We almost don’t go a day without a future UPT student asking us how to get the assignment he or she wants. BogiDope exists to help you make that happen!
The easiest way to do this is to sign up with a Guard or Reserve unit in the first place. However, for those of you on the Active Duty path, your final aircraft assignment depends entirely on your performance in UPT. We wrote a 3-part series on Winning UPT that covers what you really need to know and do. We truly believe that if you work as hard as you can, and follow that advice, you’ll be happy with your outcome on graduation day.
That said, some people still want to know all of the details. Today we’re going to look at the Merit Assignment Selection System, or MASS. This is like the Google search algorithm for your UPT scores. It’s a mathematical formula that the Air Force uses to summarize months of your blood, sweat, and tears at UPT into a single number.
You get one MASS score for your efforts during Phase I and Phase II, and that is what determines your class rank for Track Select. You get a completely new and separate MASS score for your work during Phase III, which is what determines your class rank for post-UPT aircraft and base assignments.
Google’s algorithm is a tightly held secret, and it’s constantly changing. A lot of companies make a lot of money by guessing how the algorithm works and selling that knowledge to website owners and advertisers. Thankfully, the MASS isn’t so secret. While some of the details are tough to come by, you can go read AETC Instruction 36-2605V4 and learn exactly what math the US Air Force uses to compute the MASS.
For the sake of simplicity, we’re only going to dig into the specifics of the MASS score for flying T-6s in Phase II today. No matter what you fly in Phase III, the MASS works the same way. The only differences are the inputs. Here’s how we’re going to work through this:
Table of Contents
- MASS Inputs
- T-Scores: Comparing Apples to Apples
- T-Score Implications
- MASS Weights
- Putting This Knowledge To Use
- Wrap Up
The MASS is essentially just a giant math equation. Each student’s individual score is based on four inputs:
- Academic Test Average
- Daily Maneuver Scores
- Category Check Maneuver Scores
- Flight Commander’s Ranking
You’ll take most of your academic tests during Phase I, before you get to the flight line and have to worry about stick & rudder skills. There are enough tests that some of them will happen during Phase II, which will mean you have more distractions to deal with while you’re studying.
These tests are the only thing in UPT that is 100% under your control. There is zero subjectivity to your test scores. You have the power to study as much as necessary to score well. You should note that the MASS only considers your first attempt at any given test. If you score 62% and fail a test, then get a 97% on the retake, it doesn’t help you. That 62% will drag your MASS score down forever. Study hard.
Although the academic materials you receive in UPT are more than enough to score 100% on every exam with proper study, it won’t hurt if you showed up with as much aviation knowledge as possible. I arrived at UPT with my Private Pilot’s Certificate in airplanes, and Commercial and CFI certificates for gliders. I’d studied aviation as a hobby for my entire life. This helped me score well with less worry on my academic tests in UPT. (I list some good, and even free, study resources here.)
During Phase II of UPT, your IPs will give you weekly quizzes, called EPQs. Scoring poorly on an EPQ brings undesirable consequences. Repeated poor performance on them will play into your Flight Commander Ranking. However, these quiz scores don’t make it into the MASS.
Every maneuver you fly during UPT gets graded. The scale is: Unsatisfactory, Fair, Good, Excellent. The syllabus specifies the minimum score that you must achieve for each maneuver by the end of each block of flying. This applies to your checkrides as well, which are essentially grouped as a category with only one flight. These scores are the Minimum in Phase, abbreviated and pronounced “MIF.”
A “U” means you performed the maneuver in an unsafe manner, or that you were just unable to accomplish anything approximating it. An “F” generally means “safe.” You’ll only need an “F” on most items to go solo.
The syllabus and/or AETC Manual 11-248, T-6 Primary Flying, specify the parameters expected for any given parameter. Meeting these standards is what earns you a “G.” You can earn an “E” by performing a maneuver even more skillfully than the minimum standards required.
MIF for many maneuvers will be “U” when you’re just starting out. The highest MIF for any maneuver is a “G,” though even on Category Checks (aka “checkrides”) MIF for some items will only be an “F.”
You’re never expected or required to earn an “E” for any maneuver. However, the MASS bases everything on total points possible. You can pass UPT without ever earning a single “E,” but your MASS score decreases every time you get a grade below “E.” (We’ll look at implications related to this later.) It’s not unrealistic to hope to earn Es on many of your maneuvers as you get closer to your checkride, assuming you’re catching on to things well.
It’s worth noting that this scoring system works the same for daily flights and for your checkrides. We’ll note later that checkride scores are weighted more heavily than daily scores, but the principles apply to both.
In addition to maneuver scores, you’ll receive an overall grade for each event in UPT. (Also U, F, G, or E.) While it always feels nicer to get an “E” than a “G” as an overall grade, the truth is that your overall grade doesn’t matter that much. As you read the 36-2605, you’ll note that overall sortie grades don’t really get mentioned at all. It’s possible that the MASS takes this score into account, but if it does that probably means the overall score has an effect on your MASS similar to any individual maneuver score. That’s a very small effect.
Although they don’t get mentioned here specifically, you fly a lot of simulator events during Phase II of UPT. These are considered daily rides and your scores on these events play into the “Daily Maneuver Scores” section of the MASS equation. Don’t blow them off just because they aren’t in the aircraft.
Flight Commander Ranking
Although the other three inputs to your MASS score are tied directly to your performance as a pilot, your Flight Commander Ranking is meant to encompass a lot more. This score reflects your overall officership, your ability to work as part of a team, your attitude, and your supervisor’s (somewhat subjective) evaluation of your potential as an Air Force pilot.
The Air Force makes a big deal of saying, “You’re an officer first and a pilot second.” It’s tempting to make UTP a rat race where you stab others in the back to get ahead, but that’s not the type of person that the Air Force wants. You may not realize it, but your IPs see everything you do. They’re constantly talking about you. The context of these discussions isn’t just, “Wow, that kid’s a jerk.” It’s also, “Would you want that kid to be part of your squadron? Would you want him or her on your wing flying into combat?”
I got to award Flight Commander Rankings for two UPT classes. Here are some of the considerations I had:
- A student showed up squared-away from day one. She studied hard, always had the right answers when asked a question, she flew wonderfully, she helped out her classmates–including one who needed a lot of extra help. She got a very high ranking.
- A student was good at flying the airplane but seemed…lazy…overall. He failed some EPQs. He’d show up to flights not knowing the entry parameters for his maneuvers. He spent a lot of time in the flight room goofing-off instead of studying. His ranking wasn’t stellar.
- A student was not good at flying the airplane. In fact, he struggled through the entire program. However, he had a great attitude and worked hard despite all his setbacks. He was a team player as much as he could be with all the extra studying and practice he had to do to catch up. He got a better ranking than Student #2.
We’ll see shortly that Flight Commander Ranking carries a lot of weight in the MASS. You need to make sure that you do your best to be an asset to your class, that you’re always prepared, and that you’re a good person in order to maximize this score.
T-Scores: Comparing Apples to Apples
If you ever hear someone in a math class complain by asking, “Why do we have to learn this? I’m never going to use it in real life,” you should tell them to shut up. If you need to use the selfie camera on your phone to yell this at yourself, go ahead and do it.
I use algebra and trigonometry every single time I fly. I use calculus and thermodynamics every time I do especially interesting flying like aerobatics, formation, or soaring…and it makes me a better pilot than the people who think calculus is worthless. Today, we’re going to discuss statistics. If you want to truly understand MASS and use that knowledge to your advantage, it turns out that knowing stats is critical.
In order to make a fair comparison of each student to the rest of his or her class, each person’s raw scores are converted to what’s called a T-Score. The T-Score is computed by first coming up with a Z-Score.
This isn’t done on a maneuver-by-maneuver basis though. The MASS first calculates a weighted average of all your maneuver scores. (Landings are more challenging and important than aileron rolls, so landings get more weight in that average.) You get one T-Score for each of the four inputs we listed above.
A Z-Score compares your individual score to the class average and expresses that difference in terms of the standard deviation for the class. (See, statistics matter to you a lot more right now, don’t they?) By definition, a Z-Score is a number between zero and one, with an average of zero. The T-Score conversion makes the number more readable by multiplying it by 10, and adding it to 50.
This means a student in the dead middle of the class would have a MASS (T-Score) very close to 50. The highest MASS score I ever saw was in the high 70s or low 80s.
These statistical gymnastics seem complicated, but they’re important. They mitigate the effect of some IPs grading harder than others. They also prevent a student from brute-forcing his way into what he wants by just flying a lot of maneuvers every sortie. (Though, in a moment we’ll discuss a way that doing this can still help you a little.) The statistical conversion is also important because there are so many more daily rides than academic tests, checkrides, or flight commander rankings. The MASS is a mathematically sound and fair way to account for everything while assigning the proper weight to the things that the Air Force believes are most important.
The bottom line is this: your MASS score is an expression of how far your performance was above or below the class average.
Clear as mud? Let’s consider what that means.
The most basic implication in all of this is that track select and final aircraft assignment aren’t based on your specific scores, per se. Your assignment is based on where you stand in relation to the other students in your class. If you have the highest MASS score, you will get your #1 choice (out of the choices available). The #2 student gets the highest choice based on what’s leftover, and so on.
Since all of your scores get standardized, your T-Scores only apply to your class. It’s meaningless to compare your MASS score to that of a student in another class. All it tells you is how far above or below average you were for your respective class.
If you have a strong class, this can make the competition tougher for the top spots. If everyone in your class were to do well on your academic tests, the average would be very high and none of your T-Scores would show much deviation from that average. In this case, missing even just a few test questions could put you all the way at the bottom of your class for this section, even if your average test scores are very high.
It’s not unheard of for commanders to set a policy that a student must have a MASS score above 50 to track T-38s. This is based on the assumption that flying a fighter is more demanding, and a student who couldn’t at least make the top half of the class in T-6s won’t be able to hang in T-38s and beyond.
I’ve even seen this standard applied to Guard or Reserve pilots. Don’t assume that you can just breeze your way through UPT and become a fighter pilot. If your scores are very low, your unit might reject you. You’d end up needing to shop for a non-fighter unit or go on Active Duty. Either way, that would suck.
That said, don’t stroke out yet if your scores aren’t stellar. We already noted that a very strong class can raise the average. In statistics, this is called skewing the distribution. If you are identified as having a low MASS score, your IPs and their chain of command will discuss the issue with your unit. They’ll take a good look at your class average and note any skewing. They’ll give an overall impression of your performance, and unless you were terrible there’s a good chance you’ll track T-38s anyway. The moral of the story for Guard and Reserve pilots is: work hard and assume nothing.
We’ve discussed the inputs used by the MASS, the statistical conversion it carries out, and some of the implications. There’s one other important detail here though. The MASS doesn’t weigh each of the four inputs equally. Directly from the 36-2605, here’s how it weighs these factors:
- 10% Academics
- 20% Daily Maneuvers
- 30% Flight Commander Ranking
- 40% Check Ride Maneuvers
This should give you a lot of perspective on what the Air Force values. Between flying and simulators, you do upwards of 100 “daily” events that include maneuver grades. In contrast, you only do four Category Checks in the T-6. Those four flights count for twice as much in the MASS as all of your daily flying put together.
If you have a bad day on a regular flight or simulator, the effect on your overall score will be minuscule. However, you need to bring your A-Game for your checkrides. No pressure.
You should also note that your Flight Commander Ranking weighs as heavily as your daily maneuver and academic grades, combined. The USAF Academy has changed its buzzwords in the last few years to emphasize that it aims to develop Leaders of Character. If you want to do well in UPT, you need to demonstrate good character.
Now that we understand how the MASS works, let’s put everything together and try to come up with some ways to get the most bang for your buck.
Putting This Knowledge To Use
First and foremost, you need to do well on your checkrides.
This is a tall order, because the pageantry of the checkride process puts your nerves on end. I’ve flown countless checkrides, military and civilian, and I still hate them. We may do an article on dealing with checkrides some day, but for now, I’ll just say that the more prepared you are the better.
My biggest key for learning any type of flying is correct repetition. You do this on your flying and simulator lessons, but you can also do it at home in a chair. I cannot emphasize enough that your performance in UPT will be directly proportional to the amount of effective chair flying you do.
You need to chair fly checkrides where everything goes smoothly, but you also need to practice adjusting your plan when the unexpected happens. Oh no, there are clouds in the practice area and you don’t have enough altitude to do a loop! On no, the pattern at the auxiliary field is saturated and you can’t get your landings there as you planned! Oh no, you planned to fly a closed pattern after your first landing, but you had to go-around and offset for departing traffic and there’s someone between 5 and 2 on a straight-in!
These things will all happen at the worst possible time on a checkride. If in the air on that checkride is the first time you’ve ever thought through how to react to that situation, you’re living dangerously. If you run out of curveballs to throw at yourself when you chair fly, practice with your classmates in the flight room.
The next thing worth taking away from all of this is related to the fact that your overall grade on a flight, or even a checkride, isn’t all that important. At best, it only has a small effect on your MASS score. What really matters is the points you earn out of the total points available.
Let’s say that U, F, G, E are worth 1-4 points, respectively. If you attempt 25 different gradable maneuvers on your checkride, this means that there are 100 total points available. MIF for a given item may only be “F,” but if you that’s your score for that item then you’re giving up 2 of your 100 points for that event.
I don’t actually know how each of those grades is weighted, and it doesn’t matter. We can think of checkride scores in terms of “downgrades,” or grades below an “E” for each maneuver. If MIF for a maneuver is “F” and you get an “F,” that’s good enough to pass the ride. That should be your primary concern. However, since that “F” is two steps below an “E,” most bases will consider that as two downgrades. Earning a “G” for any maneuver would be one downgrade. At most bases, both students and IPs discuss checkride scores in terms of total downgrades, while also noting the overall grade.
Under this system, you might have a great day and score 3-E. This means only 3 of the maneuvers you attempted were graded lower than an “E,” and your overall grade for the flight was an “E.” A low-end passing grade on a checkride might be something like a 25-G.
Knowing what we do about the MASS, I recommend that students not get worked-up about their overall checkride grades. A 5-G and a 5-E look nearly identical to the cold math of the MASS equation. In fact, this brings up an interesting point about failing grades.
Some checkride failures are just train wrecks. I’ve seen scores along the lines of a 33-U. However, some checkrides are fantastic until one big mistake forces an overall failing grade. However, if the failure is only attributable to a couple of individual maneuver items and all other maneuver grades are Es, the overall score might be something like a 3-U.
Granted, this a bad day. You’ll be upset about failing. You’ll have to go to a Progress or Elimination Check. However, as far as the MASS is concerned, a 3-U is a fantastic checkride score. It’s almost as good as a 3-E and probably better than a 4-G. It’s far better than a 15-G.
This highlights a fact that applies to every checkride you will ever take: don’t dwell on your mistakes. If you screw something up, do what’s necessary to correct it. Then, fly the rest of your checkride as if the mistake never happened. In UPT, this could yield a wonderful MASS score despite a very bad day. On other checkrides, if you do well enough on the rest of the event it might be enough to let your flight examiner overlook an error. Worst case, any remedial training will be a lot more bearable if you only have to fix one big error.
Early and Often
Another trick you can apply now that you understand the MASS is frequently flying maneuvers you know you’re great at. We noted that trying to brute-force your way to accruing a lot of points won’t help because everything is reduced to averages and standardized. However, you can absolutely skew your personal average.
Let’s say that you only did two maneuvers on your Contact checkride: a loop and a lazy 8. The loop is a fairly easy maneuver once you get the hang of it, but the lazy 8 is actually quite challenging to get an “E” on. If you get an “E” for the loop, but an “F” for the lazy 8, you’ll pass your ride, but you’ll only get 6 of 8 possible points…a 75%. Ouch.
However, it’s extremely easy to get an “E” on an aileron roll. The entry parameters are simple, it barely uses any altitude, and it takes almost no time. If you added that maneuver to your checkride, and earned an “E” for it, you’d suddenly have obtained 10 out of 12 possible points, or 83%. That’s a lot better than 75%.
Another way of looking at this is to say that a grade of 4-E would be a lot more damaging if you’d only attempted 20 maneuvers on that flight than a grade of 5-G on a flight where you’d attempted 40 maneuvers.
On a checkride, you’ll be assigned a specific set of maneuvers to perform. As long as you get them done, you’re welcome to land and complete the checkride. One school of thought (to which I frequently belong) says that this is how you should do a checkride. If you try to get fancy and add in something that isn’t required, you risk screwing it up and getting an overall failing grade. Or, if you just happen to do the maneuver sloppily that day, it can bring your score down.
However, another school of thought says that adding in as many maneuvers as you know you can do well can help mitigate the impact of mistakes. Maybe you weren’t assigned a no-flap landing, go-around, aileron roll, or cuban 8 for your contact checkride. However, if you’re great at all those maneuvers, you could do them all and earn an additional 4 Es. This would bring your average up and help make up for only getting MIF on your breakout or your chandelle.
Skew Daily Ride Scores to Your Benefit
Although they’re only worth half as much as your checkrides, you can use this strategy to your advantage with your daily maneuver scores. During the Contact phase of training, you should try to fly every type of landing and every gradable maneuver on your gradesheet on every flight…once you’re confident that you can earn an “E” for each attempt. This means chair flying and getting good at everything as early as possible, so you have flights ahead of you to repeat the maneuvers. This will increase the average of your daily maneuver scores, and help make up for any maneuvers that take you a while to get the hang of. (Consequently, performing those maneuvers more often will also help you do better on your checkride.)
Risk vs Reward
All of aviation is tradeoffs. Range vs time. Altitude vs airspeed. Range/endurance/cargo/weapons vs aircraft performance. Deciding how hard you want to try and skew your average is an individualized risk vs reward analysis. If you’re confident going into your checkride, adding in maneuvers might pay off. Even if you fail for one dumb thing, that 4-U is a whole lot better than your buddy’s 20-G. However, if you’re not confident you should not take this risk. Accomplish your required maneuvers and be done with it.
The risk vs reward analysis is different on daily rides. You’re not likely to fail a daily flight for a maneuver that you’re adding in because you got an “E” on it last time. If nothing else, try out the strategy of adding in maneuvers on daily rides before you try it for a checkride.
I wish I could give you a lot more tricks and hacks than this. For what it’s worth, I think it speaks highly of the MASS that they don’t exist. When it comes down to it, the goal of all the fancy mathematics of the MASS is nothing more than quantifying your performance in UPT.
Like it or not, I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: the key to doing well at UPT is being good at everything.
It’s nice to know how the MASS works, how each type of event is weighted, and where to put your last ounce of effort if you’ve optimized things to the point where that matters. However, UPT is such a demanding year that it’s really difficult to get to that point. Most students, even the great ones, will be best served by a little more chair flying, taking the time to work out or otherwise just relaxing in the evening before worrying too much about hacking the MASS.
Your performance is your only direct input to the MASS. Knowing how it works allows you to take a guess at where you stand, but don’t spend too much time obsessing over it. Take our advice on how to Win UPT, and let the MASS take care of itself.
The shot of 2Lt Jeffrey Teufel and his mom at drop night is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/2528650/vance-celebrates-2nd-upt-f-35-training-assignment.
The T-6 in the traffic pattern photo is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5905741/vance-afb-performs-4-ship-formation-bmt-graduation.
The gorgeous shot of T-6s on the flightline at sunset is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5972137/vance-night-flying.
The shot of a UPT flight room is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5966463/41st-fts-paves-path-t-6-procedures.
The F-22 merge photo is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5976775/f-22-formation-flight.
The shot of pilots walking away from the flightline is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4055876/operation-quick-draw.