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The Essential Role of C-17 Pilots in Us Air Force

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The C-17 Globemaster III and their pilots are essential pieces to the United States Air Force. C-17s are used in several aspects of the missions carried out by the military. C-17s carry cargo such as food, ammunition, arms and even vehicles across the world. C-17s transport troops across the ocean to help the military carry out its various missions. Many people are involved in getting these massive aircraft to fly including the engineers who designed and built the aircraft, the mechanics who constantly work on the aircraft to keep it flying, the crew who correctly loads the aircraft to ensure a safe flight. As important as those positions are the most important one is the pilot, who without them no C-17 would ever fly. The pilots who fly C-17s must be highly trained and capable of doing extremely difficult tasks. C-17 pilots must be able to fly in the dark, drop cargo in specific locations, refuel in the air even at night and all lights from the tanker aircraft are blacked out to prevent being discovered while flying over enemy territory, land on small dirt runways and even ice, and be able to carry highly dangerous cargo such as nuclear weapons (Hill Interview). C-17 pilots must be highly trained to be able to carry out these tasks without error. The career of a C-17 pilot is long as a pilot has a commitment almost three times as long as non-pilots; serving a minimum of 10 years after training. C-17 pilots must be dedicated to flying and serving the Air Force in order to be successful. The entirety of a C-17 pilots career involves composed of multiple parts. C-17 pilots must earn at minimum a bachelor’s degree from a college, be accepted and graduate from pilot training, and then dedicate a minimum of 10 years of their lives to flying C-17s to complete their career for the United States military.

There are many requirements needed for a prospective C-17 pilot to get a pilot slot. All USAF pilots are officers and a bachelor’s degree or higher is needed to commission as an officer. There are multiple ways to commission into the Air Force. Students at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, all commission into the Air Force at Graduation. Getting a commission through the USAFA is the most difficult way of commissioning as only 1475 of 9706 applicants get accepted in 2017 (“Advice to Applicants” 2017). Another way to get a commission is to participate in Air Force Reserved Officer Training Corps (AFROTC). AFROTC is a college course offered at many colleges across the nation. All Qualified students are accepted into AFROTC, however can be taken out if the academic, physical, or behavioral standards are not met. Once an AFROTC student graduates they will commission into the USAF. A third way to commission is through Officer Training School (OTS). Active duty or civilians may apply to OTS but must have a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2015 189 of the 272 applicants were accepted into OTS at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama (Losey 2015). Getting a commission into the USAF is not easy and takes an immense amount of time and dedication however it is crucial to getting a pilot slot.

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Once commissioned, prospective pilots must attend Introductory Flight School (IFS). IFS is a two-week course that is intended to gauge prospective pilots’ aptitude for flying. This course is a shorter version of ground school as it teaches prospective pilots how to read weather, how to navigate, how to read their instruments, and how to fly a plane. Navigators and Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots also go through IFS. Pilots will do about nine flights with an instructor and one solo flight. Taking ground school beforehand would be beneficial as the course is intended to be hard and previous flying experience would be a major advantage. According to C-17 pilot Captain Kayla Hill IFS is a “[w]ash-out program” and is used to weed out those who do not have the ability to fly (Personal Communication, September 22, 2019). The course was so difficult that Captain Hill recalls crying every night due to the difficulty and the stress of the course. IFS is every prospective C-17 pilots first step towards piloting a USAF C-17.

One IFS has been completed; prospective pilots move onto undergraduate pilot training (UPT). UPT is the USAF’s version of ground school. UPT students start learning to fly using T-6 Texans. The T-6 Texan is a single engine, two seat aircraft built by Raytheon Aircraft Co. utilized by the USAF to train UPT students basic military flying skills (T-6 Texan). Students fly the T-6 for roughly six months then depending on how well they flew and how well their instructors grade them they decide whether to track to the T-38 Talon or the T-1A Jayhawk. The T-38 Talon is a “twin-engine, high-altitude, supersonic jet trainer” used primarily by pilots who have tracked to fly fighter or bomber aircraft. Pilots who track to the T-38 Talon can also move on to fly cargo and tanker aircraft if desired or they do not get a slot for a fighter or bomber aircraft (T-38 Talon). The T-1A Jayhawk is a “The T-1A Jayhawk is a medium-range, twin-engine jet trainer” used to train pilots who plan on flying cargo, tanker, and other heavy aircraft (T-1A Jayhawk). Pilots train on either the T-1A or T-38 for approximately six more months until they graduate. All the graduates of a UPT class are ranked based on their performances on check rides, how they are ranked by their peers, and how the flight commander ranks them. After the graduates are ranked, they rank in order from greatest to least interest what aircraft they would like to fly. Graduates are assigned their aircraft based off their class rank and how they ranked the available aircraft (Interview, Hill). After completing UPT pilots also have the option to become a First Assignment Instructor Pilot (FAIP) who are newly winged pilots who instead of getting stationed and flying missions, go back to UPT as an instructor.

After UPT has been completed and a pilot has been assigned an aircraft to fly, pilots are given their first assignment. C-17 pilots can be stationed at bases all over the country. C-17 pilots can be stationed at McChord Air base in Washington, Travis Air Base in California, Dover Air Base in Delaware, McGuire Air Base in New Jersey, Hickam Air Base in Hawaii, Elmendorf Air Base in Alaska, or Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina (C-17 Military Base Locations). Once stationed, a C-17 pilot’s first task is to learn about the base and the area around it. A C-17 pilot must know where everything is on the base including the runway, squadron building, hangers and other non-job-related areas such as the Base Exchange. C-17 pilots must also learn about the geography and climate of the base and surrounding area such as mountains, cities and weather as all these factors determine when and where they fly (Hill Interview). The base also determines any extra training a pilot must get and the type of missions they will be a part of like Dover Air bases missions include “clandestine (secret) delivery, extraction and airdrop of special operations forces and equipment” (3rd Airlift Squadron).

Once a C-17 pilot has settled in and learned about their new home, they begin flying. C-17 pilots start out in the second seat or as a co-pilot. The second seat in a C-17 includes tasks such as assisting the first seat in reading instruments, flying the aircraft after the first seat has been flying for long periods of time and assisting in other operations such as in-air refueling and navigating. For a new C-17 pilot to be promoted to the first seat (the captain) they must earn it through flight hours. C-17 pilots obtain flight hours by flying training missions, temporary duty outside of the country, and deployments of around 3 months. C-17 pilots will take whatever flying hours they can get in order to accumulate enough hours to get become eligible to get into the first seat. It is a long process to earn the first seat in a C-17 including hundreds of flights and countless hours of training. Once a C-17 pilots has earned the first seat the next step is to become an instructor pilot. An instructor pilot is a pilot who has earned enough flight hours and has participated in enough training to be able to train other pilots (C-17 Globemaster III). Becoming and instructor pilot is most C-17 pilots’ goals for their career however there are other options. Many C-17 pilots will retire or get out after they have completed their minimum service requirement and get a position as a captain for a commercial airline. Becoming and airline captain is desirable to many C-17 pilots as they will have already earned or almost earned the minimum amount of flight hours in order to get their Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) which allows pilots to become a commercial airline pilot. Being a commercial airline pilot also allows the chance for a higher salary and less time spent away from home. Many options are available for C-17 pilots and most C-17 pilots are very successful as they earn more money than most other military positions at the same rank, however there is an immense amount of time spent away from family.

To be a C-17 pilot one must be dedicated to flying and carrying out the missions of the United States Air Force. C-17 have a long career involving graduating from college, training, and their flying career. C-17 piloting is a difficult career and only the best can succeed at it. Those who do succeed reap great benefits including high pay, world travel, and the chance to view the world in a way very few people do, from the sky. Many people who attempt to become a pilot do not succeed and that is what makes it such a fulfilling career. Having the chance to help others by serving in the military in such an important way and to be able to experience things most people do not is why the career of a C-17 pilot is one of the best careers in the world.

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