By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Students in Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance Air Force Base are required to remember a lot of numbers.
One number none of them wants to ever hear, however, is 89.
An 89 ride is the designation for an elimination flight, a student’s last chance to remain in pilot training.
Students find themselves facing an 89 ride if they do not pass a check ride, a flight test during which the student is evaluated by an instructor on his or her performance against an objective set of standards. Fail the 89 ride and the student is out of the program.
One member of JSUPT Class 13-13 found himself in that position recently. The class is moving through the contact phase of its T-6 training. Just weeks after first soloing in the aircraft, the students faced their first major in-flight examination, the mid-phase check ride.
2nd Lt. Matt Smokovitz, a native of Canton, Mich., failed, or in flying parlance, “hooked” his mid-phase check ride, putting his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot in jeopardy.
“The mid-phase ride basically went to hell because I had a case of the nerves,” he said. “I shot myself in the foot for that one. I let it snowball.”
Thus, Smokovitz faced an 89 ride, which Capt. Duncan Catlett, an instructor with the 8th Flying Training Squadron, described as “evaluating their overall potential to complete the program. It’s more of a big picture type of a sortie. It’s not trying to grind him out and kick him out on the street or re-classify him to a different career.”
“It’s kind of bizarre, thinking I could be out of pilot training this week,” Smokovitz said. “In the matter of a week, things can change for people. It’s kind of a scary thought.”
After his check ride, Smokovitz had to sit down with his commanders and review his errors.
“They said, ‘We looked at your grade book, what the heck happened? You did great on everything up to that check ride.’” he said. “I kind of just figured it was being afraid of failing. You want something so bad, you are afraid that it’s going to be taken away from you. I kind of let that eat on me when I was making mistakes on that ride. It snowballed and I never got over it.”
Weather conditions weren’t favorable for Smokovitz’ crucial 89 ride with his flight commander, with winds just a couple of knots from being too high to continue flying.
“It was a do-or-die kind of thing,” he said. “I just said ‘I’m going to do my best today. Regardless of what happens, I’ll just keep my head high.’ It turned out in my favor.”
Smokovitz passed his 89 ride, and will move ahead with his training.
“It was a hard lesson,” he said. “Just getting over the nerves is going to be my biggest challenge for the remainder of the year.”
The mid-phase check ride is a student’s first big test in the T-6. It comes while students still are learning to get comfortable in the airplane and in the crowded traffic pattern in the skies around Vance.
“It was a windy day with lots of people flying, and there was even an emergency aircraft back here at Vance,” said 2nd Lt. Ryan Schieber of his own check ride. “That was a little nerve-wracking. But overall it was pretty good.”
Check rides are different from normal flights, during which instructor pilots spend their time doing just that, instructing, talking to students almost non-stop throughout their sorties.
“It was a little strange because when you’re in a check ride, the instructor’s not talking in the back seat,” said Schieber. “A check pilot is not going to say anything. He’s going to watch you do it and wait for you to do something wrong. They are not going to let you go over the edge and do something dangerous.”
Check pilots, said 2nd Lt. Eli Weyen, will let you make mistakes, to a point.
“They will see how fast you correct for it, and what kind of decisions you make afterwards,” he said.
During a recent flying day, one student faced a nightmare scenario.
“We were at pattern saturation today and we had an initial solo student and he had a total hydraulic failure,” said 2nd Lt. Kayla Bowers. “Of all people for that to happen to, somebody on an initial solo.”
The student landed safely, but that is why students are drilled in emergency procedures throughout their training.
Class 13-13’s 12-hour duty days continue to be filled with one and sometimes two flights per day, briefings and de-briefings, simulator rides and academics.
“That will continue until we graduate,” said Bowers. “I don’t think it’s ending anytime soon. It’s just a constant learning process. As soon as you think you start getting used to something, then you are moving up to the next step and you have to keep up.”
Among other skills, the students are learning to put the T-6 through its aerobatic paces, doing spins, loops and rolls.
“We’re about two weeks from contact being over and moving into transition and instruments,” said Weyen. “It’s happening really fast. It’s pretty surprising how much we’ve accomplished in three months.”
The students are moving into advanced aerobatics and will face another check ride at the end of the contact phase of their training.
“Check rides never stop,” Weyen said. “They just come faster.”
The more routine parts of flying are becoming easier, the students say.
“It’s repetition,” Weyen said. “A lot of little things are just in the back of our head and we do it by muscle memory now.”
These student pilots all have faced challenges throughout their young lives, but none compare to undergraduate pilot training.
“Everyone said it will be the hardest thing you’ll do, and it definitely is,” Bowers said. “At least for me.”
Bowers had yet to have her mid-phase check ride, and faced the prospects of taking her check ride and her navigation exam on the same day.
After long days, the students face hours of studying and chair flying, which involves rehearsing flight procedures in a chair rather than in a sim or an actual aircraft.
“I know by Friday, I’m worn out,” Smokovitz said.
“Thursday for me, I’m a lot older, so I get worn out earlier,” said Weyen, who at 27 has a few years on most of his colleagues.