Winning UPT – Part 3

BogiDope, a t-38 airborne.

Welcome to Part 3 of Winning UPT, the final part of this series. UPT is such a small part of your flying career but definitely one of the most memorable ones.  The knowledge you gain at UPT will propel you through a career in the Air Force and for many a life long career in the aviation industry.  Preparation starts now by acting on the advice you have found in this article series.  BogiDope is here to help, so contact us with any questions you might have and take advantage of the great consulting resources available to help land your dream job.  Let’s get started…

Learn Math – You don’t need a STEM degree to be a pilot. Flying is actually a lot more like driving a car or playing a sport than anything you’ll do in a college classroom. A good IP can relate every concept in aviation to you, even if you’re terrible at math. However, being good at math gives you access to understanding aviation in a way that you can’t otherwise achieve. Let’s look at the ultimate example: The Army Air Corps (and later the USAF) flew fighter aircraft successfully for a long time. Pilots learned through practice what worked and what didn’t. One of these pilots was a man named John Boyd. (If you want to be a fighter pilot, read his biography.) He was a great fighter pilot. He beat everyone he went up against. For a long time, he wasn’t very good at explaining how he did it. Eventually he wrote down some thoughts that became a manual of air tactics. It was good, but he knew there was a better way to express what he knew. Then the Air Force sent him to study math at Georgia Tech. He learned calculus and thermodynamics. He got access to computers that could rapidly test out models and theories. He was able to apply this newfound knowledge to turn aerial combat into a mathematically-based science.

Yes, there’s a lot of art and skill required to properly apply this science, but for two pilots of equal skill, Boyd could prove conclusively which aircraft would win a fight in any given situation. The USAF hated Boyd (he was pretty much terrible a person but great as a fighter pilot), but it couldn’t deny the pure mathematical truth of what he discovered. The USAF uses his theories to this day. If you want to be a good pilot, it doesn’t matter what you study. A degree in underwater basket weaving will be fine. If you want to truly understand aviation and become a master of it though, you need to go learn math, physics, and even some computer programming.

Repetition – (Again) Yes, I already talked about studying and chair flying. Simply put, the more time you spend doing something (like flying) the better you’ll get at it. A brilliant man named Malcom Gladwell asserts that in order to become an expert at something you have to do it for 10,000 hours. (He wrote a great book based on this principle.) You won’t get 10,000 hours of flying during UPT…you’ll get about 220. However, you can spend as much time as you want studying and chair flying. The more you do, the better you’ll be. One other way to get some of this repetition is to do some civilian flying before UPT.

The USAF sends UPT students to a flight screening program. It lasts a few weeks and includes about 20 hours of flying. I can see a vast difference between someone who shows up at UPT as a 20-hour student and someone who shows up with at least a private pilot’s license. If you can afford it, get your license before you start flying for the Air Force. If you have even more time and money, do your instrument rating. It’s worth it. Any flying beyond that will help, but the law of diminishing marginal returns will apply. If you do a civilian instrument rating, do not train in a newer airplane with large flat-panel glass displays. Whatever you do, don’t train using an autopilot! The T-6 essentially has old-style round dials and it doesn’t have an autopilot. You might have to shop around to find an aircraft and an instructor that will let you train this way. Do it! If you’re going to go to the trouble of learning instrument flying before UPT, you need to do it the hard way or you’ll just be wasting your money.

Balance –  On one level, your success at UPT depends on the amount of (quality) time you put into studying, chair flying, and preparing for every training event. However, it is possible to take that too far. Human beings are not designed to do nothing but work. You must maintain balance in your life. During pilot training you need to keep physically fit and eat healthy. At first, you won’t be allowed to leave the flight room to hit the gym or get lunch. You’ll need to bring healthy food with you every day, and work out when you get home at night. You’ll be exhausted and you’ll want to study instead, but take time to stay fit. You also need rest. You will not perform well at UPT if you don’t get enough sleep. You may have been able to pull all-nighters in college, but it won’t work here. If you have the choice between studying for an extra hour or getting a full night’s rest, go to bed!

Human beings also have a social/emotional/spiritual side. (You can break those up into their own categories if you want.) If you’re married at UPT, you need to make sure that you spend time focusing on your marriage while you’re at home. You’ll be at work for 12 hours a day and you’ll need to sleep for 6-8. Use your time at work to study so you don’t need more than 30-60 minutes of study time at home. Spend your time on your family instead. Being single doesn’t get you off the hook here! You need human interaction too. Hang out with friends. Call your mom. Dating during UPT can be tough. It can be especially problematic if you fall in love and decide to get married and then get assigned to aircraft that can never be based together. However, don’t pass up opportunities to have meaningful social interaction with others. You need it just as much as you need exercise, food, and rest.

This ties into everything else here, but you need to consciously do it. It’s too easy to talk about nothing but flying while you’re hanging out with your friends. Make sure you spend some time every day not thinking about UPT. Read a book, watch TV, play a video game, start a band. Give your brain time to absorb and organize everything you studied and learned that day at work. Learning to maintain balance will be useful throughout your life. The USAF has some significant challenges right now and I’m convinced that the root cause basically boils down to forgetting how to maintain balance on almost every level. If you can master this you’ll be and stay ahead of the game.

We just covered a lot in this series. Sorry, but you really do need to work to be good at all of it. There is no entitlement program to grant everyone a career as a pilot in the USAF. This is a serious undertaking with a no-fail mission that many people consider sacred. It demands excellence. Nobody expects perfection from you. Everyone expects you to fall short and make mistakes on occasion along the way. Study hard, practice, contribute to your team. Be someone that others want to spend time with. Make sure to stay balanced as you pursue all this. If your instructors see that you’re making an honest effort, they’ll go out of their way to help you. The program is designed so that a person giving honest effort can succeed. Keep your ultimate goal in mind. You’re pursuing a job that offers truly amazing flying. Only a fraction of a fraction of a percent of humanity will ever have the chance to do that kind of flying. By the time you get there you will know dozens of people who would give almost anything to have your job…yet fell short. Be proud and excited of what you get to do. I promise you’ll love it!

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