You know, many people consider “A Day in the Life” to be The Beatles greatest work? I, personally, struggle to agree with that… Don’t get me wrong! It’s got some GREAT moments. Some of the most vintage Beatles-moments ever put to record, frankly. But I think that the song, at times, can seem a bit scattered, sometimes overwhelming and even, occasionally, downright melancholy. But the combination of all of its elements has convinced a good many people – most of whom arguably understand music better than I – that it is truly “the Fab Four’s” magnum opus.
In this way, it is a stunningly accurate metaphor for a life in Army Aviation. New aviators leave Flight School with a fire in their belly and an excitement that’s bordering on mania. They report to their new units hungry to learn, grow and get better. And then…over time…people have bad days. Maybe bad weeks. Even bad months. Their flying is off, they’re distracted, maybe they have an in-flight incident that scares the crap out of them, or the NON-flying part of their job is weighing on them…
And they are reminded that this is a real job that occurs in conjunction with real life. Becoming a pilot in the Army was not, in fact, the triumphant conclusion that brings the audience to its feet. Rather, it was a (albeit very exciting) prelude to the actual story. A pre-intermission scene. Once the popcorn’s been purchased and the people are back in their seats, there’s a whole new movie to watch with new characters, new crises, new climaxes and the actual resolution can be decades down the road.
This discourages some. Demotivates them. But for those who dig in, don’t give up on the day-to-day and work hard to become the best officers and aviators they can be…it’s nirvana. Much like “A Day in the Life,” it all strings together to become a magnum opus. A triumph. Regardless of whether they’re in for 10 or 30 years.
Now let’s talk an Army Aviator’s “Day in the Life.”
Table of Contents
First and foremost among the commonalities is that both Active Duty and Guard/Reserve pilots have the same annual training requirements. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating, because it comes as a shock to some. Electing to be in the Guard/Reserves does not, in fact, give you a hall pass to get out of becoming a proficient, highly-capable aviator. You can’t just coast. There’s just as much expected of you as your Active Duty comrades.
The post-Readiness Level (RL) progression goals of each aviator should, thus, also mirror one another regardless of component. Once an aviator has attained RL1, they should strive to become proficient enough to be able to become a Pilot-in-Command (PC). This is true whether a pilot is a RLO or a WO. The PC-progression program can vary widely as it is unit-driven, but generally speaking, a pilot will need to prove proficiency in both technical and tactical operation of the aircraft under varying conditions. PCs, ultimately, are the primary trainers in a unit (the Army is currently re-structuring slightly and creating “Unit Trainer/Evaluators,” but we won’t dive into that here).
Active Duty units will almost always allow this to happen sooner than Guard/Reserve units. This is because they will generally have a younger, less-experienced group of pilots than the part-timers and, thus, need the PCs. Simply put, Guard/Reserve units hang on to their pilots. Active Duty pilots, in contrast, will move from unit-to-unit, duty station-to-duty station.
The lives of Active and Guard/Reserve WOs are remarkably similar. Excepting, of course, that the latter have a fraction of the time to complete their required training, both flight- and non-flight-related. But Warrants Army-wide will almost immediately go into a Line Company upon arrival at their units to begin their metamorphosis into an Expert of Flight. This is their purpose. This is their reason.
Upon completion of RL Progression, they will be given an “additional duty.” This is the job that takes their time when they aren’t flying and, most often, allows a lot of time for aircraft/aviation study, mission planning, etc. Some additional duties are: Unit Hazardous Material Officer, Supply Officer (a time-consuming venture that should be considered a compliment), Aviation Life Support Equipment Officer (maintains, helmets, flight vests, etc.) and “Fridge-Fund” Officer (the person that keeps the fridge well-stocked – a low effort, SUPER high-reward job for the WO that does it well), to name a few.
The young Warrants’ primary objective week-in and week-out is to get on that flight schedule and go get those repetitions. Those that prove their ability to adeptly manage the requirements of their additional duty and their flying will be the quickest to make PC and get a track.
As I alluded to several weeks ago, post-RL progression flying for RLOs has to be a close-second in priority. We’ll call it “1b.” This is because a RLO has to learn a lot to do their non-flying job well and that non-flying job takes a lot of time. Whether on Battalion (BN) or Brigade (BDE) staff, or acting as a Platoon Leader (PL), the RLO is responsible for a lot of people, equipment, information, planning products, maintenance, etc.
But I specifically called it “1b” to ensure that you understand: it’s NOT “Priority #2.” It’s definitely 1b. A young LT has to work hard to ensure they are in the books and getting in the aircraft as often as they can to become a proficient aviator. It’s a tough balancing-act, but it’s the one you elected when you decided to become a RLO.
Again, a majority of a new RLO’s time is going to go to their non-flying job. As a LT, it’s not a large majority, but a majority nonetheless. The higher one climbs in rank, the larger that majority becomes. I’ve said it before…the path of the RLO is NOT to become the best, most experiences, highest-hour pilot. It’s to become a really freaking good pilot while setting conditions for your Warrants to become the best, most experienced, highest-hour pilots.
I’ll only add a couple of administrative notes here, as everything listed under “Commonalities” pretty well covers the scope of what Active Duty pilots’ time is given to. As I said, Active Duty pilots will generally progress to become PCs earlier than their Guard counterparts. For those who are crushing both flying and their additional duty, particularly WOs, becoming a PC within a year of arriving at your first unit is absolutely possible. For the majority of pilots, it will happen somewhere between 18-24 months after arriving.
RLOs will, most often, begin in a Staff job at their new unit until a spot opens up for them at a platoon. This could be anywhere from 1-12 months. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS DEVELOPMENTAL OPPORTUNITY. You’ll fly less than at a platoon (once per week-ish), but you’ll have opportunities to learn how the Army works. This will get you way ahead in your capabilities as an Officer in the Army. Once you’re at a platoon, the flying increases (twice per week…ish). This is, without a doubt, THE IDEAL TIME to become the best pilot you can. You will have more opportunity to give your flying/piloting a concerted focus as a Platoon Leader (PL) than in any other position in your career.
The other administrative “good-to-knows/good-to-remembers” are those idiosyncrasies tied to be Active Duty. Depending on the culture of your BN, you may be expected to go to PT every morning. You’ll have to follow Army leave policies anytime you want time off or want to go anywhere. In essence…the Army owns you, and all of your time, so you will sometimes be required to put in a LOT of time. This isn’t a traditional 9 to 5.” And you’ll be away from home far more often than those in the Guard/Reserves, both in terms of deployments and training exercises.
But for that, you’re getting paid really well, working towards a retirement and you have fantastic job security. Pros and Cons. Consider them when deciding what path you’ll take.
Regardless of whether you elect to become a RLO or a WO, once your RL Progression is complete (with or without being put on orders, as mentioned in last week’s article) your focus with respect to the Army becomes Additional Flight Training Periods (AFTPs) and Drills. Each pilot in a Reserve Component is allocated 72 AFTPs per Fiscal Year (FY). For the U.S. Government, the FY begins 01 OCT of each year. So, put plainly, you have from 01 OCT of a given year to 30 SEP of the following year to execute 72 AFTPs.
Just to be clear, nobody is required to complete all 72. But they are there for you. Each AFTP is a minimum period of four hours. For completing that four-hour period, a soldier gets paid one day of Active Duty pay minus housing and sustenance allowances. It also earns you one point towards retirement. Retirement as a Guardsman is a whole article of it’s own, so I won’t go into it here.
A soldier can complete two AFTPs consecutively on a single day and, most often, that’s exactly what pilots do. They will come in one day/week, if possible, and execute two AFTPs while conducting a flight and/or flight-related training. So the equivalent of two days of pay for one day of work. For some individuals, this can be tricky to work out in conjunction with their full-time employment, so maybe they come in once every-other week. I could go an, as the variety of combination are just about endless, but you get the idea.
Some aviators who are commuting a long distance to get to their unit will even sign up to fly for two or three days leading into, or directly following, a drill weekend. This enables them to only make that commute once/month. This, obviously, can have a detrimental effect on one’s sharpness in the aircraft, as it means there are long pauses between flights (recency helps to avoid the buildup of rust in one’s flying).
The moral of the story is, it’s incumbent upon the individual to figure out what works for them. This can take trial and error, but so does everything else in life. And once you get into your rhythm, it’s totally manageable.
Now on to Drills – all soldiers in the National Guard are allocated 48 Inactive Duty Training periods (IDTs) per FY. An IDT is, effectively, identical to an AFTP (same pay, same retirement point, same four-hour minimum, etc.). As the National Guard-gig is traditionally advertised, this means one weekend per month – two IDTs on Saturday, two on Sunday (4 IDTs x 12 months=48 IDTs). But often, for aviation units, it just doesn’t happen this way, as the conduct of good aviation training may require more than two days.
So aviators will often find themselves attending drills that start Friday morning or Friday evening and then run through the weekend. Given that each soldier is only allowed 48 IDTs, something has to give. If this is the case, there will be months in which no drill occurs, as the IDTs for that month were dispersed elsewhere throughout the year.
Regardless, this means these pilots are doing their “Army jobs” only two-to-three days per month, on average. So you can imagine that drill weekends can feel really busy, and the learning curve can feel really steep. A lot of administrative work, training – both flight-related and not – and planning has to happen in a really condensed period. As stated above, soldiers in the Guard, with only a few exceptions, have the same annual training requirements as their Active Duty counterparts. Just less dedicated time to complete it.
But the tradeoff? The Army only owns you a few days per month. Because even when you’re going in on AFTPs, it’s to fly/conduct flight-related training only. This fact, for many, is priceless.
So it’s up to you to choose! Which lifestyle better suits your goals, plans and ideals?
I led off with some blunt honesty. This life can be freaking hard sometimes. But as anyone who’s flown in the Army will tell you, it is so worth it. You will never experience anything like it doing anything else anywhere else.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your introduction to Army Aviation! Keep an eye on the website as we’ll be rolling out coaching/mentoring, unit locations and contact information, and job postings in the coming weeks. Some eCourses to help you in the application/interview process to get into your desired unit will be following thereafter.
It’s our goal to teach you, guide you and help you get the job you want, where you want. We at BogiDope are incredibly excited to help any and all of you to fulfill your wish to become a pilot in the baddest aviation community on this Earth – United States Army Aviation.