B-Course series: Students take first flight

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 173rd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
After a month of intensive academics and many, many trips to the simulator 1st Lt. Scott McGowen arrived at the pre-flight brief for his maiden flight in the F-15 Eagle.

He describes the journey to this point as an uphill climb, one that's lasted nearly three years.

It began for him as an enlisted member at Barnes ANG base in Massachusetts, where he developed a passion for flying that has fueled his dream of one day piloting the Eagle.

The first item on the agenda was his bachelor's degree, followed by the expense and rigor of earning a private pilot's license--something nearly all Air National Guard accessions to pilot training have in common.

And today, Dec. 10, 2015, McGowen and his instructor pilot Maj. Victor Knill walk to a waiting F-15, greet the crew chief, and climb aboard the aircraft.

"The only thing I was thinking about, the only thing you can think about when you climb into the cockpit, was making sure to do everything right, just the way you cover in the brief," said McGowen. The preflight brief for this flight lasted nearly an hour and a half and the first hour was largely devoted to checklist items that have to happen before the jet moves an inch.

Knill rapid-fired a technical litany ranging from the simple to the complex, beginning with the walk-around and progressing to preparing all of the aircrafts different systems to take flight.

One interchange sounds like this: "... with the course align we are gonna go to our HMD pitch, we are going to containerize record, we are recording on the RMM, we are gonna hit align. When you do this the HUD is basically blanked, all you are doing with that is superimposing them on each other. 'have you done this in the SIM? You have, ok.' Then you go down long left for greater than two seconds what you'll see is align, aligning, align ok, fine align, so deselect align here and you should be good to go, any questions?" asks Knill.

To the uninitiated this techno-speak is nearly impossible to decrypt, but Knill says he is merely reiterating steps that the students have committed to memory over the past month since their arrival. They do this by repeated trips to the simulator logging two to three times the number of required simulator sessions, by sitting-in while classmates do their simulator sessions and by "chair flying" or practicing their procedures in a chair at home when they are off-duty.

Mentally all of these procedures are second nature, and during the entire brief McGowen does not ask a single question, but the test of the first flight is seeing if that cognition can survive contact with the real thing.

"Everything changes when you feel the power of the aircraft, when being safe isn't just something you talk about in a classroom anymore but an actual life-and-death consideration for you and others you fly with. For some it makes them better and for others it presents a hurdle," says Knill.

On this particular day McGowen completes his checklists and taxis to the north end of the runway. A few minutes later he engages the afterburner on both engines and rockets south, taking to the air for his first time at the controls of an F-15.

"It was a good flight; he was well prepared and confident and those can be keys to having a good first flight," said Knill. He goes on to say that this particular juncture in the course can be the most challenging psychologically as a student moves from a sterile academic environment to the rigors of the cockpit. Students are often surprised when during a break in the action they realize they are soaked in their own perspiration--brought on by a combination of stress and exertion. And it's in that environment that an instructor pilot needs to see their preparation shine through. They need to have command of their procedures and excellent situation awareness even as they fight off task saturation.

At this point, for this B-course, flying is primarily just that--flying--but just on the horizon is the next big challenge, which is employing the aircraft as a weapon. When that day arrives all of this flying should be second nature as well.