I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing before I started US Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT.) “Will someone please tell me the secret to winning at UPT?” Today is your lucky day. I’m going to tell you the secret to doing well in pilot training and getting the assignment you’ve been dreaming about since you were old enough to watch Top Gun. Are you ready? Here it is: You have to be good at everything.
Sorry, I know that’s not what you’re looking for. The young Lieutenant not-yet-known-as Emet would have wanted to punch me in the face for pulling a stunt like that, but it’s the truth. There are a lot of liars on the internet, but I’m not one of them. There is no magic workout that can make you look like Jason Momoa with only 10 minutes of effort a day. There is no “quick” way to learn to write computer code. You can’t get rich through any “risk-free” scheme without having to invest any time, money, or skill. Likewise, you can’t succeed at UPT through trickery. You can’t win UPT by making it a popularity contest. I won’t say that instructor pilots (IPs) are perfect, or even immune to human biases, but the nature of aviation is such that your application of knowledge and performance in the aircraft will always speak louder than anything else.
Before you get too worried, I didn’t say you have to be perfect at everything, just good. Even the sharpest UPT students make mistakes. Your IPs expect you to. If you go into UPT thinking you must be flawless at all times you’ll have a miserable year and give yourself an ulcer. As long as you actively and enthusiastically pursue perfection, or at least excellence, in every part of pilot training, I honestly believe you’ll succeed.
Enough of this wishy-washy BS though. How about we discuss some specifics? Here’s a list of things you can do to be good at UPT: (This list isn’t exhaustive. If I left anything out, hopefully you can infer the rest. It’s written for someone headed to USAF UPT. If you’re going to fly with the Navy, the Army, or a foreign air force most of this should still apply to you. The specifics of your training program will be different, but these principles are universal.)
Know Your…Stuff At some level, there’s no way to know if you’ll be good at actually flying the airplane. The more you fly it, the better you’ll get. However, you have complete control over how well you know the General Knowledge (GK) you’re required to learn in UPT. The first time you demonstrate what kind of UPT student you are is during Academics in Phase I. You have plenty of time to go through your Computer Based Training (CBTs,) your notes, your manuals and textbooks, etc. You have plenty of time to study. You have classmates to study with and you can find people in classes ahead of you for help. Your academic instructors are more than happy to help you if you’re stuck on something…just stop by their desk. You have every opportunity to do very well on your tests during academics. If you want to win UPT, you should take advantage of those resources and ace your tests. Having good GK doesn’t stop at the end of Phase I.
You’ll need to know your boldface emergency procedures and operating limitations, and be able to write or verbally state them flawlessly. There is never, ever, any excuse for screwing this up. If you do it once, on accident, your IPs will forgive you. If you’re the student who habitually screws this up, it will be a problem. How do you avoid this problem? Repetition! Grab yourself a stack of boldface/ops limit sheets and fill them out (at home) until you can do it flawlessly every time. You’ll be glad you invested this time.
You’ll be verbally quizzed on your GK all the time. However, the reason this is happening is so that you can apply it in the aircraft. Your preparation for every flight and simulator event should include studying the specific GK you’ll need to apply on that training event. Are you planning to do a loop on your next flight? You’d better know the entry parameters and the aircraft manual’s description of how to do a loop so well that you can recite them on a moment’s notice. (The entry is 230-250 knots, straight and level, pull 3-4 Gs. I haven’t flown a loop in the T-6 in a year and a half, but that knowledge is so ingrained that I still know it by heart.) You need to study your maneuvers, your checklists, your traffic pattern procedures, your radio communications, etc. so well that you have this level of knowledge for everything you plan to do on each flight. Yes, that’s a lot to ask. No, you won’t get it all right at first. However, you should strive to always be as prepared as possible.
Here’s a secret: it’s painfully obvious to your IPs how prepared you are. You can’t bluff your way thought it. They will know if you’re the kind of student who wants to be good at UPT so you can win it all, or if you’re trying to coast through the program. Which one do you want to be? (Are you the kind of person who has always succeeded in school without having to put forth any real effort? That’s not going to cut it at UPT…you need to learn how to study. If you’re worried you might be in danger of this, go take some classes that will truly challenge you. If you’re a math person, go take an advanced/honors/AP class in history or English. If you’re a lover and a poet, go take AP chem and AP bio. Force yourself to figure out how to study for something for which you may not have a natural gift. That skill is critical at UPT.)
Chair Fly! If there’s one trick to being able to apply all that knowledge in the aircraft, it is chair flying. You only get so many hours in the aircraft and the simulator. If you got twice as many hours, you’d probably be twice as good when you got to your checkride. You generally can’t get extra time in the aircraft or the sim, but you can spend as much extra time as you want chair flying. I’ve been a pilot for 20 years and I’ve taught hundreds of students. I promise that the more time you spend on quality chair flying, the better you’ll do at UPT.
Check out another great BogiDope article here, where I talk more about chair flying. The physical setup isn’t as important as your mindset while you do it. Your little game of “pretend I’m flying the T-6” (or T-38, or T-1, or UH-1) needs to be as realistic as possible. You need to speak your radio calls and checklists out loud at a real-world pace. When you chair fly a loop you need to physically move your head to look at each wingtip while you’re first pulling up, then you need to arch your back and tip your head all the way back to try and see the ground above you as you pull through the top. Yes, you’ll look like a fool. Don’t worry though. Looking like a fool now will result in looking like a bad-ass in the future when you spend the rest of your career flying the aircraft you always wanted. The real fools are the people who make fun of you or are too worried about what others think of them to train the right way.
There is one exception to my assertion that you can’t get extra time in the sim. There are three types of T-6 simulators at UPT. The cheapest one is called a UTD. It’s just a cockpit without any visuals. It’s not fun or exciting to fly, but starting some time after you’ve soloed you’re allowed to use them for personal practice when they’re free. Don’t bother practicing your pattern work or aerobatics without visuals…it’ll actually make you a lot worse. However, you can absolutely practice your instrument flying in the UDT. Usually, your IPs will make you go with a buddy and you should take turns flying and critiquing each other. (Make it fun by betting beers on who can fly the better holding pattern, approach, missed approach, etc.) Access to the UTDs is invaluable and you will be better at instruments if you spend time with serious practice in the UTD.
OK we are just getting started. Check back again for Winning UPT – Part 2, where I will discuss more keys to success.