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173rd Fighter Wing convenes hiring board for aspiring Eagle Drivers

F-15C

U.S. Air Force Capt. Tyler Cox, an instructor pilot with the 173rd Fighter Wing, fires a missile from an F-15 Eagle during a Weapons System Evaluation Program at Tyndall AFB, Fla., July 27, 2011. Cox applied to become a pilot for the wing as an enlisted Airman assigned to Kingsley Field in 2003, and today wears the rank of lieutenant colonel after spending the last 10 years flying the F-15 Eagle and amassing nearly 2,000 flight hours. (Photo courtesy James Haseltine, High-G Productions)

KINGSLEY FIELD, Ore. -- The 173rd Fighter Wing exists to supply trained F-15 pilots to the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard, and the wing coined the phrase, “where America’s air superiority begins” in homage to being the sole schoolhouse of F-15C training.

With that in mind, the majority of the pilots at the wing are more experienced and of a higher average rank than other units; they have to be in order to pass along lessons learned, best practices, and competent flying to brand new Eagle drivers.

Back in the late nineties it led to an interesting conundrum for some enlisted Airmen who had the flying bug but no avenue to earn a spot in the cockpit without leaving the unit.

Because all of the pilots in the unit are required to be certified instructor pilots, there wasn’t a program in place to bring on new accessions, said Lt. Col. Tyler Cox, an instructor pilot with the 114th Fighter Squadron, the 173rd FW’s flying unit.

All of the pilots at the unit came from either the active air force and from other guard units.

In 1996, a senior at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore. and enlisted drill-status guardsman, asked then wing commander, Col. Billy Cox, if there was a way he could get a pilot slot without leaving the state? That student was Col. Todd Hofford.

“He started looking into the possibility of Kingsley getting pilot slots,” said Hofford, who is today the vice-wing commander of the 142nd Fighter Wing and a longtime F-15C pilot, upon thinking back to how he got his opportunity to fly fighters for the Oregon Air National Guard. “It just so happens that I got picked up in Portland; right after I got picked up they held their first interview board and that’s when [Lt. Col. Tim Ebner] applied and got selected.”

Ebner, Lt. Col. Tyler Cox, Lt. Col. Quentin Lebkowsky, and Lt. Col. Ryan Bocchi all became pilots as a result of that program, transitioning from the enlisted ranks to the 114th Fighter Squadron.

Pilots selected to join the unit this way spend about a minimum five years in training before they return.

For Cox the road began in 2003 when he was selected. He then attended officer school, Undergraduate Pilot Training, Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals, and finally the B-Course at Kingsley Field in 2005. This is where the path for wing pilots forks; as a newly minted Eagle driver they are not ready to become an instructor pilot and they have to go to another unit for seasoning.

“Then I moved to Portland,” he said. “I went up there for about three years—was an alert pilot—was a squadron pilot—started doing my upgrades and was a combat-qualified pilot for them.”

In 2009 it was finally time to return home having learned enough to progress to the ranks of instructor pilot. Although it varies on a case-by-case basis, that five-year period is probably the minimum amount of time a person could expect to be away from the unit before returning.

“I’ve got a multitude of memories that were amazing,” said Cox, upon reflecting on those years. “I think one that stick out was just going through UPT; it’s the hardest school you’ll probably go to, it’s the most challenging, the most stressful but at the same time it’s the most rewarding. I look back on it now and I’d go back in a second.”

For Cox the cycle is coming full-circle. In March he will sit on a hiring board to select the next individual, or individuals, to follow in his footsteps.

“I’m going to put a strong emphasis on military service and the enlisted Airmen at Kingsley Field—they are who this program is designed for,” said Cox. “I want to get anybody that has any inkling that they want to be a pilot to submit a package.”

In order to qualify, an applicant must have a bachelor’s degree, or be within a very short timeframe of receiving it, they must be less than 33 years of age when they enter pilot training, must have an Air Force Officer’s Qualification Test score, and completed the Test of Basic Aviation Skills.

For more information please visit the Pilot Opportunities section of the 173rd Fighter Wing website at the following URL: https://www.173fw.ang.af.mil/About-Us/Pilot-Opportunities/