The Student Pilots

“How many of y’all are coming to Columbus from active duty?” our class commander asked.

The two first lieutenants in our class each put up a hand. They had been navigators for pilots on active duty, like Goose was for Maverick. I had noticed the silver navigator wings pinned onto their blue shirts when I first walked into the room.

While a navigator’s silver wings are about the same size as a pilot’s silver wings, the shield in the middle of the wings is different. Pilot wings have the America shield in the middle, which looks like a cool front grill of a classic car. I don’t know what the shield is called on navigator wings, but to me, it looked like a Hanukkah lamp floating above a castle wall.

The rest of us in the classroom were second lieutenants, and most of us, the Academy grads, had been second lieutenants for all of about 60 days. I wasn’t sure about how long the handful of non-grads had been second lieutenants. It really didn’t matter now, though, because we were all here to learn how to fly.

I’ve used the names of some of my classmates for characters in my story with their permission. But rather than track down everyone, I changed most of the names. Besides, this grants nearly everyone plausible deniability – except maybe me.

Class Parties, 88-07

For me, some of the best times during our year of UPT are the hardest to write about. Probably because I can’t remember most of them.

Columbus was a small town. Other than the Possum Town Pig Fest, not much happened in downtown Columbus. But we had each other. Whether on the Tenn-Tom, the golf course, or in somebody’s rental house, we made the most of the time we spent together.

88-07 Class Party Protocols

(Sq Pamphlet 51-1, 1 April 1986)

19-1.  Class parties and social functions are highly encouraged.  Class and base activities should have the support of the entire class whenever possible.  The Class Commander must be informed of all planned class functions.

19-2.  Hold class parties in a manner so as not to discredit the class or the Air Force.  Restrict consumption of alcoholic beverages so that each officer maintains control of his/her actions and can operate a vehicle adhering to all Department of Public Safety requirements.

19-3.  If a student exceeds his/her capacity, other classmates should employ the “Buddy System” to make sure all students arrive at their quarters safety.

19-4.  Unless a joint function has been prearranged, simultaneous parties of different classes should not be held in the same vicinity.

19-5.  Class leaders would make arrangements for the entire area to be cleaned in a timely manner after the party.

19-6. Remember, only the best conduct will be tolerated—conduct expected of an Air Force officer.

The Rite of the Solo Flight

“In a tedious, mob-rule ritual pushed onto all of us…, student pilots returning from initial solos were involuntarily baptized in the dunk tank, a Petri dish of dirty swill, culturing next to the chute shop.”

We suspect the student taking the plunge in these pictures may have been the first in our class to solo in the T-37 because the class number and flight names painted on the dunk tank are those of the class ahead of ours. According to UPT etiquette, our class could not decorate the dunk tank with our class colors and flight names until all students in the class ahead of ours had soloed.

Once cleared to paint, members of the Dagger and Warhawks sections of UPT Class 88-07 decorated the dunk tank with the class colors and symbols from our patch.

Upon one’s initial solo, the flight commander would call him or her to the front of the room at the end of the day to present the student with an official solo certificate.

Life of the Columbus Air Base Student

The routine of a student pilot learning to fly at Columbus Air Force Base is as follows:

Wake, work, eat. Study, sleep, repeat.

I liked to squeeze in a daily workout, too, which meant something had to give. Since I had to be at work for 12 hours, was required to sleep for 8 hours, and needed to eat, I cut my study time to hit the gym. As detailed in IF YOU AIN’T A PILOT…, my daily flying grades and academic test scores reflected as much. But I did stay in good shape.

Student pilots who trained at Columbus Air Force Base only expected to be there for a year. After flight school, it was Off we go as newly trained pilots to fly, fight, and win to protect our country and support the causes of freedom and democracy around the world. Or so we thought.

Despite our demanding workload, we tried to have fun wherever and whenever we could.

In the most understated way, the images in this section illustrate the joy in the simplest of moments; yet, they also convey an environment where every move, every maneuver, every instance of relaxation or recreation was subject to scrutiny and evaluation.

Whether rounding third base in a pink hat or sitting on a toilet in a pink scarf, student pilots were being watched and evaluated.

You couldn’t escape it. Why not have fun?

UPT Class History

When 88-07 first got to Columbus, Information Lima was current, Big Al was in 88-05, Van Dorn was a student in good standing, and Ed’s pockets were sewn shut.  The Guard guys contemplated marrying the chicks to even out the sections, the wives contemplated a year in Columbus and the Officers Wives’ Club, and we all contemplated pink scarves and flamingo patches.  Leaving Phase I, we were ready to fly, but what would they think on the flight line?

Warhawks and Dagger welcomed us with open arms and blank BOLDFACE.  The then-single Tripp-Turn (throttle gate) Howard had to learn to spell “forward” before he could fly, while Mooney had to eat crackers before he could fly.  Val could always fly.  The Beez got a tease.  Bill Ward bagged 3 E’s.  Lancelot Link caught the Hong Kong sneeze.  Check rides went pretty well in Tweets, and by the time we left we all thought we were coming back.

We proceeded direct to Eagle and Scorpio and were quickly humbled.  With deflated ego, we jumped back into the books.  After about a week, the books were put away for good (who’s kidding who?).  Team Scorpio said “Play ball!”  Team Eagle kept pace till “Last Call.”  The more challenging 38 checkrides showed 88-07 that no matter how much of a he-man pilot you were, there was always a skeleton to bring you down.  But Doley and Ray kept things rolling along with plenty of parties and laughs, while Kenny always seemed to be around.  Chas became our first open cockpit flier, and Chuck was the EP waiting to happen.  If ANYONE at our assignment night remembers what happened, or has seen the mannequin’s left arm, please come forward.

Today, we approach graduation with that same dedication and selfless attitude that brought us to this point.  So give us our jets and TDY orders—we’re headed for a “rated” beach and bluer skies.

Assignment Night

Assignment Night…. We had no idea what fate and the Air Force Personnel Center might have in store for us. What aircraft? What mission? What continent? What base? Mountains or beach? Fighter or tanker?

Or would we even get out of Columbus, at all, and have to repeat UPT over and over again, class after class after class, as FAIPs, First Assignment Instructor Pilots?

T-37 or T-38?

UPT was a pretty efficient system. For an Academy class, the combination of Academy grad plus FAR rating (Fighter-Attack-Reconnaissance) usually resulted in becoming a FAIP. History had proven this. About half of our class had been rated FAR.

History had also proven that one out of every three UPT students who started the program would wash out; however, for our class, the washout rate was only about one student in five. As a student pilots, we couldn’t change the system. But as a class, could we change the norm?

A total dog-and-pony show for the parents of student pilots, UPT graduation was a 48-hour death march of touring, talking, saluting, eating, and sweating in the summer heat of Columbus. My parents loved it.

My mom and dad drove to Mississippi from Rhode Island for the ceremony. I got to give my mom a ride in a T-38 simulator, but because of her claustrophobia, she wouldn’t let me close the lid on the cockpit. With the cockpit opened, the hydraulic legs that gave the sim its motion wouldn’t function. The open cockpit also presented me with a roomful of distractions. Without motion and with our added distractions, I flew a terrible approach to the runway and crashed as I tried to land. “Raymond, are you sure you want to be a pilot?” my mom comfortingly asked.

Thanks, Ma.

While I still keep in touch with many of my classmates from UPT Class 88-07 at Columbus Air Force Base, these photos and mementos from July 22, 1988, signify the last time we were all together – our last day before our first assignments…in the Real Air Force.

Before we received our diplomas and silver wings at graduation, the guest speaker said he had some special presentations to make. At the beginning of the ceremony, he recognized five award winners and distinguished graduates from our class with our two former F-4 navigators-turned-fighter-pilots winning most of the hardware up for grabs. After the first five guys, everybody else just got a rolled up piece of paper with a pilot’s silver wings…until the end of the ceremony. When the last name was called, which happened to be mine by virtue of the alphabet, our speaker told the audience that he had one last special presentation to make. He handed me the hot pink golf ball shown on this page, which I keep on my office desk