Confessions of a Reserve T-38C IP

I have a treat for you today! I just interviewed a reserve T-38C UPT IP, whom we’ll call Star-Lord for the sake of anonymity. The results of our conversation will explain how to get that job as a reservist along with the good and bad of that path. If you’re looking to leave Active Duty in the next few years (and you should be) this article is a must-read for you.

Then, we’ll discuss Star-Lord’s pet peeves and secrets to success for T-38C students in UPT. If you’re a Guard or Reserve pilot who thinks you’ve got it made once you get to UPT, you’re in for a rude awakening. Whether you’re part of the Total Force or on Active Duty, this post needs to be mandatory reading for every T-38C UPT student for the next few years.

For context, Star-Lord started as a FAIP before going on to join me in the esteemed ranks of Air Force bomber pilots. He returned to UPT as a T-38C IP for his final assignment on Active Duty. He transitioned to the reserves when he started working for a major US airline.

Enough setup. Here’s what we’re going to cover today:

Table of Contents

  1. For Active Duty Pilots
    1. Life as a Reserve T-38C IP
    2. How to Get That Job
  2. For Current and Future T-38C UPT Students
    1. Pet Peeves
    2. Advice
  3. Conclusion

Life as a Reserve T-38C IP

Continuing with a theme that seems to apply to everything in aviation, flying as a T-38C reservist is a series of trade-offs. There are a lot of great things about it, and some that make you just shake your head.

Starting with the obvious good: the T-38C is incredibly fun to fly! It cruises at 300 knots when it’s not trying hard. It can pull 7 Gs. It has afterburners, a HUD, and lives for flying in formation. Any pilot who actually enjoys aviation will miss this kind of flying when he or she goes to the airlines. Star-Lord hasn’t been a Part 121 pilot for very long, but he already recognizes and appreciates the fact that his reserve job is going to be a necessary source of fun flying for the near future.

Airline flying will never compare to this. (U.S. Air Force photo by MSgt Christopher Boitz)

Teaching UPT always runs the risk of getting monotonous – somehow the students keep making the same mistakes class, after class, after class. However, there’s something to be said for the relatively simple mission set of teaching UPT. In a fighter or bomber squadron, you’re likely to spend most of a day planning for every mission. That may end up being a 1.0-hour flight, but it will be followed by a debrief of no less than a few hours. In some squadrons, those debriefs run late into the night. As cool as it would be to fly a fighter, it comes at a heavy price. At a UPT base, you get to fly a lot with minimal prep once you learn the basics.

Most reserve UPT units expect a minimum of six days per month from their pilots. That may not sound like much until you realize how much time and money that costs you after just a couple years at a major airline. Star-Lord also noted something that I’ve seen myself, and in all my friends who have started airline flying:

Active Duty pilots are simply incapable of comprehending how busy and stressful your life is. This fact doesn’t make you bad people, and we wish there was a way to help you understand. It’s just the nature of the beast. I’ve made a couple of feeble attempts at illustrating this with articles about Variable Speed and simplified Go/No-Go decisions in the airlines. I was happy when Star-Lord’s spontaneous comments confirmed to me that he had, in fact, finally taken the Red Pill.

Many reserve UPT IPs try to knock out all six of their days in one week. One plan is to show up on Sunday. You spend some time reading through FCIFs (pilot bulletins) and making sure your pubs are in order so that you can count this as one day of work.

On Monday, your first flight back is CT – Continuation of Training where two IPs fly together. You do this to shake off any rust, and because you have the same currency requirements as an Active Duty UPT IP. If you don’t take at least a flight per month for yourself, you’ll be hard-pressed to log all your beans.

You’ll fly a student sortie Monday afternoon and then twice a day for the next three days. On Friday, you’ll fly once and then log a point for ground duties that essentially amount to doing the paperwork to ensure you get paid for the week of work you just put in, and setting things up for the next time you come out.

Another popular strategy is to show up on Wednesday for paperwork and CT. Then, you do two student sorties on Thursday before leaving for a student cross country trip on Friday. You’ll fly two more locals on Monday, and use Tuesday as your wrap-up day. Pilots who are qualified to sit as the Supervisor of Flying in the tower or the Operations Supervisor in the squadron can also get credit to sit around all weekend with a phone attached to their hip. If a cross country crew has a problem, you have to deal with it. Thankfully, those are relatively rare. The Active Duty IPs are so busy that they always prefer weekends off. This is a good way for a reservist to get paid for a weekend of work and help out the team overall.

Some pilots choose to do their flying in 3-4 day stints, using Military Leave to maximize both airline and military Quality of Life. Most reserve squadrons are very flexible on this – they’re happy to have you as much as you’re willing to fly. If you live in the local area, you can pick up work/flying a day at a time if you want to.

The actual requirement for days at work is actually a 3-month/18-day lookback. If you wanted some time away from the Air Force, you could potentially do 12 days one month, then skip a month and do six days the third month. Again, great flexibility.

Another major factor that plays into scheduling decisions is the Unit Training Assembly, or UTA. While many Guard and Reserve units have a UTA every single month, and all but mandate attendance, the reserve UPT squadrons have found a better way. They only hold two Mandatory MUTAs per year. Some add on an occasional First Friday or Voluntary VUTA here and there.

But that’s it.

If you want to see what jealousy looks like, go ask anyone in a “normal” Guard or Reserve unit what they think about that deal.

All of the reserve UPT squadrons realize that they need to pay for commuting costs, to at least some extent, because they’re located in towns that aren’t generally described as “garden spots.” Some squadrons will pay for you to make the trip a few times a month. They need your services more than they need the extra couple hundred dollars they’d spend on plane tickets. However, some squadrons incentivize you to do all of your reserve flying in a single six-day stint and only pay for you to commute once a month.

If you plan on doing all of your flying in the same week every month, it won’t matter if your base has the stricter commuting policy. However, some pilots prefer to break things up into 3- or 4-day stints to improve their airline schedule and family Quality of Life. If that’s the case with you, it’ll be important to make sure that you’re signing up with a squadron that has a more favorable commuting setup. Be tactful about how you ask your questions when you’re researching/rushing a unit, but be sure to ask!

I wish I could stop the job description here, but unfortunately, there’s a potential landmine waiting for anyone who pursues this job: deployments.

A few years ago, the USAF realized that it was desperately short on pilots and couldn’t afford to sacrifice new pilot production at UPT by deploying IPs. So, the Air Force “fenced” all Active Duty UPT IPs, protecting them from all deployment taskings.

This was great news for them, but the Air Force’s plan only worked (on paper) because it shifted all of the deployments to reservist UPT IPs. For anyone not blinded by the reflections from the ivory towers in Staff Land, this was a terrible idea. The reserve squadrons realized that they would lose people left and right under this new policy, so they decided to protect anyone in the squadron when the policy was announced. This kept a lot of old people around, but it only kicked the can a little further down the road…into the face of any pilot who joined a reserve UPT squadron after the policy took effect.

There are rumors that the Active Duty pilots might lose their protective fence soon, though I wouldn’t count on it. Even if they do start deploying, it won’t mean reservists are immune.

After talking with Star-Lord, I feel like reserve T-38C IP is absolutely a job worth doing. It’s fun flying, a no-stress mission planning environment, and not that many days a month. However, I’d definitely try to get information on commuting policies and the threat of deployment at each specific squadron I considered. This brings us to our next consideration.

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How to Get That Job

The truth of the US Air Force right now is that a majority of pilots are trying to leave Active Duty and join the airlines ASAP. (And they should be! There’s almost nothing you can do on Active Duty that you can’t also get in the Guard or Reserves.) Many USAF pilots find themselves in the position to request Palace Chase or separate outright while in assignments as UPT IPs. A reserve squadron can save a lot of money and time by hiring a current and qualified T-38C IP rather than hiring someone flying a different aircraft. A current IP can literally change the patches on his or her flight suit and start flying as a reservist the next day.

If you want to become a reserve T-38C IP, your best bet is to get an assignment flying that jet on Active Duty.

With this in mind, let’s consider the fact that the T-38C is the aircraft for the fighter/bomber track. Ideally, the Air Force would like to staff the majority of that track with fighter pilots. In case you haven’t noticed, the Air Force is desperately short on fighter pilots. Air Combat Command can’t afford to take fighter pilots out of fighter cockpits to teach UPT, so there are actually very few of them teaching in the T-38C at any UPT base right now.

If you’re an Active Duty fighter pilot looking to leave Active Duty, your application will get a lot of interest. Reserve squadrons are all under pressure to include the ratio of fighter to other pilots on their rosters. In fact, they probably even have the capability to hire you in an overage slot that they could not get approved for a pilot from a non-fighter background.

For a while, the Air Force tried to at least make up for this shortfall by sending bomber pilots to teach UPT, but they don’t have any more incentive to stick around than the fighter folks do. The third tier of T-38C IPs has come from pilots who trained in the T-38 as UPT students but didn’t fly fighters or bombers. This includes a lot of U-28A and MC-12W pilots, and even some MQ-1 and MQ-9 pilots. (If you went/got sent down down that track and want to get back into something with afterburners, now is the time!) Anyone from these groups could consider applying for a reserve T-38C IP job.

I’ve also heard rumors lately of a 4th tier of candidates for this job: pilots from larger aircraft communities who have never flown the T-38 before showing up to Pilot Instructor Training (PIT) at Randolph. This will be a long-shot for most pilots, but I believe the possibility will continue to at least exist until the Air Force figures out its fighter (and other) pilot retention issues.

An Air Force-wide fighter pilot shortage means there are several groups of pilots eligible for T-38 IP jobs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Martinez)

For many pilots trying to leave Active Duty, UPT IP is an obvious choice for Palace Chase or Palace Front. Despite some of the less-favorable considerations we’ve looked at so far, this job is fairly competitive. If you want to have a realistic shot at one of the few slots available, you absolutely must plan to rush any unit you’re considering.

Star-Lord recommended making sure you show up for the next MUTA on the schedule. Take the time to get to know people and make sure everyone likes the idea of working together for the next 5-15 years. You can be absolutely certain that the unit is going to do a lot of checking on you. They’re going to call everyone they know to find out if anyone who knows you cares to weigh in on your attitude, personality, work ethic, and flying skills.

This highlights a pervasive and timeless lesson for all pilots. It’s a small world. Be nice, helpful, and effective no matter what you’re flying, because you never know when someone from your past will be on the board deciding if you get a new job you want.

Other than this, you’ll certainly improve your application by holding advanced pilot ratings in any aircraft you’ve flown. If you’ve ever flown a T-38, certifications like FCF pilot, 4-ship flight lead, and Evaluator Pilot will be helpful. Having completed your rank-appropriate Professional Military Education, and potentially even having a master’s degree are also good signs.

Like any reserve squadron, I’m sure UPT squadrons like hiring locals who can come into work without having to commute. That said, they’re also realistic about the fact that few reservists could actually consider settling down nearby, even temporarily. If I were applying I’d want to be able to honestly communicate the fact that I was planning to stick with that unit for the long-term. Unfortunately, I feel like it’d also be necessary to communicate a willingness to deploy if called upon.

I feel like the basics of getting a reserve T-38C IP job are a lot like any other flying job. Work hard and get as much valuable experience no matter where you come from. If possible, apply while you’re current and qualified in the jet you want to fly as a reservist.

However, Star-Lord repeatedly emphasized the fact that real-world networking will play into the success of any application at his squadron. You absolutely must rush the unit and get to know everyone if you want a realistic chance of getting the job.

If you do, you’ll have access to a week of very fun flying in a fantastic aircraft every month. You could do a lot worse for reserve flying jobs.

Star-Lord’s advice is critical for anyone trying to get a job as a T-38C IP. However, he also had some great points for BogiDope’s other primary demographic: young pilots aspiring to become UPT students.

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Pet Peeves

The Millennials in the audience will groan, but I’m about to suggest that the youngest generation of whipper-snappers at UPT has an undeserved entitlement mentality that causes them problems. In fact, when I asked Star-Lord about UPT IP pet peeves, he didn’t even hesitate to mention this as his first and primary point.

I can understand why this happens.

For most students, getting to the T-38 means they did very well in the T-6. Having flown both I can tell you that, compared to the T-38, the T-6 is very easy to fly. The pace of the T-6 training program is downright glacial compared to that of the T-38. It’s probably easy for students who did well in the T-6 to think they’ve got everything figured out and will have an easy time in the T-38.

Another factor at play is the Air Force’s ongoing fighter pilot shortage. Not that many years ago, some geniuses at Air Force Personnel Center decided it would be a great idea to drop a lot of non-fighter aircraft to T-38 students. UPT drops included everything from C-17s to U-28s to MQ-1s.

Shockingly, the Air Force still doesn’t realize how much it did to cause its own fighter pilot shortage. It’s trying to make up for it now, and UPT drops from the T-38 track are almost entirely fighters. The #1 graduate is likely to get an F-22 or one of the few coveted A-10 slots that show up every year. A poor soul somewhere in the middle of the class will become a FAIP (First Assignment Instructor Pilot,) and the lowest graduate in the class will “get stuck” with an F-16. Boohoo, right? (For the record, if any of you ever complains about dropping an F-16, I will personally find you and punch you in the face.)

This has the unfortunate effect of causing UPT students to think that as long as they get to T-38s, they’ve got it made…they can’t help but end up fighter pilots. For better or for worse, there is some truth to this right now. However, we’ll see shortly that this assured fighter slot is far from guaranteed.

Unlike the T-6, T-38s are very much a big-kid program. You won’t have weeks of doing nothing except academics. You’ll have to fit that learning in among simulators and flying. You probably won’t be on formal release, meaning you don’t have to sit around the flight room every day. You probably won’t do many standup emergency procedures because they’re a pain for IPs.

You’ll have a lot of confidence from the T-6, and a lot of time on your hands. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t need to work very hard from the moment you cross the street to your new flight room. Your IPs will expect you to be using your free time to study…hard.

It’s not often in life you get to do something as awesome as fly in a 4-ship of T-38s. Don’t take it for granted! (U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Danielle Hensley)

Many people in the era of mobile devices are used to asking Google or social media for answers to any question that pops into their mind. They’re actually losing the skill of studying, assimilating, and retaining important knowledge. Star-Lord sees this in T-38s in the form of student pilots who show up with lineup cards completely covered in notes and memory joggers. Unfortunately, pulling Gs and flying the T-38 at speeds in excess of 500 knots is not an environment conducive to scanning around your lineup card for the next piece of knowledge you need.

When you show up for a flying or simulator event, you’re expected to have studied and internalized all the knowledge required for that event. You shouldn’t need a cheat sheet because it needs to be in your brain already. If it isn’t, there will be hell to pay.

To make matters worse, you need to be this ready for any event for which you are vulnerable. There will be times in T-38s where you’re “opted” (vulnerable) for Contact, Instrument, and Formation flights and simulator events. If the weather changes, you might suddenly shift from what you had planned to something else with zero time to prepare. You need to have a lineup card ready and the knowledge already internalized or else you’ll have a miserable flight.

This is a lot to ask. Trust me…I’ve been there. However, the demands only increase if you become a fighter pilot. Despite what we think we saw in Top Gun, most fighter pilots spend upwards of 10 hours every day studying classified documents in a windowless vault…for several years…just to reach a baseline level of competence in their job. If you can’t handle what I’m describing in the T-38, you will never cut it as a fighter pilot.

(Maybe there’s some method to the madness that is the design of UPT Phase III, huh?)

I’ll share one more of Star-Lord’s pet peeves before moving on to the advice.

In the era of social media, text messages, and other forms of asynchronous, remote communication, interpersonal skills seem to be an increasingly rare quality. When you’re walking through the hallways of a T-38 (or any other) squadron, don’t be the pathetic weakling who scrapes the wall with your shoulder and stares at your shoes (or worse, your phone) when you pass someone. Stand up straight, look people in the eyes, and say, “Hello,” as you pass.

These are qualities that the USAF specifically wants in an officer. They’re also the qualities of a professional aviator in the military, the airlines, or anywhere else. If your development of such qualities has been stunted thus far in your life, take advantage of this opportunity to improve yourself.

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In case I haven’t made the point sufficiently yet, Star-Lord’s biggest piece of advice is: don’t take your position for granted. Being a T-38 student does not confer upon you the same status as an actual fighter pilot. Work hard and be humble.

Yes, you earned the right to fly the T-38. Now it’s time to prove that you’re good enough to stay there.

This brings up a fascinating, and perhaps shocking point:

Nobody, not even a Guard or Reserve pilot is guaranteed a fighter upon graduating from T-38s.

Star-Lord has personally been involved with more than one case of Guard pilots who showed up thinking that as long as they didn’t wash out, they’d end up F-15 pilots. Their performance wasn’t cutting it, and none of them are flying any type of fighters today.

If flying something like this is your goal, don’t slack off just because you’re in the Guard or you tracked T-38s as an Active Duty pilot. If you don’t make the cut, you will not fly single-seat. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman John Linzmeier)

I mentioned that I’ve heard about a quantifiable cutoff for situations like this when I described MASS, the Merit Assignment Selection System, last week. I found it interesting that I got confirmation of this principle just a few days later by someone actively flying as a UPT IP.

This decision is never not taken lightly. The UPT flight and squadron commanders all have direct communication with each student’s Guard or Reserve chain of command. If a student pilot starts struggling, your unit back home knows about it right away. They’ll get updates on your progress, but if you aren’t cutting it they may have no choice but to cut you loose.

I was surprised to find out that the Guard, specifically, has a new policy where if a T-38 student pilot isn’t recommended for fighters, he or she may be sent back to the T-1. This is a fresh start as if he or she just finished T-6s, but it will result in flying one of the types of aircraft that gets awarded out of the T-1 track. Guard and Reserve units have a long history of working together to find places for pilots in unique circumstances. The Air Force needs all the pilots it can get. It will find a place for you, but that place may not be what you thought it would be when you signed up.

In a way, this should be comforting. Star-Lord spoke highly of at least one of these non-fighter pilots. He was a sharp student with a great attitude. He just couldn’t handle single-seat at 300 knots, let alone faster jets with complex sensors, communications, weapons, and defensive systems onboard. He successfully completed the T-1 program and is flying operationally. Star-Lord is proud of the fact that he was part of a process that helped this student earn a set of Air Force pilot wings and serve his country, instead of just washing out.

On the other hand, Star-Lord has also been involved in at least one situation where a Guard or Reserve student headed to heavies was crushing the T-6. After consultation with local and home-station leadership, they were able to send that student through the T-38 instead of the T-1. He excelled there as well and ended up finding a new unit where he could fly fighters instead of heavies. (It was win/win for the student. Even if he graduated without a recommendation to fly fighters, he could have still gone back to his original Guard unit.)

I tried this for one student when I was a UPT flight commander, but our boss declined to risk getting denied. I’m glad to hear about a UPT squadron commander who had the courage to stick his or her neck out for a student, and get the Air Force another badly needed fighter pilot. This should tell you to always do your best. Don’t slack off just because you think you’re set. There could be something even better in store for you.

One final piece of advice that Star-Lord had was to start putting yourself in the mental position of being a fighter wingman from day one. One of the greatest pieces of advice ever given to a wingman (or copilot) is: “Never pass up the opportunity to shut the hell up!”

As a T-38 student, sit quietly in debriefs. Pay attention and take notes. Speak when spoken to, but otherwise, shut up and listen. If the IP asks you a question, answer it directly. If the answer is simply a Yes/No, then don’t add anything to it. Don’t explain, justify, or complain. It will not go well for you. If you have a question, write it down and wait until your IP offers to field questions before asking yours.

Does this make it sound like T-38 IPs are a bunch of a-holes? If so, you frankly don’t need to be a T-38 or fighter pilot. These principles extend into the rest of your career.

When you fly a fighter, your flight lead will spend up to several hours debriefing each hour that you fly. He or she has objectives for that debrief – things that need to be sorted out and lessons that each member of the flight has to learn. Interrupting that debrief to pose questions or explain why you sucked only makes things take longer for everyone. (And by the way, they all have families to go home to before coming back to work tomorrow morning.)

In any flying squadron, but especially fighters, there is no room for complaining or trying to justify your shortcomings. You’re part of a team and your job is to constantly improve yourself, whether your ego gets bruised in the process or not. Take criticism and learn from it. Focus your answers on what is asked for, or what is absolutely needed to improve the formation. Otherwise, sit back and learn. The other pilots in your flight are betting their lives on your future performance.

I can attest to the fact that Star-Lord isn’t (usually) an a-hole. He’ll give you hell if you try to whine in a debrief or show up to a mission unprepared. However, he’ll do it in a way that has you laughing at yourself and wanting to do better next time. He’d much rather be able to smoke and joke with his students while hanging around the flight room. As long as you’re prepared and obviously doing your best, you can have a great time in a T-38 flight room. You’ll only dislike this environment if you show up with a bad attitude or fail to be prepared.Other than this, there aren’t that many secrets to doing well in T-38s. Everything comes back to our old refrain that to win UPT you simply have to be good at everything.

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I think T-38C IP at a UPT base is a fantastic reserve job. Whether you just want to keep your foot in the door, or you need some fun part-time flying to balance out the bus-driver life of an airline pilot, this job can absolutely give you what you’re looking for.

Looking a little further into the future, the USAF recently named the Boeing T-7A Red Hawk as a replacement for the T-38. They’re planning on Initial Operating Capability (IOC) around 2024. (Given government standards of behind schedule and over-budget, I’d say that probably means 2026.) For an Active Duty pilot looking to move to the Guard or Reserve soon, flying the T-7A will be a real possibility. I don’t know about you, but I think it looks gorgeous. I would at least consider selling one of my children for a chance to fly it. Not seriously. Well, probably not.

A pair of gorgeous red tails. Admit it: you’d love to fly either one of these.

For our younger BogiDope readers, I hope you ponder and take Star-Lord’s words to heart. (Especially if you’ll be flying with him in the future!) Flying the T-38 at UPT is a fantastic experience where you stand the chance to learn a lot and earn a slot for amazing future endeavors. Be humble, personable, and expect nothing. Work harder than you ever have, even if you want to think that your position is secured, because it isn’t.

Thanks for reading, and fly safe!

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Image Credits:

All T-38 photos in this post came from You can find them and many more by searching for “T-38.”

The photo of the Vipers and Raptor is from:

The shot of two red tails is on the T-7A gallery on Boeing’s website:

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