If you look at US Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) as a single year-long Hunger Game, it can seem pretty daunting. It doesn't have to be that way though. UPT can and should be a great year! It will challenge you, but it involves some of the most fun flying you'll ever do. Let's see if we can reduce daunting to doable by taking a look at the individual parts. UPT has three distinct phases. Let's examine Phase I – Academics:
Phase I UPT starts with a world-class academic program. You'll learn about pilot physiology, weather, aerodynamics, aircraft systems, and more. Unlike high school and college, you only study one subject at any given time during this phase. It's nice to be able to focus all of your attention on one thing.
Some of your lessons are traditional classroom lectures, usually taught by civilian contractors. Most of your lesson material is presented via Computer Based Training (CBT). The CBTs were made by Raytheon, the company that built the T-6 you'll fly in Phase II. They're straightforward, interactive, and can be a little dry. You'll want to take notes and review those notes at home. You have to do the CBTs in a computer lab so that your instructors can track your progress. They're somewhat self-paced…a trait that I really appreciated.
At home you can use your notes, a copy of every slide from the CBTs, and the manuals or textbooks that go with that subject to study. If you can study effectively in a group, you should spend part of your time studying with your new best friends–the other student pilots in your class. (There will probably be about 30 of you. You'll all go through Phase I together). If you find yourself getting easily distracted and wasting time with those new friends then you should probably spend more of your time studying alone.
Everything in Phase I is very scheduled. You have specific times to be in class, and you're given time to get your CBTs done in the computer lab. Unlike high school or college, skipping class is not an option. You'll study one subject for anywhere from a few days to a week and then take a test. Your exams are administered by a civilian instructor in the computer lab. Look for a future article on passing these tests, but for now I'll say you should focus on taking good notes. Think to yourself while you're doing your CBTs, "If I were writing the test, how would I turn this material into a test question?"
You must score an 85% or better to pass each test. Failing one isn't the end of the world. Failing two puts you on Academic CAP (Commander's Awareness Program). If you fail a third test, you wash out of pilot training. Game over.
CAP isn't meant to be a punitive thing. There are many types of CAP and the goal is to get you extra help. However, it's embarrassing to show up on your first day of Phase II on Academic CAP. Even if it means that you just never learned how to study well (you'd be surprised how many UPT students I meet that fall into this category), your instructors default to wondering if you just wasted your time goofing off during Phase I. You don't want that as your first impression.
While you're in Phase I, the most important thing you can do is focus on the academics. You may be tempted to study ahead for things you'll need to know on the flight line. If the academics are challenging you, don't bother. The program is structured so that you can learn what you need for Phase II in Phase II. If you do want to study ahead, find a friend in a class ahead of you. They'll know what to have you work on, and what will be a waste of time.
Throughout UPT, don't ever play, "I have a secret." If you have good information, pass it on to the rest of your class! Although this phase is important, you should have enough time to relax at night and spend time with your family and/or new friends. Make that a priority! It's healthy and you're going to be working with these people for a long time.
To learn about phase II, read UPT Phases: Phase II – Flying the T-6.