“Hey Jell-O, I’ve been listening to the show for years and am excited to announce that I was just selected for (insert military branch) flight school! I can’t wait to get started and want to do my best, do you have any pointers for how to succeed in flight school?”
Whether by email, phone message, or social media, variants of the above question are frequently posed to the show, and understandably so—these young women and men have just achieved a significant milestone that will influence the remainder of their lives. And doing well in flight school will afford them the best chance to end up in the platform of their dreams, be it fighters, bombers, helicopters, what have you.
So the question is a natural one, and as the purveyor of a military aviation-themed podcast, asking it to me is a logical one. What’s the best way to succeed in flight school? My short answer is, I don’t know.
I say so because I went to flight school in the early 1990s long before those asking were born. In the three decades since—really, just in the past few years—technological advancements and more nuanced studies of human performance have changed how we think about teaching and learning. Computer speeds have improved. The internet allows access to almost unlimited information from home. Virtual and augmented reality afford high fidelity practice. I had none of that.
But I did “succeed” in flight school, insomuch as I got the platform of my dreams: the F/A-18 Hornet, and although technology has changed, the people using it are still human, so here then are not necessarily the best ways to succeed in flight school but rather what I did to ensure my own success. They are listed in rough chronologic order.
My parents were not pilots and we were not of the means for me to afford full-on flight lessons as a young man, but I sought and found other ways to gain some basic flight experience: my brothers and I built remote control model airplanes out of balsa wood that we flew (and crashed) in the fields behind our home. I offered to wash airplanes at the local airport in exchange for rides. I read books, watched movies, and tried to learn what I could about flight.
These ended up being good experiences when I performed well on the aviation portion of an aptitude test at a Marine Corps recruiters’ office early in college while still looking for a way in the door. But I wish I had more actual flying experience so my stomach would have become accustomed to the banks and turns, bumpy air, and less-than-one-G flight. I became airsick on my very first T-34 flight and came close on the second flight. I progressively got better as the syllabus went on but the nausea diminished my experience and, worse, allowed doubt to creep in. I did okay, but more flight experience would have alleviated that nuisance.
Get (or stay) in shape
I have, for the most part, been blessed with good health and fitness—partly due to genetics but also thanks to an active lifestyle. Being in shape improves endurance and energy, reduces the likelihood of illness, and improves recovery from illness and injury. Exercising and eating right take time and effort, but the benefits are well worth it.
Simplify your life
For the three years I was in flight school I did not have a pet, a second job, a day trading account (…that might have not been a thing yet anyway), or anything else—I deliberately simplified my life as much as possible so I could focus on training. Even when I met an amazing woman while out with friends on St. Patrick’s Day, months before I was to begin training, we dated but I told her I would be “married” to flight school for the next several years.
Thankfully that woman waited on me and 2023 will mark our 25th year of blissful marriage. Beth doesn’t miss an opportunity to tease me about those first five years, but it all worked out in the end, for both of us.
Fellow UCLA NROTCReserve Officer Training Corps. An officer commissioning program that allows students to attend non-service academies (i.e. public and private universities and colleges) where students pursue a bachelor’s degree while preparing for service as a commissioned officer in the military. alumni were in flight school ahead of me and I often asked them what it was like, where they struggled, and what they wished they knew before they started. I took that information, as well as their invitations to join them after hours in the T-34 simulator, to become as familiar with the syllabus and my first trainer as possible. I wanted to remove surprises and uncertainty by becoming knowledgeable on the syllabus and common pitfalls.
Practice, practice, practice
The T-34 landing pattern was busy: pilots were expected to fly a prescribed track over the ground at certain altitudes and airspeeds, configuring the aircraft for landing at a particular point and then making standardized radio calls—which, alone, were new and foreign. It was a lot to take in even though I had prepared for it by asking pilots ahead of me.
So I practiced. And practiced. I made flashcards with 3×5 index cards with standard and emergency procedures, limitations, prohibited maneuvers, and more. I studied them in the car, on the john, wherever. And when the T-34 landing pattern threatened to overwhelm me, I set up a chair in my living room, grabbed two soup ladles out of the kitchen, put my flight helmet skull cap on (don’t ask), and imagined flying the pattern over and over, saying out loud the altitudes and airspeeds, gear and flap positions, and making simulated radio calls. Beth snickered at me, but later quizzed me with the flashcards. She was a trooper.
Do your best
Some people make it look easy and, frankly, those people annoy me because nothing ever seemed to come easy to me. On the other hand, perhaps to others I appeared squared away. Regardless, I did my best and learned to be at peace with the talents God bestowed on me (or not). Sure, I wanted to be the best, but doing my best was all I could control, and by preparing and practicing, I ensured I did.
Take setbacks in stride
…allow me to caveat that: I did my best for the most part. Sometimes I just flat messed up, like oversleeping on my early morning first T-34 familiarization flight. Or when I received a “down” later in T-2’s for an utter inability to navigate the landing pattern (sound familiar? By then we had to do everything we did in the T-34 but now also fly “on-speed” as if landing on the carrier. That proved too much for me at the time). Another time I nearly got a down for a bad attitude, but that’s another story.
Setbacks, failures, do-overs,… whatever you call them, they suck, no doubt about it. But unless you are a water walker these shortcomings are to be expected and handled graciously. We’re not perfect, try as we might, and I found that beating myself up created a graveyard spiral that was difficult to recover from. It usually took a day of cursing and kicking the dog I didn’t have before I remembered to give myself the grace I needed to pick myself up and do my best on the next endeavor. Learn from the past and move forward, they say. I tried.
Maintain a healthy life balance
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t all study all the time—I had a fairly active existence outside of flight school. I exercised regularly, as stated earlier, and my college buds and I (and my girlfriend) went out most weekends. We would waterski or hang out on the beautiful Pensacola beaches, watch football, BBQ, and generally celebrate life as only the young do. It was one of my fondest times and those fun days made the less-fun study days, early mornings, and late nights more tolerable. I truly believe maintaining a balanced life was as much a part of my success as the other pointers listed.
So how do you succeed in flight school in the early ’20s? Beats me. But that’s how I did it in the early ’90s, and while technology and the flight training syllabus has surely changed, we’re still human. I bet most of these pointers still apply.