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Your First Operational Years

Your First Ops Unit

Eventually, you will graduate from the FTU. Very shortly thereafter, you will find yourself arriving at your operational unit. Congratulations! This is a cool day. If training unit after training unit hasn’t quite managed to scratch the itch that you have been seeking on your journey to military aviation, then this is your time to shine. The guys and gals you meet here are the ones with whom you’ll be flying, working and deploying for the next several years. If ever there was a time for a good first impression, and a time to apply our three basic rules to success, this is IT my friend.  

It is worth noting that the folks in your new unit hold the most recent experience, the freshest knowledge of “real world” operations. They know what they are doing and they probably just got back from their umpteenth deployment. Arrogance, jabbering about how well you did in the T-25 or generally being a conceited loudmouth is not going to work out well for you. Don’t be afraid to take on some of the FNG (F’ing New Guy) duties and tasks, and be sure to execute them well. If you’re the coffee and popcorn guy, make sure that sh!t is hot and spicy when the first guy walks in. Look for the points of failure and address them early –  you know, the life-or-death, mission critical things. Things like when the jalapeño peppers are running low and the SNACKO is out of town on their first TDY. You might wanna start figuring out who has the spare Sam’s Club card before all of your new buddies start looking for who’s head is going to roll for their bland, flavorless popcorn.  

You may be immediately thrown into a shop as an underling. You may have a say in which shop that is…or you may not. Regardless, you will be expected to learn quickly, take your duties seriously and stay on top of that work, as well as getting more spun up on your flying. At this point, you will know just enough to be dangerous, and all of the stuff you have learned for your mission qualification almost certainly will still require a significant amount of effort to execute properly and accurately. Your chairflying and in-depth planning may still be happening, and you are a long way from any of it feeling truly natural.  

Humble confidence is probably your best play here. You are the FNG, you haven’t really gotten your feet wet and you’ve not deployed in your airframe. But you have also had between one and a half and two years of training, and received several stamps of approval (Officer Commission, CSO wings, Mission Qual), so you don’t really have much of an excuse for floundering in your basic tasks or not knowing anything. Trust that you know what you are doing but remain open to absorbing all of the offered wisdom and knowledge that you can.

Realize, too, that for as much as the FTUs strive to keep their training up-to-date, relevant and as realistic as possible, there may be some glaring and significant differences in the way things get run in the ops unit. Sometimes, tactics are so area-specific, or evolve so quickly, that the FTU has yet to implement them. Don’t get hung up on this, there’s no need to point fingers, make excuses (“But sir, in the FTU we did it this way!”) or get frustrated. The more you can take it all in stride and learn from mistakes, the better. When in doubt, strip a concept down to the fundamentals and execute them as well as possible. If the ops unit wants you to use some different verbiage from the FTU while calling out turn points, don’t fret over all the hours you put into chairflying it the other way. Rather, get back to executing sound clock-to-map-to-ground and keep your aircraft going to the right place. Tweaking the new verbiage will be a lot easier If you roll with the punches than if you’re getting crushed in the debrief for getting lost because you’re fussing over changes.  


Once you’ve gotten a little more comfortable and fully-qualified, you will be deployment ready. Depending on how heavily tasked your airframe is, this may come sooner than later. This is when it starts to feel real. Really real. You will be doing your actual mission, with real lives on the line, supporting boots on the ground in hostile territory and taking the fight to the enemy. This is what we do.  

It’s a strange feeling when you tell somebody you’re deploying. To the uninitiated (typically those who have never served), it is often met with some awkward combination of respect and sorrow. Images of bloodied soldiers charging machine gun nests and returning to their loved ones in a flag draped coffin flash through their minds’ eye. Aviators don’t typically grab their M-4 and go kick the doors of some nefarious dirtbag’s house in, but deployment is still no joke and there certainly is danger and discomfort. But deploying isn’t just a rare part of the job. Ultimately, it IS the job. This is what we train for. This is what we prepare for. Deploying is, quite simply: What. We. Do. Leaving your family for months at a time, hanging your life out on the line to make an air drop, and subsisting on beef slop and rice is all a part of the game. 

Yes, just being in the military is a sacrifice, and, yes, deployments highlight this more than anything else. But it’s also a deeply satisfying experience. Deployment life, for many, becomes a routine. In many cases, you may be free from the daily complexities of life and work. No weekend fence repair, no weekly staff meeting, no racing to get the kids to practice. You will still have additional duties and will be plenty busy flying and working, but at the end of the day, you’re there to do a mission. And that’s exactly what you do. Eat, work out, prep to fly, fly the sortie, jam out paperwork and additional duties, sleep, repeat. In cases where the ops-tempo is high and units are deployed almost as much as they are stateside, this time can be a relief from the daily grind of staff meetings and annual training requirements. A chance to truly focus on the mission. To do what you signed up to do.

Further, this is where you really build your experience. You train like you fight and deploy with secure trust in yourself, and your crew.  But as Marvin Gaye so aptly stated: “There ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.” The pride in seeing your efforts make a difference, the knowledge that you really are living that dream – dust, heat, beef slop, and all – is a level of satisfaction you just can’t get in training. Getting a handshake from a yoked out operator because you kept him safe on the last DA (Direct Action) or reading a news article about a terror cell leader you helped take out is all the thanks and recognition you need.  

Not only will you be doing the job for real, but you will be surrounded by people who are experienced experts in their fields. You may be able to hang out with the maintainers to get a more in-depth understanding of aircraft systems, or you may get a chance to sit in on a brief or ROC (Rehearsal Of Concept) drill with a team of door-kickers. Seek out and take advantage of this. 

As an operational CSO, your goal is to be the best you can be at any and all tasks assigned to you. Your first priority is being an excellent CSO – the studying doesn’t stop, the learning doesn’t stop. You will have CONOPS (Concept of Operations), mission plans, radio frequency allocations, AOR (Area Of Operations) specific procedures, and ROEs (Rules Of Engagement) with which you will need to become intimately familiar.  

Knowing your place becomes important here, too. When it’s your first deployment, recognize that you simply don’t know everything. In fact, in the grand scheme, you know very, VERY little. Ask the sage and experienced aviators a lot of questions and make sure that, if they don’t know something, you make the effort to find the answer. Do your due-diligence though – before you pester that salty Captain on his 9th deployment with a question about some radio frequency, you could maybe just go and check the latest CONOP. If you can find the answer yourself, do it. 

Astronaut Chris Hadfield, in his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth sums it up nicely when he talks about aiming “to be a zero.” Basically, he poses that there are “-1s, 0s, and +1s.” Everybody wants to be a +1 as these are the people who consistently contribute to their team and environment in positive ways. Nobody wants to be a -1, as they are, essentially, “That Guy” who gets in the way, causes problems and/or does something stupid (even if unwittingly) that detracts from the team. A risk posed by the +1s is when, in an effort to prove to everybody how much of a +1 they are, they flaunt their arrogance or forge ahead with an inappropriate action. By aiming to be a zero, you show up, do your job and don’t mess things up for everybody. You may end up in a position to have a valuable input, like catching that the pilot hasn’t put the gear down. That’s a much better situation than being the guy who goes reaching for the gear lever when he shouldn’t, just to show how awesome you think you are.

The mission comes first, but there are always plenty of other tasks to be done. As the FNG, you’ll probably get tasked with things like tending the coffee pot, taking out the trash and stocking the fridge with water. This is not the place to complain or slack off. These things keep morale up and operations flowing smoothly. Keep an eye out for anything you can do to help out and take the initiative to get it done, ideally before anybody has to tell you to. If the Deployed DO (Director of Operations) is taking out the trash and you’re sitting in the break room watching “Game of Thrones,” you’re doing it wrong. There will be time to chill, but make sure you’re covering your duties first.

The same holds true in the airplane. You might be fetching water or snacks for your pilots or you might get tasked with updating landscape imagery while on the sweltering tarmac. Doing these little (or sometimes big) tasks keeps the mission rolling smoothly.  

The Facts of Life – You Are An Officer First

As a CSO, you need to remember that you are first a U.S. military officer. You’ll be expected to act professionally, work hard and find ways to support your squadron in its mission(s). Paperwork, admin and bureaucracy are facts of life. In the earlier stages of your career, you’ll likely be sharing computers with other aircrew and will be assigned various additional duties ranging in the support shops such as planning, tactics, safety or mobility (AKA getting everybody ready for deployments). You may not have much say in the additional duties with which you are tasked, but a good attitude and hard work are key regardless. You’ll likely be moved around to new shops periodically. This is intended both to expose you to other workings within the squadron and provide opportunities to try new things. Take advantage of this as you will probably not fall in love with every single job. In fact, many of these jobs can feel like they are getting in the way of your primary job – growing as an aviator. Still, there is plenty to learn and there are tons of ways to distinguish yourself if you work hard and do your job well. 

In this way, much of the daily life as a CSO will mirror the requirements and schedule of front-seat pilot brethren. WSOs, fighter pilots, ABMs and Navigators will all get stuck writing OPRs (Officer Performance Reviews) and filling out DTS (Defense Travel System) travel vouchers throughout their careers. You’ll also have to maintain currency in various training necessities (water survival, safety, security, mission events, etc.). At home, you’ll be training for deployments, developing tactics and generally maintaining your flight hours and proficiency.

Culturally, every unit and every airframe is different. With those different cultures comes differences in how aircrew are treated. Fighter units, for example, are notorious for “eating their young” – that is, hardening their new crop of pilots and WSOs through a lot of tough love. In some cultures, especially in days-gone-by, the non-pilot aircrew such as Navigators and EWOs have been known to receive plenty of ridicule. While, ultimately, the successful airframes and units are the ones that work the best as a team and a crew, such ridicule may occur. It’s important to remember that a crewed airframe requires a CREW! In this way, you are as critical as anybody to the success of the mission, so it is on you to excel at your duties as an aviator and do your part to get the whole crew running as one smooth team.

Many aviators wish to remain in the cockpit as long as possible, taking to the skies as often as they can. Yet the nature of the Air Force is that many spend a good portion of their career flying a desk. As you go up in rank, the ratio of desk time to flight time tends to increase. It’s important to not see this so much as a death sentence, but as an opportunity to become involved in the bigger picture of the unit’s and Air Force’s mission. And it’s a chance to apply your skills in new and interesting ways. 

As you grow up in your squadron, take a look at some of the things the older breed are doing and some of the assignments they take. Unique deployments, even non-flying staff deployments, can take you to some cool places doing unique jobs. You may end up on a Mediterranean island in charge of a handful of government contractors and guards from the US Army, or in Germany overseeing, and making decisions for, an entire AOR (Area Of Operations). These gigs, while not doing the flying you have trained for, give you a chance to learn and grow other parts of yourself, your skillset and your experience. These are often a truer test of your leadership and decision-making as you may now actually have people working underneath you in real world operations. 

Other opportunities exist which can be unique to the military and exciting in their own right. If you have craved flying but also want to really test your mettle, some aviators who fly on strike-oriented aircraft like fighters and bombers may be eligible to serve some time as ALO (Air Liaison Officer). You will take your aviation language, 9-Line skills and ordinance expertise and apply it on the ground, acting as a controller for weapons delivery. You may get JTAC-qualified and will be expected to physically keep up with the hard-as-nails operators. Embedding with these teams is no joke and you may be called on to deploy as part of an elite team of ground warriors. 

If applying your intellect is more your jam than the raw and brutal physicality of an ALO, staff assignments to various headquarters, the AOS (Air Operations Squadron) and even Pentagon can be an incredibly rewarding way to get the proverbial “peek behind the curtain.” You will see how the military works behind-the-scenes, and at upper levels, and develop a sense of how the decisions are made that drive the taskings you are accustomed to receiving as an aviator. Further, your work will have a significant impact on a great many of your fellow warfighters, and the mission as a whole. 

Instructor/ Evaluator upgrades

Ah yes, the feared instructors and dreaded evaluators. The keepers of the grade-book, the issuers of Hooks, Us, Tacos, 89’s, and Q3s. As you go through the initial stages of training, these are the guys and gals with the experience who teach you everything you need to know. At UCT, your instructors will have logged tons of flight hours, sorties and deployments.  Given the intense military-style training, it’s not uncommon for instructors to be intimidating. And as the evaluators are the ones making the decisions as to whether you’re ready to progress in the program, need more rides or even whether you stay in the program at all, the stakes of their decisions can feel very high. Because they are.

In the operational unit, the responsibility of instructors and evaluators remains just as significant. In-squadron instructors are in charge of maintaining squadron readiness, ensuring new TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) and systems are taught and that everyone is proficient. They also handle any recurrency training that may be required for someone who has been out of the airplane too long. Evaluators, in a similar vein, are responsible for annual and recurrencey checkrides. Ensuring that every aviator in the unit is current and proficient in all aspects of their job is critical for maintaining a safe and combat-ready unit.  

Taking on these positions presents a primary source of career progression within your role as a CSO. Getting the “I” code (instructor) or “E” code (Evaluator) tacked on to your AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code) is a quick and meaningful way for individuals and “the system” to assess where you are in your career and experience level.

Generally, the point at which you can progress to Instructor and Evaluator is based on a minimum hourly requirement. It is not a given, however, that individuals with a certain number of hours will progress. The decision as to whether somebody can go through their respective ICSO or ECSO course is made by leadership and based on their performance, competence and readiness to take on these new responsibilities. It should be noted, too, that airframes which fly very frequently and with longer missions (eg. U-28s) will likely present the opportunity to rack up hours and experience very quickly, while other platforms may take a much longer time to reach the requisite hours for upgrade.  

Once selected, the ICSO course is typically conducted through the respective airframe’s schoolhouse, though it is sometimes completed within the operational squadron. Evaluator upgrade is generally completed within your unit.  

Although most will upgrade to instructor within their flying career, the actual skill of being excellent at teaching is far from universal. Surely, some people will naturally make better ICSOs. There is no one way to teach, and everybody learns differently. Being able to adapt your way of thinking and identifying where your student is struggling is key. Being absolutely solid in your knowledge, understanding and skills within the aircraft and its operation forms the basis of your ability to teach. It should go without saying, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you simply can’t teach it correctly. The expectations that your fellow aviators have of you, therefore, will be particularly high. You don’t want your pilot(s) to be correcting you about your own equipment in front of your student.  

The responsibilities of an ECSO are, understandably, that much higher. Because CSOs must be Instructors before they can upgrade to Evaluator, they may be called upon and expected to instruct on earlier phases of a training regimen, as well as serve as an evaluator on a checkride. Oftentimes, as in a checkride, an Evaluator will say as little as possible throughout the flight, favoring observation and note taking. At the end of the sortie, the Evaluator will make a decision on your performance.  

Making the decision to Q3 (***the meaning of this will need a little explanation. Remember, we’re teaching many laymen***) somebody who performed below standards, knowing that doing so may severely impact their career, is not a task to be taken lightly. Similarly, choosing to pass somebody with a Q1 or Q2 who is simply not up-to-par is, in actual fact, putting somebody into the air knowing they should not be flying. Putting your name behind somebody who may be a hazard in the air is not a good position for you, for them or anybody within the scope of their mission. Imagine how you would feel if a Ranger took an AK round to the upper thigh because a CSO whom you let pass with inadequate performance choked on a mission.  

This added responsibility does come with a few perks, at least. It is common practice to give your Evaluator a bottle of their favorite booze following a checkride. While not a bribe (if you’re unfit to fly, throwing alcohol at the situation is not exactly how Uncle Sam expects you to handle it), this practice acts as well-received “thank you” and a token of gratitude and respect.