Follow the journey, six students hope to earn Eagle patches

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 173rd Fighter Wing
Over the next seven months, we will follow a new class of aspiring F-15C pilots from their arrival at the 173rd Fighter Wing to graduation in what is commonly referred to as the "B-Course" or basic course.

Beginning with academics, we will watch these students wrestle with what many say is the most difficult training program in the U.S. Air Force. Although the main thrust of the course is evident, training them to be fighter pilots, what makes the course so challenging is less so. Instructors say the cost of the program is nothing less than "constant and endless hours of preparation in order to earn the right to be called an eagle driver." Over the course of this series, we will learn what skills students must perfect to be successful in the cockpit and what personal characteristics make it possible in the first place.

Welcome to the first day.

The 173rd Fighter Wing's daily mission is ushering prospective F-15C pilots into fighter squadrons at Kadena Air Base in Japan and RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, as well as a number of Air National Guard units who fly the Eagle. The first day for Class 16-ABK starts like any other as the new students make their way to the classroom for the very first academic session, a welcome really...and a warning.

Lt. Col. Alaric Michaelis, the incoming 173rd Operations Support Squadron Commander, extends the first welcome to this group and references being in the student's shoes. "You guys are coming in, just like I was some 16 years ago and I was thinking 'this is the biggest day of my life, this is what I worked for all these years to get to this point.'  What this really is...this is the most difficult thing you'll ever do in your life, and you've done a lot just to get here," he said.

The six new students, ranging from 24 to 31 years old, listening and this pronouncement doesn't elicit any signs of apprehension. Later, each of them characterizes that although they realize it's going to be difficult they are anxious to get started, to start the uphill climb, in the words of the newly minted class leader, Capt. Alex Frank.

The rest of the students consist of one Air National Guard pilot, 1st Lt. Scott McGowen, a former enlisted crew chief from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, and the active duty pilots bound for overseas assignments - Capt. Alexander Lisot, 1st Lt. Colton Buechel, 1st Lt. Garret Womack, and 1st Lt. Brock McGehee.

The day gets on in earnest when Maj. Adam Gaudinski, the class flight commander, takes control of the room and lays out the ground rules on everything from taking leave (he doesn't recommend it) to attending gatherings known as Roll Calls (he does recommend it). A roll call is an informal gathering of pilots where the history of the F-15 community is shared along with tactical lessons learned in a tradition dating to World War I.

He quickly makes the case that with the chaos growing in the Middle East, an increasingly aggressive Russian presence on the world's stage, defiance in Iran, and more saber rattling in North Korea and China, the graduates of Class 16-ABK can expect to fly into harm's way scant months after graduation.

Gaudinski plays both good cop and bad cop.  He briefs everything from ground safety to surviving in a high-risk, tactical environment. He stares at them pointedly and uses pointed language while describing the measure he will take of them by course completion. He says bluntly, "the stark reality of this business is kill or be killed." He tells them at one point they will be scared. And finally he repeatedly offers whatever assistance he can provide to them, at any time, to include the middle of the night.

The rest of the themes seem normal for any military instruction, including teamwork, which Gaudinski repeatedly returns to, saying that class cohesion is a factor in the highest performing classes. Finally, he stresses humility and credibility, the need for a thick skin, and promises that "we are going to rough you up while you are here, but this is meant to make you the best in the world." He sums it up saying, "Other people are training right now to kill you. I won't let them have that opportunity and neither will you."

With that, the first three academic hours are in the books and crossed off the list leaving 277.85 academic hours remaining before graduation.

Over the next seven months, Class 16-ABK will move from the classroom to the cockpit. We will follow their progress examining some of the inherent challenges, helping the reader gain a greater understanding of what the "Land of No Slack" teaches these fledgling eagle drivers.