I can still remember my first day of pilot training. The majority of the officers in my 30 person class were recent graduates of the Air Force Academy, while only a few of us represented the Air National Guard (ANG). If I’m being completely honest, I was little intimidated by how confident those guys seemed.
After four years of grueling officer training, the Academy grads understood the military jargon and knew each other well. Many were stationed at the base for several months before starting class, so they already knew their way around and had all the “gouge” from their friends in other classes.
Simply put, to a guy who didn’t know anyone and who barely knew how to salute after my six week crash course of officer training (it’s now 8 weeks), they seemed to have it all figured out. However, the one thing they didn’t understand was the fundamental difference between how the active duty (AD) and ANG assign aircraft and bases.
We started our class the same way most classes start on day one—we went around the room, stood up, and gave a brief introduction with our name, where we were from, and what we wanted to fly. “Hi, I’m Sam from California, and I want to fly fighters.” “Hey, I’m Joe, and I’ve always wanted to fly C-17s.” The introductions continued around the room, each describing the aircraft they dreamed of flying.
The introductions were a little different once it got to the guard guys; “I’m John with the ANG, and I’m going to fly the F-15.” “I’m Jason with the Alabama ANG, and I’m going to fly the F-16.” “I’m Chris from the Hawaii ANG, and I’m going to fly the KC-135.”
It quickly became apparent that despite four years of living and breathing the Air Force way of life while at the Academy, most of these guys had zero clue that the ANG not only sent people to pilot training, but more importantly, that these people knew what they were going to fly and where they would be stationed before they ever started UPT. Their reactions ranged from disbelief to anger.
In my opinion, ANG flying slots are perhaps best kept secret in military aviation. The fact that it is such a “secret” is one of the main reasons why BogiDope was started—we want all perspective aviators interested in serving our country, like those hard charging Academy grads from my UPT class, to know what all the different options are before they choose the path that’s right for them.
As I already eluded to, potentially the biggest difference between the active duty and ANG is how aircraft and bases are assigned. In the next two parts, we’ll examine a basic overview of how the active duty and ANG aircraft/base selection processes differ to provide you with the comparison that many of my classmates never received all those years ago.
Active Duty Aircraft Selection Process
As an active duty pilot, you will indirectly compete with your classmates throughout your pilot training. How well you do relative to your classmates (who has better test scores, who has less downgrades on checkrides, and how your commander perceives your overall performance) will determine your class ranking. That ranking determines the order in which you and your classmates get to select what the next phase of your training will be from what’s available at the time. The available selections are based on the needs of the Air Force. There are two key events that dictate which aircraft you will fly; they are known as “track select” and “assignment night.”
The first six months of UPT will be spent flying the T-6 Texan II. At the end of T-6 training, you will fill out a “dream sheet” listing in order of preference the tracks you want to take.
There are essentially three different tracks that you can choose: fighter/bomber, heavies, and helicopters. In a 30 person class, you can typically expect only a couple helicopter slots, 5-10 fighter/bomber slots, and the majority to heavies. If you’re ranked number one in your class, you get your first choice of what’s available. Number two in the class chooses next, and so on.
The fighter/bomber tracks will spend the next 6 months flying the T-38 Talon. The heavies will go to the T-1A Jayhawk or T-44 Pegasus. The helicopter selectees will fly the UH-1H Huey. A new competition for class rankings will start among your peers within each respective track to determine final aircraft assignments.
Exception: Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) at Sheppard AFB, TX does not have a track select. Everyone will fly the T-6 followed by the T-38 leading up to assignment night.
This determines where you will spend the next three years of your life!
Again, you will be ranked among your peers from within your respective track. A couple days before the actual “assignment night,” you will be given “the drop.” The drop is the list of aircraft that will be available to choose from based on the current needs of the Air Force. This list changes every class.
Once again, you will fill out your dream sheet from first to last, listing your desired aircraft available from the drop. Class ranking will then determine the order of who gets what.
Your fate will be revealed to you publicly for all of the base to see in an event called “assignment night.” Your class will come up with some creative theme that reveals each pilot’s assignment one by one. Traditionally you get mobbed by your classmates as soon as your assignment is revealed to either help you celebrate or to shield your disappointment from the public. For better or worse, this will be a night you will never forget!
Formal Training Unit
Shortly after you receive your assignment, you will graduate UPT and then ship off to start training for your specific aircraft. Depending on the aircraft, this could take anywhere from two to ten months.
During that time, you will discover which area of the world you and your family will move to after training. This will usually be a three year assignment. You may get to voice your preferences, but again, where you go will be dependent on the needs of the Air Force at the time.
Active Duty Summary
As an active duty UPT pilot, you’ll quickly learn that timing is everything! What are the current needs of the Air Force? More fighter pilots? More cargo, tanker or drone pilots? What the demand is today will likely be different in six months when it’s time for your track select. The needs will likely be different again six months after that when it’s finally time to get your assignment.
How about the competition in your class? You could rank among the top in one class while you find yourself in the middle of the pack with another. All of these variables have a huge impact on the trajectory of you career—unfortunately, it’s largely out of your control.
The only thing you can control is your personal performance through the program. If you finish at top of your class, your chances of getting your first pick certainly increase—but even then you are limited to the options presented to you. If you’ve always wanted to fly F-22s, but there’s not currently a need for F-22 pilots, you’re left with having to choose something else. If you’ve always wanted to fly C-17s, but there are only two available and you’re ranked in the bottom third of the class, what are your chances of getting one?
Here’s the main point: if you have your heart set on a specific type of aircraft or even a particular track, you may end up disappointed—and it may not entirely be your fault. You may just be a victim of bad timing. Your relative performance compared to your classmates, and more importantly the needs of the Air Force at that specific time, will determine your future.
Air National Guard Aircraft Selection Process
ANG pilots attend the exact same pilot training as active duty pilots. The big difference between the two is that their track select, assignment night, and follow-on base are all revealed long before they ever take their first flight.
Think about it. If you get hired by a specific squadron at a specific location flying a specific type of aircraft, it only makes sense that you will train to return to that squadron qualified in the same equipment.
For example, if you get hired by the Minnesota ANG in Duluth, you know that you will attend UPT on a fighter track post T-6s, get assigned the F-16 on assignment night, and return to Duluth immediately following F-16 training. If you got hired by the Minnesota ANG in St. Paul, you will attend UPT on a heavy track, get assigned the C-130 at assignment night, and return to the St. Paul squadron immediately following C-130 training.
All of your active duty classmates will have to cope with the added stress of how each flight is affecting their class rank and what the drop may bring. You will have the luxury of completing your training without the stress of an uncertain future constantly weighing you down—your foreseeable military future has already been set.
This doesn’t mean you don’t have to perform. Yes, you have earned the opportunity to fly the same aircraft at the same location of the squadron that hired you. However, there have been several people from my squadron who attended UPT with a fighter slot in hand only to wash out of the course somewhere along the line. My squadron’s experience isn’t unique—this is actually more common than you may think.
There is a bit of added stress in knowing that the dream slot that you’ve already told everyone about could be taken away if you don’t meet the standard. But at that point, you have 100% control over your destiny through your own performance. That’s an advantage that none of your active duty classmates will ever be able to claim.
Air National Guard Summary
The ANG provides you a sense of control that service in the active duty lacks. If your heart is set on only flying fighters, then only apply to fighter units. If you want to live in one specific region of the country indefinitely, apply to squadrons within that geographic area.
Simply put, an ANG UPT slot allows you to choose how you serve your country based on what’s best for you as opposed to allowing the active duty Air Force to choose what’s best for it.
The intent of this article is to show that there are a lot of different aspects of your future you can’t control in the active duty. For most, it will work out just fine. Some may get exactly what they’ve dreamed of. For others, it may not be what they envisioned when they initially were selected for UPT, but they will adjust to the cards they’re dealt and do well. If you’re the type of person who is okay relinquishing control over some pretty big decisions (where to live, what to fly, etc.), the active duty is a great fit.
On the other hand, if you already know where you want to live and what you want to fly before you ever start pilot training, the ANG may be a way to go.