The Right Stuff?

  • Published
  • By Timothy Barela
  • HQ AETC/SEM - Torch Magazine
Searching for the next generation of great aviators is not a task the Air Force takes lightly.

That's why officials decided to change the Initial Flight Screening program as they take a close look at young lieutenants and seek out the ones who demonstrate an aptitude for flying. On Oct. 13, a new centralized IFS program launched at Pueblo Memorial Airport in Pueblo, Colo.

The IFS program evaluates candidates hoping to enter Air Force aviation training either as pilots, combat systems officers or unmanned aerial vehicle operators. Doss Aviation is the contractor responsible for providing the facilities, flight instruction, Diamond DA-20 aircraft, maintenance, emergency services and more for the program. The Air Force oversees IFS from a quality assurance perspective and also provides the aviation candidates with the military rigor and physical training portion of the course.

The new program affects applicants coming from Officer Training School and the Reserve Officer Training Corps. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., has its own flight screening program, which will likely remain in place. The centralized IFS program at Pueblo will replace decentralized IFS that had applicants doing their flight screening at civilian flight schools across the nation. The decentralized program will still exist, but will draw down over the next 18 months until, eventually, all applicants coming from OTS or ROTC will go through the screening at Pueblo.

"Even though we are moving toward the centralized Initial Flight Screening program, the process will take nearly two years," said Air Education and Training Command Director of Safety Col. John Blumentritt, who flew DA-20s as part of the safety oversight of the decentralized IFS program. "In the meantime, we haven't forgotten about the students who will still be going through the decentralized program."

The colonel said as the decentralized program draws down, AETC officials are just as committed to the safety of their aviator candidates dispersed nationwide as they are to the ones going through IFS at Pueblo or the Academy.

"We will not let even one of our lieutenants fall through the cracks," Blumentritt said. "All are equally important to us no matter which program they are going through. We will do everything we can to protect them."

Eventually, consolidating the program at Pueblo for nearly 40 days of training should standardize flight screening across the Air Force, according to Lt. Col. John Tomjack, commander of Detachment 1, 306th Flying Training Group, which has oversight responsibility of the program in Pueblo.

"IFS was designed to screen for aviation aptitude but also provide the military rigor and camaraderie missing in some general aviation programs," Tomjack said. "IFS graduates will arrive at Undergraduate Flying Training with a broader understanding of military aviation and more accustomed to the rigor found in military flight training programs."

Tomjack said the flight screening process is important because Undergraduate Flying Training is so expensive. Every effort needs to be made to minimize attrition. He expects the new program will reduce attrition rates, saving the Air Force millions of dollars over time.

"Civilian flight school training is good training; it simply lacks the military environment we can provide here," Tomjack explained. "The net result is some candidates would find themselves in advanced Undergraduate Flying Training programs and then decide they didn't want to be there. That translates to wasted dollars. We needed a better filter."

They seem to have already achieved that goal to some degree.

"The training is exactly what it needs to be; rough but fair," said 2nd Lt. Jordan Wiersch, a student pilot in the first IFS class at Pueblo. "Of course, going through as the first class is bitter-sweet. I'm honored and do think I'll be better prepared for UPT. But I've talked to friends who are going through the decentralized program, and they seem to be having more fun - it's less structured, less militarized."

Wiersch said that in the new program, they train from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then still study until 10 p.m. Then they wake up and do it all over again.

"I didn't study this much in college," said the 22-year-old Texas A&M graduate. "Not all people can handle that, which is why they self-terminate. It's an eye opener. But I'm gung-ho, and this is an opportunity of a lifetime. The ups outweigh the downs."

Tomjack expects students to range from the "gung-ho" mentality of Wiersch to those who discover a military flying career isn't their cup of tea.

"Our program cuts both ways ... students are evaluating their future career choice, while we evaluate their attitude, aptitude, adaptability and motivation to be a professional military aviator," Tomjack said. "Some don't like the pressure, and that's OK ... better to find out here than at UFT."

During the flight screening process, a big concern for Tomjack is the safety of the students. He said a lot of thought went into the airspace around Pueblo, which features low-volume air traffic that is simple and reliable. That's a plus. But they do have some potential hazards to overcome.

"The number one safety concern we will have to deal with here is the skill level of the students that we are dealing with, combined with the volume of flying," Tomjack said. "At the height of the training, we will have 1,300 to 1,700 inexperienced aviators coming through here each year filling the Colorado skies. The average student is 23 years old and has never flown before. If our procedures aren't highly reliable, it's a recipe for disaster."

He also worries about the rate at which weather conditions can deteriorate in Colorado.

"Colorado Springs has the highest lightning risk next to Tampa (Florida)," Tomjack said. "And Pueblo is close behind. Thunderstorms can move in here very quickly, and with them, heavy lightning and very strong winds. Resource protection, both on and off the flight line, must be closely monitored at all times. Our intramural program will have 150-plus aviation candidates outside at any given time."

Because of that, the colonel is pushing for dedicated weather support at the Pueblo operation. In the meantime the contractor is responsible for weather support.

Tomjack says rounding out his top safety concerns is the reality of dealing with 23-year-olds who still think they are invincible.

"One of our primary goals here is to ensure these young adults not only survive their flying experience, but their off-duty activities as well," Tomjack said. "It's just another reason why standardized flight screening makes a lot of sense."

Tech. Sgt. Mike Hammond of Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs contributed to this article.