky, these crash-landings involved the student pilots themselves and a large stock tank filled with water.

The students of 13-13 are at the stage of their training where they are making their first solo flights.

It is traditional when a student pilot at Vance completes his or her initial solo sortie, their classmates toss them into a tank of water sitting on the grass behind the Vance Life Support building.

The tradition is if the student pilot returns to the flight room before being dunked, the rest of the class must each pony up with a case of the student’s favorite beverage.

That happened with one member of Class 13-13, Air National Guard 2nd Lt. Cyrus Beckwith, who made it safely to the flight room after soloing last Wednesday.

Thus, the class was hyper-vigilant late Thursday when two of their number, Air Force 2nd Lt. Matt Smokovitz and Navy Ensign Jonathan McClellan, landed after their solos.

Air Force 2nd Lt. Kayla Bowers was among the dunking party awaiting the duo. She is set to solo sometime this week.

“Hopefully it won’t be this cold,” said the Michigan native. “That water has been sitting, getting cold at night.”

Another bystander was Capt. Kevin Delker, an instructor pilot with the 8th Flying Training Squadron. He was preparing to take a dip of his own, since it also is a tradition that when an IP sends his first student out to solo, he too is dunked.

As he awaited his wet fate, Delker stood wearing Smokovitz’ name badge, turned upside down.

“You have to have pilot wings to fly an aircraft solo, so we give him our wings so he has wings to fly,” said Delker, a native of Claremore and a graduate of Oklahoma State University. “We have one more getting dunked. And I’ll go in with them.”

Delker said he wasn’t aware of the tradition until that day.

“This could be a completely fabricated story,” he said, grinning as the day turned colder.

As Smokovitz taxied his T-6 into position on the ramp, a few of his classmates walked out toward him.

After exiting the aircraft and performing a post-flight walk-around, a grinning Smokovitz was escorted back to Life Support, where he checked in his equipment and went through a maintenance de-briefing.

Before his dunking, Smokovitz described his first experience in the T-6 without an instructor pilot in the rear seat.

“It wasn’t bad,” he said. “Actually, this morning I was pretty nervous when I woke up, but once we went up a few times and did a few passes, I kind of calmed down.

“You’ve just got to remember, you know what you’re doing. They wouldn’t let you up there if you didn’t.”

Running through checklists without having another voice responding was “a little bizarre,” Smokovitz said.

“You’ve got to remind yourself, ‘OK, it’s on me,’” he said.

After both Smokovitz and McClellan had divested themselves of their helmets, gloves and G-suits, and completed their de-briefing, they were escorted out to the tank by a gaggle of fellow students.

Each class paints the stock tank with its own design. Class 13-13 chose to paint the tank like a Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee cup — white with orange and pink lettering spelling out “Dunkin’ Piluts,” with 13-13 inscribed on the bottom of the tank, which was painted brown to resemble coffee.

The two students, and Delker, were allowed to doff their boots, as well as to remove the patches from and empty the pockets of their flight suits.

Smokovitz made a brief show of trying to run away, but quickly was corralled and carried to the tank, where he trailed McClellan on his brief flight and wet landing.

Delker quickly followed, his splash catching Smokovitz square in the face, who by that time was standing in the murky water.

“I hope I don’t run into any colonels,” he said.

The dunk tank frolics provided a brief moment of levity in an otherwise jam-packed schedule for Class 13-13. Besides having both a flight and a simulator ride each and every workday, the students also are continuing the academic portion of their training.

“We have usually at least two or three things a day to do,” Bowers said, “starting with academics. It’s definitely very, very busy. We have 12-hour days and use every minute of those 12 hours for sure, then we go home and study some more.”

“It’s fast-paced,” said Air Force 2nd Lt. Ryan Shieber, “but you pick it up as you go on.”

The students are practicing various aerial maneuvers, including stalls and spins, teaching them to regain control of the aircraft in case of emergency.

“At Kegelman (Auxiliary Field near Salt Plains) we’ll do emergency landing patterns,” said Air Force Reserve 2nd Lt. Eli Weyen. “We’ll simulate a failed engine and, based on our training, we land on the runway with no power.”

The students are becoming more comfortable after more than a dozen flights each, said Weyen, but the addition of academics to the pace of the flight line just increases the pace of learning.

“It’s pretty busy,” he said. “The worst part is the academics doesn’t really mesh well with the contact (flying).”

“We’ve done some instrument sims and a lot of academics with it as well,” said Smokovitz. “It just constantly builds.”

And it will continue to build. Just a handful of flights after they solo, the students of class 13-13 will take their mid-phase check rides, during which they will be graded on landings, stall recovery, spin recovery and their ability to get their aircraft from Vance to the T-6 military operating area (MOA) successfully.

“There’s no time to get behind,” said Smokovitz. “I knew it would be busy, but I didn’t think we’d be jumping into instruments, we’re like piggy-backing things. I thought we would focus on one thing before we moved on to the next.”