Welcome back BogiDope readers! Today we’re (mostly) taking a break from talking about the drama of coronavirus to focus on a really awesome Reserve flying job that you should consider: teaching UPT as a Reserve T-1A IP. This post is based on an interview with a friend I’ve known since Basic Cadet Training, Will Graff.
If you’re an aspiring military aviator, stick around for the pet peeves and advice sections. Will has some priceless advice that could make all the difference in your UPT performance and overall military career.
Table of Contents
- Will’s Background
- For Active Duty Pilots
- For Current and Future T-1A UPT Students
Before we get to the specifics of the job, we’re going to take a look at Will’s career. I don’t do this to brag about him per se (though you’ll see he has some brag-worthy experiences). I think it’s very valuable to see that there is no “standard” Air Force career. Knowing how some careers have worked out in the past can help you see options for your future. Also, knowing Will’s background will put his insights into perspective.
Will escaped a small, redneck town in Oklahoma to join me at the USAF Academy. I realized he was a lot smarter than me when he received both a highly-coveted slot at Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT), and an all-expenses-paid two year trip to the University of Maryland to get a Master’s Degree in Public Policy. He loved his Master’s program so much that it almost changed the course of his career. Luckily, he came to his senses and decided to attend ENJJPT at Sheppard AFB, TX, starting in 2008.
Like many of us, Will found pilot training to be very challenging. ENJJPT is staffed primarily with fighter pilots, and many of them were bitter because they hadn’t asked for that assignment. Will also realized that he didn’t love pulling Gs. He ended up working very hard to be average.
Sheppard AFB had a somewhat dark mood overall at that time because aircraft assignments were confusing. Sheppard is supposed to only award fighter and bomber slots to graduates. However, ENJJPT graduates in the 2008-2009 timeframe were getting assignments to fly the U-28, the MC-12, a variety of heavies, and (worst of all) the MQ-1 or MQ-9.
Will received an assignment to fly the B-52H at drop night and was secretly thrilled. Flying the B-52 has most of the good things about being in Air Combat Command (ACC) (or now, Global Strike Command, GSC) but without the same attitude you get in most fighter communities. Will was qualified to command an aircraft carrying conventional or nuclear weapons to do The Lord’s Work. He got to do it with an all-officer crew while flying a jet that is still surprisingly capable for its age.
After a divorce (long story, buy him a beer if you want to hear it), Will found himself at Barksdale AFB when he heard that an attractive new dentist had just shown up for the residency program on base. He happened to run into her, perhaps not entirely by chance.
They got married in 2013, in part because the Air Force decided to send Will to Beale AFB, CA, to fly the MC-12. There would have been essentially zero chance of his favorite dentist, Megan, getting sent to Beale with him otherwise. Once they had joint spouse status, Air Force Personnel Command (AFPC) decided to assign them to Vance AFB, OK, where Will would be a T-38C IP.
Re-learning the T-38C at Pilot Instructor Training (PIT) was a lot of work for Will. He still didn’t love pulling Gs, in part because he sustained an undiagnosed back injury when he went to the centrifuge as part of training. It wasn’t until he’d completed PIT and started flying at Vance that Will finally convinced a doctor to x-ray his back. (He had to go through four doctors to get one to authorize the procedure!) Sure enough, he had an injury that made him ineligible to fly anything with an ejection seat ever again.
He could have been stuck with any number of bad deals at this point. However, the Air Force showed a rare stroke of kindness. Will was reassigned as a T-1A IP, still at Vance. He had to go through PIT for the second time in a year. It was a bit of a soul-crusher to go to PIT twice in one year, but Will was glad to spend three years flying at Vance before he and his wife moved to Randolph AFB where he became a PIT instructor himself.
While he was at Vance, the Air Force offered to send Will to Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) in residence. This is considered a good deal – a full year at Ft. Leavenworth, KS. Yes, it’s technically “school,” but it’s known for extremely short workdays with lots of time for fun and family. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great option for Will.
First, dentists don’t get Professional Military Education (PME) in residence, so his wife couldn’t have gone with him. Second, PME is intended for officers on the path to command. (Especially if it involves an exchange tour with the Army.) When Will looked around and asked himself, “Do I want to be a commander?” he was surprised to discover that the answer was, “Probably not.” The commanders he’d known didn’t seem to look much like him. They had different attitudes, and none of them had a spouse in a professional career like his dentist.
Knowing that he didn’t want to pursue command (at least on Active Duty), Will realized that it was time to pursue what I like to call The Ideal Military Pilot Career Path. He started shopping for Guard and Reserve units, applied for Palace Chase, and started applying for airline jobs.
Palace Chase was a monumental pain in this case. Will noted that he actually had to submit two separate applications for the program. The first was a Staff Summary Sheet (SSS) that has to go all the way up to the Wing Commander. If that document is approved, you then log in to myPers and fill out the real application. This second application has to be routed through the exact same path that your SSS just traversed before moving on to AFPC.
The word right now is that Palace Chase applications are almost automatically approved for leaving Active Duty less than 6 months early…as long as everyone up through your Wing Commander, your functional, and that functional’s boss don’t oppose your application.
Will emphasized that this means you must submit your application well in advance! He submitted his application in December, and got tentative approval in April. However, it took until the end of May to get everything finalized, and that only happened because he made several (very respectful) phone calls to O-6s in his chain of command asking for things to be moved along.
Why was he worried about the timing? It turns out Will had been very…umm…optimistic about his availability dates on airline applications. He got hired by a major airline and scheduled for a class date that required his Palace Chase paperwork to go through on time. Yes, his airline probably would have allowed him to delay starting until a later class, but he didn’t want to. It turns out, that made a huge difference for him.
Will started training with his new company as the drama surrounding the B737MAX was unfolding. He finished the program and got OE done right as the company started freezing all hiring and incoming training classes. If he’d delayed that transition at all, he would have missed that window. Now that COVID-19 is wreaking even more havoc in airline hiring and training departments, Will is even more glad that he got in when he did. By successfully squeaking in on an early availability date, he will get to enjoy an extra year or two of seniority for the rest of his career. And I can’t emphasize enough that Seniority is Everything in the airlines!
One of the reasons that Will was so willing to share his story is that he wants you to understand how important this timing is. If you plan to end up at an airline at any point in the future, the time to go is always NOW!
In addition to getting a major airline job, Will also got hired as a Reserve T-1A IP with the 96 FTS at Laughlin AFB, TX. His wife separated from Active Duty and is looking forward to starting an Orthodontics residency in Denver this year. Will plans to commute to his Reserve job from Denver, where his airline has a base.
I was excited to interview Will for this article because he has a unique breadth of experience. He’s flown all three of the Air Force’s training aircraft, and been an IP in two of them. He’s been assigned to every UPT base, except Columbus. He’s taught UPT both on Active Duty and as a Reservist.
Now that we understand Will’s frame of reference, let’s hear what he was to say about teaching in the T-1A at Laughlin.
Life as a Reserve T-1A IP
Will loves flying the T-1A. It’s pressurized, it has air conditioning, and it has an autopilot. (Sometimes you need someone to hold altitude, airspeed, and course so you can focus on debriefing a maneuver or discussing a plan. You absolutely cannot trust your student on those things. You can trust the autopilot.)
The T-1 community is very laid-back overall. Will thinks it’d probably drive most fighter pilots crazy, but it’s a great pace of life…especially as a Reservist. He refers to flying the T-1 as an “old man’s sport.”
Phase III on the T-1A track has three blocks of training:
- Transition focuses on basic aircraft control. You’ll do some stalls and steep turns in the area, and spend most of your time in a VFR traffic pattern. This block is challenging because the students have very few flight hours overall, and probably zero multi-engine time. The T-1A is a big step up from the T-6A, and students get task saturated very quickly.
- The bulk of T-1A training is Navigation. This is primarily flying to other airfields and shooting instruments approaches. This can be done as an Out & Back (O&B) where you do a full flight, stop for lunch, and do another full flight. It can also be done as a single 3-3.5 hour “local” sortie. (More on the difference shortly.)
Will said that Transition is challenging because you’re worried about the students trying to kill you, and Navigation is challenging because you’re worried about the students trying to get you violated. Either way, you always have to be on your toes.
- The final block of training is Mission Familiarization (Fam). This is where students learn the basics of airdrop and air refueling, and it involves lots of formation flying. This is the most fun part of training, and it’s also the shortest block.
The Air Force is constantly trying to pare down the UPT syllabus, and Mission Fam is always the first target. A bean counter at one desk gets the bright idea that the Air Force can save money by deferring some training until a student gets to his or her Major Weapon System (MWS). The problem is that a different bean counter can show how those deferrals increase costs at MWS training.
One of the more recent justifications getting tossed at T-1A IPs is that there’s no reason to spend time teaching formation or airdrop to students who can’t fly an ILS. The counter-argument is that if the students can’t fly a decent ILS by the end of Phase III, they should have never moved on from Phase II in the first place. Some truths are just so inconvenient.
Mission planning is an emphasis item in the T-1A, as evidenced by the fact that show time is usually two hours before takeoff. The students do all the mission planning and present what they have to their IP. The IP pokes holes in their plan for a while, and then they go fly. (After doing the same events from the same place for long enough, it becomes very easy to spot a plan that isn’t going to work out.)
Each T-1A training flight lasts 3-3.5 hours. In most cases, one IP flies with two students who split the training time. After you’re done, there’s an hour allotted for debrief. Will has found that the more experienced he becomes, the shorter those debriefs get. (Not because he’s lazy, but because he’s learned how to give a concise and effective debrief.) Filling out gradesheets takes another 10-15 minutes per student.
If you’re only doing a single “local” sortie, this means that you can be done for the day in time for a late lunch. As a Reservist, this is easy living. There’s lots of time to hit the gym, call home, and hang out with your buddies. Unfortunately, this also means life can get a little boring because you’re stuck at Laughlin AFB. (I highly recommend figuring out a long-distance Side-Hustle if you’re going to pursue work as a Reserve UPT IP.)
Some UPT bases like doing T-1A training as almost entirely local sorties. Others prefer O&Bs. In a way, these are nice. You get a lot of flight hours in a single day, and you get to stop for lunch at somewhere nicer than the Subway on base. However, they also make for a very long day. You still show up two hours before takeoff, but there’s twice as much mission planning to go over. You still only fly about four hours, but your mandatory workday now includes having an FBO or military base turn your jet, finding a ride into town, and going somewhere to eat. Add in debriefing and gradesheets, and you’re looking at 11 hours of work.
For a Reservist who can only get paid for a maximum of 8 hours in a day (two pay periods) this is a bad deal. In Will’s experience, these long days combined with the workload of training T-1 students means that your instruction tends to suffer toward the end of the day. 7 hours is a long time for anyone to be giving continuous flight instruction.
Will highly recommends that as part of researching and rushing a unit, you make sure to find out how they schedule their T-1A flying so you know what you’re getting into.
Knowing what an individual workday looks like, let’s step back and consider a full work week. Most UPT bases expect their IPs to work at least six days per month. Unless you live nearby, you might as well do all six days at once to minimize your commute.
Day one of that block includes your commute in. Once you arrive, you spend a pay period (officially four hours) on administrative chores like staying up-to-date on CBTs and other individual ground training events.
Day two (usually Monday) is set aside for you to fly a Continuation Training (CT) sortie with another IP or two. This lets you log off all of your personal requirements for instrument approaches and such. There’s enough to take care of that you’ll want this flight every month.
The next three days (Tuesday through Thursday) are set aside for student sorties. Like we said, if your base likes locals an early show time will have you done with work in time for lunch. A later show time means you get to sleep in, but you’ll generally still be done by sunset.
At Laughlin, all of the commuters stay at the base inn and Thursday evening is designated as Laundry Night. Although this tradition may have started because someone needed to wash clothes, these days it just means that everyone brings drinks to the lobby to share and hang out. It’s a fun event that Will looks forward to every month.
Friday morning (Day 6) is designated for submitting all the paperwork required to get paid. Yes, it’s complicated enough that it takes an entire morning to get done. Yes, it’s stupid. Will is glad that his squadron recognizes the ridiculosity of the problem and sets aside paid time for this chore.
The last part of Day 6 is your commute home. Will has been living in San Antonio, so this has been a reasonable drive along Highway 90. When he moves to Denver, his commute will get a lot more involved.
Just like Star-Lord the T-38C IP, Will’s squadron only has two Mandatory Unit Training Assemblies (MUTAs) each year. Other months have Voluntary UTAs or First Friday events for those who happen to still be in town. In my opinion, this is a major advantage over some other Guard and Reserve jobs.
Unfortunately, the Air Force does task Reserve T-1A IPs with deployments. Thankfully, his unit hasn’t needed to send anyone non-voluntarily for a long time. Some pilots decide they can take advantage of Tricare and living in a tax-free zone for a few months. Some are looking to boost their retirement points. Some are looking for an alternative to first-year airline pay. Thus far, it’s worked out for everyone.
I interviewed Will a few weeks ago, before Coronavirus had spread to the US. At that time, his unit had lots of opportunities for pilots to get full-time AGR orders for T-6 and T-38 pilots. (Would you be surprised to hear that the T-1 is such a cushy deal that they haven’t had any problem filling their AGR billets with volunteers?) Several airline pilots concerned about the possibility of furlough are looking into scooping up some of those opportunities. However, in a good economy, there’s almost always an opportunity for full-time work for anyone who wants it. For pilots who don’t want to commit to a full 3-years on orders, UPT has an insatiable demand for IPs. It’s almost always possible to pick up as many individual days of work as you want.
The only other major point Will made about being a Reserve T-1A IP is that he feels like it’s the Reservists who really hold the line on training quality. Active Duty IPs are incentivized to get classes done on time, and this means they’re always tempted to push marginal students through the program. (It’s not that the Active Duty IPs are trying to reduce quality. They’re just very strongly incentivized by certain forces that they cannot escape, or even see. Neither Will nor I say this is right. It’s an unfortunate reality that I saw myself when I taught UPT.)
Thankfully, the Reservists at a UPT base don’t care about on-time statistics or winning quarterly awards to get promoted. They seem much more likely to assign a student a failing grade when he or she deserves it. The experience level among Reserve IPs is much higher than the Active Duty side, and Will has been pleased to see that the less experienced pilots look to the Reservists for advice in tough situations. He feels that the Reservists have a good relationship with the Active Duty IPs.
Overall Will likes being a Reserve T-1A IP. The commute is a big pain, and six days a month is a lot to ask. However, life as a Reservist is immeasurably better than doing the exact same job on Active Duty.
For a first-year airline pilot, this job pays enough to be worth your time. Starting with your second year at any major airline, you’re losing money every time you put on your Air Force uniform. For this reason, Will predicted a future shortage of Traditional Reservists (TR) for this job. It think COVID-19 may mitigate TR staffing issues for a while, but I believe Will’s prediction will come true in the relatively near future.
Hopefully, this means there will be opportunities for you to get a great Reserve job. Let’s look at how to make that happen.
How to Get That Job
In case you’ve never been there, you should know that Del Rio, Texas is not a garden spot. Laughlin realizes this fact and has good commuting policies for Reservists. (Randolph AFB, in San Antonio is a much nicer place. Their commuting policies aren’t as flexible because they don’t have to be.)
That said, Laughlin needs to know that you’re ready for the struggle of that commute before they hire you. Rushing the unit is a real thing if you want a Reserve job at Laughlin. Will went out for their squadron Christmas party.
Laughlin also dislikes being a backup option or a stepping stone. (Will suspects that Vance, Columbus, and Sheppard feel the same way.) You’d be less likely to have a successful interview if it was apparent that you planned to apply for a reserve job at Randolph the moment you got hired by Laughlin. They even asked Will directly about this at his interview.
I think it’s important to be honest. If you’d rather end up at Randolph, then admit to that when you’re interviewing at Laughlin. However, make sure it’s clear that you’re willing to give them a good 2-3 years before you start considering that transition.
That said, starting out as a Reservist somewhere like Laughlin is a great stepping stone! Will’s airline has a lot of pilots who would love a job flying C-130s out of Colorado Springs, or T-53s at the USAF Academy. The waiting lists for those squadrons are a mile long, and you’re more likely to get a shot at one of those opportunities if you’re currently flying as a Reservist at a UPT base. Randolph does tend to get most of its Reservists from UPT bases as well.
Being a UPT IP is a great job for a pilot transitioning to the airlines too. It’s relatively flexible, and it’s possible to pick up extra work. Right now, this job is so desirable for transitioning pilots that Laughlin doesn’t have room for anyone else. Even when they do get some room, they don’t get a lot of slots to send IPs to PIT. You’re far more likely to get hired as a Reserve UPT IP if you’re current and qualified as an Active Duty UPT IP. If you’re thinking about leaving Active Duty, this means you need to be deliberate about your final assignment.
When Will interviewed, they asked about his willingness to fly the T-6A or T-38C instead of the T-1A. He couldn’t because of his back issue, but he felt like a pilot might be more likely to get hired if he or she expressed a willingness to fly more than one type of aircraft.
He has a friend who applied for a Reserve T-1A IP job while flying the T-1A on Active Duty. They didn’t have any T-1A slots available, so they offered him a T-6A. He took their offer, and then they ended up switching him to the T-1A later anyway.
Although the Reserve T-1A IPs at Laughlin are laid-back, the squadron needs their people to be promotable at an organizational level. Make sure you’ve completed your rank-appropriate Professional Military Education and shown progression both as a pilot and as an officer if you want to be competitive.
Now that we’ve looked at being a T-1A IP from the job standpoint, I want to share some of Will’s pet peeves and advice for T-1A students. If this applies to you, or it might in the future, then pay attention! This is priceless gouge that could make or break your UPT experience!
Despite me digging pretty hard, Will couldn’t think of too many pet peeves. He said that most of Star-Lord’s feedback from our T-38C IP article applies to T-1A students as well.
However, he has noticed that T-1A students tend to get lackadaisical. Many students seem used to getting spoon-fed everything they need to know and expect this to continue in the T-1A. The fact that the program and the IPs are generally more laid-back than Phase II only lures them further into this mindset.
The truth is that the T-1A is very much a big-kid program. Your IPs will give you time because they expect you to study on your own and show up prepared. The quickest way to make an otherwise leisurely program suck is to show your IPs that you haven’t used your time wisely.
Will sees far too many students failing to figure this out until they’re already well into the program. He said, “You can do so well in the T-1 if you work hard!” You can choose to be a shining star, or the person who quickly builds up a deficit and then spends the rest of the program trying to dig your way out.
Perhaps Will’s biggest pet peeve is that students show up thinking they don’t have to worry about pitch & power anymore…and they suck at flying the T-1 as a result. More than once, he’s had to tell a student:
“I don’t care if you’re too cool for pitch & power. That’s all the T-1 cares about. That’s all any airplane cares about!”
He said that the knowledge and ability to set pitch and power makes average students into great students. (Actually, it has a similar effect for IPs.) Learn the pitch & power settings you need and then use them. I was once told that all of instrument flying can be summed up in seven words:
Establish power and pitch. Trim, crosscheck, adjust.
Along the same lines, Will gets very annoyed when students use the autopilot improperly. It’s okay to plan to use autopilot for much, if not most, of the flight. However, you need to have things under control before you engage it. He and I both laughed, morbidly, about the tendency of students to have the airplane out of trim, in 30 degrees of bank, with the nose 5 degrees nose up, then let go of the controls and rush to activate the autopilot…hoping it’ll save them from their poor aircraft control.
For the record: this is the wrong way to use an autopilot. In any aircraft.
We recommend that as a student pilot, you never engage the autopilot until your aircraft is trimmed with the proper pitch and power settings…and almost always with the wings level. You should be able to take your hands off the flight controls, and move your hand to the autopilot button in a very leisurely manner without any abrupt changes in pitch or roll.
Will’s first big piece of advice is for the many students in every class who wanted to track T-38s, but are disappointed because they ended up in T-1s. Yes, this is worth being disappointed about…for a moment. However, he advised that you should not “fall into the pathetic trap of woulda coulda shoulda.”
Will flew the T-38. He flew in ACC and GSC. He was emphatic that the T-1 opens the door to better flying, people, lifestyle, work/life balance, comfort, and health. The T-1 track also gives you a much greater variety of assignments.
If you were that one person right on the bubble, who missed T-38s by just a couple points, you should be excited. Instead of being the bottom feeder in T-38s, you’re set up to get your top choice of assignment out of T-1s. For a more detailed discussion of this principle, you need to read two fantastic books by Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath and Outliers.
There are also students in every class who didn’t “just barely” miss their shot at T-38s. Guess what, if you struggled enough in the T-6 to score that low, you’re going to continue to struggle in the T-1 because things weren’t coming to you naturally. You can’t afford the luxury of wallowing in your disappointment. You need to start working very hard from the first moment of Phase III. At worst, this will help you graduate successfully. At best, it’s a wake-up call that will get you working hard enough to start excelling. You may end up finishing higher in your class than you otherwise would have. Go get to work!
For any pilot thinking about a career as a professional pilot, Will wanted to emphasize the fact that there is no “get rich quick” anywhere in aviation. If you pursue the military route, you won’t have to worry about money, but you’ll have no control over your life. If you go the all-civilian route, you’ll get paid peanuts to work hard. And yet, you’ll have a lot more control. Either way is a lot of work.
Will feels like starting directly with the Guard or Reserves is a better deal. (I call this The Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path.) However, he advises anyone pursuing that path to have a backup plan. He had one UPT student who had to wait for two years between getting hired and actually going to UPT. Will has also heard anecdotal evidence that Guard and Reserve UPT slots are getting harder to come by. One of his college economics professors used to say, “There’s a reason you don’t see $100 bills lying on the side of the road.” Guard and Reserve UPT slots are the $100 bills of aviation.
On the other hand, going to the USAF Academy, like Will and I did, guarantees Active Duty pay the moment you graduate from college, and starting UPT within a year (unless you take an all-expenses-paid detour to grad school). For Will, deciding between these paths is a question of risk. What types of risk are you okay with, and how much risk are you willing to accept?
As a parting shot, Will had some interesting thoughts on military service overall. Among Active Duty pilots, there’s quite a bit of dissatisfaction with the Air Force right now. Although it’s easy to hate on the bad parts of Active Duty service, he wants to emphasize that he loved the things he got to do there. The flying and the people were all great. He met his wife. It paid well.
He said that at the start of his career, it was very clear that he needed the Air Force more than it needed him. After a while (around the 7-year point) that equation flipped. That’s part of what led him to transition to the Reserves and the airlines. His biggest piece of advice for young lieutenants is to watch for this inflection point in your career. Once you reach it, don’t ever put yourself in the position where that equation switches back to where it started.
Some Active Duty IPs at UPT bases look down on Reserve IPs. There’s a mentality that they’re only at work to fly, and that they don’t care about anything else. Sure, every Reserve squadron has that one pilot with three alimony payments who scams for every good deal he or she can get. However, for the most part the Reservists really do care.
Will sees the Guard or Reserve as the capitalist version of military service. (As compared to Active Duty, which is more like a different kind of -ism.) This isn’t so much about money as incentives. Will felt that it was a beautiful thing to go back to a capitalist system where his time can only be used in the most effective ways.
He and his fellow Reservists do focus almost all their time on flying and instructing because that’s where they can be the most effective at this point in their lives. Any lieutenant can run the Programming shop or plan the squadron Christmas party. No lieutenant has a decade or more of combat flying experience. The entire organization is better off having the most experienced pilots teaching students, leaving the administrative queep to others.
If you want the portion of your life you spend on military service to be the most effective, then there will be a point at which the Guard or Reserve makes the most sense for you too. I hope Will’s example has shown you how good that job can be and given you some insights on how to stack things in your favor to get that job.
For our younger readers, I hope you enjoyed getting a look at one pilot’s career and appreciate the advice he has for you. Please take it to heart and work hard at UPT no matter what your preconceived notions about specific aircraft may be. Will’s seen many different communities, and he loves the one he’s in now. Take advantage of opportunities to excel no matter where you are, and I promise you’ll love your military service just as much!
Formation of red tail T-1s: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4239518/560th-flying-training-squadron-missing-man-flight.
Dissimilar formation of UPT aircraft: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4515631/undergraduate-pilot-training-dissimilar-flight.
T-1 interior and instruments: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5247186/vance-pilots-perform-pre-flight-checks.
T-1 flying over Malmstrom: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5577946/t-1a-jayhawk.