By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle
VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. —
Despite the fact Navy and Marine students no longer train there, Vance Air Force Base remains the Air Force’s only Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training facility.
That’s because of the Navy instructor pilots who remain there.
Vance is a key cog in the Air Force’s pilot pipeline, producing more than 300 graduates every year.
It also is a dream factory, of sorts.
We see them flying over our heads each day, in T-6s, T-38s and T-1s, soaring in ones and twos through the Oklahoma skies.
We see them in the store, at the gas station, in local restaurants. Sometimes, most often on weekends, they are not in uniform, but they have a distinctive look that goes beyond their “high and tight” haircuts. They are young, earnest, clean cut and can often be seen enthusiastically describing training missions, their hands representing banking, climbing aircraft.
What we don’t take into consideration is the fact that, for each of these young people, being in pilot training represents the fulfillment of a dream.
Perhaps the bug bit as they stood beside their parents at air shows, watching the Thunderbirds do their death-defying magic high overhead.
Perhaps they watched airliners or small civil aircraft flying overhead and dreamed of one day looking down from above, rather than up from the ground.
We also don’t think about the fact these young people training in our skies, eating in our restaurants, are the best of the best.
Out of every 500 people in their age demographic, only three are medically eligible for pilot training.
Then, only a small percentage of those are chosen, and a smaller number complete the program. Less than one quarter of one percent of the 500 in their age group will ever wear Air Force wings.
We also don’t think about the fact that, for these outstanding young people, reaching their dream is hard.
They spend 12-hour days training and countless hours nights and on weekends studying.
For the 54 weeks of the program, pilot training must become the primary focus of their lives. Spouses, parents, siblings, friends, all must take a temporary back seat.
We have spent the last year following the exploits of Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 13-13, from their first day of formal briefings in July 2012, to their graduation last Friday, documenting their journey through a regular series of articles and photos.
This follows in the wake of a similar project we undertook in 2002 and 2003, as we followed Class 03-11.
In the course of this series we have met a number of outstanding people. Besides the students there were enlisted personnel, officers and civilians, all of whom played a role in these young officers being able to realize their dreams.
We must remember, these dreams don’t always come true. Sometimes they come crashing down in a hail of disappointment. On a July morning in 2012, 29 young officers, six Navy and the rest either regular Air Force, Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard, sat in a briefing room in the 71st Student Squadron building at Vance.
They were warned that morning that as many as three of them wouldn’t make it.
That dire prediction turned out to be spot-on. Three of the young officers in the briefing room that day did not realize their dreams of wearing pilot’s wings.
Which leads me into the thank yous I must say as this series concludes. 2nd Lt. Matt Smokovitz was one of those pilots whose dream of earning wings did not come true.
As his former 13-13 classmates walked across the stage Friday morning and received their wings, Matt was in California, training for his next Air Force assignment within Air Force Space Command.
I am grateful to Matt for his openness and willingness to share his struggles and frustrations with pilot training.
His candor helped me paint a more complete picture of the quest to earn pilot wings. I wish him nothing but good luck.
Matt began as one of the group of pilots dubbed “The Fab 5,” the quintet featured in this series.
The others were 2nd Lt. Jonathan Payne, 2nd Lt. Ryan Schieber, 2nd Lt. Kayla Bowers and 2nd Lt. Eli Weyen.
After Smokovitz’ departure, 2nd Lt. Payton Jeppesen joined the group.
I thank all of them for their willingness to share their time, a commodity more precious than gold during pilot training, and allowing me to view the process through their eyes and over their shoulders.
Thank you to Col. Darren James, 71st Flying Training Wing commander, for allowing me to give readers this glimpse into the everyday workings of Vance.
I thank the men and women of Team Vance who agreed to tell me the stories of their role in the production of America’s next generation of military pilots.
Thanks to the men and women of the Vance Public Affairs office, who facilitated contact with the students, arranged interviews and spent hours listening to me ask the same questions, over and over, and who fielded my frequent phone calls seeking information or clarification.
Special thanks to 1st Lt. Tom Barger and Senior Airman Frank Casciotta, not to mention civilians Joe B. Wiles and Public Affairs chief Linda Frost.
Twenty-three young airmen received their wings Friday.
In the coming weeks and months, most will move on to their next assignments. But as one class leaves, another begins its sojourn into the land of dreams, and the cycle begins anew. Every three weeks, another group of young officers sees their dreams come true.
God, and the government, willing, it will be thus for some time to come.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.