A day in the life of a Vance flight commander: Flight commander leads JSUPT classes

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  • By Capt. Tony Wickman
  • Public Affairs
"I don't know if there is one."
That was the answer Capt. Eric Westby, L-Flight commander in the 32nd Flying Training Squadron, gave to what a typical day is like for a flight commander at Vance Air Force Base.
"Some days it's mass chaos with fires cropping up all over the place, and I'm running around with my fireman's hat on putting out all of these emergencies," said the Stewartville, Minn., native "Other days, it's much more relaxed. I just have to go with the flow."
So what are some of the "fires?"
"It can be students or spouses becoming ill or getting hospitalized, to filling holes in the schedule when instructor pilots who get DNIF'd (duties not including flying), to getting a suspense from the squadron commander to get him some information," said the captain. "It can be like a chicken running around with its head cut off."
Not every day is a crisis for the flight commander and T-1 instructor pilot.
"I have certain things I need to get done during the week, and I know when I need to get them done. I prioritize and get them done," Captain Westby said.
Captain Westby's path to Vance is not unlike many of the instructor pilots and flight commanders currently working here.
After commissioning through Reserve Officer Training Corps at North Dakota State University in May 1998, Captain Westby spent several months on casual status at Minot AFB, N.D. Eventually, he was given a class (00-04) and a report date to Laughlin AFB, Texas, to conduct his undergraduate pilot training.
After completing his student pilot training in January 2000, he reported to Little Rock AFB, Ark., for almost six months of C-130 training. Upon graduation, Captain Westby went to Pope AFB, N.C., in August 2000, where he served until October 2003. A career highlight was flying combat sorties for Operation Iraqi Freedom, he said.
Following a few years and a few deployments apart from his family, the captain applied for and was granted IP duty at Vance.
Before arriving, he reported to Randolph AFB, Texas, for three and a half months of IP training, which became a little longer because of a burst appendix.
"I did the extended tour at Randolph," Captain Westby joked with a wide smile. "I was in the middle of the training program when one night I felt stomach pains that I thought were nerves. It kept getting worse so I called my sister who is a doctor, and she said if the pain does this and this then it was an appendix. It did this and this, so the next morning I saw the flight doctor and had the appendix removed."
After getting healthy and back into the training program, he completed his IP training and reported to Vance in May 2004.
His first duties were as a line IP, where he also picked up additional duties like grade book officer, assistant and then unit standardization and evaluation monitor and assistant flight commander. Captain Westby eventually progressed to being selected L-Flight commander in November 2005.
Flight commanders are assigned two classes, the captain said, whose first classes were 06-09, which graduates today, and 06-10.
According to Captain Westby, his responsibility as a flight commander is to provide the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps with top-notch pilots.
"First of all, I have to be a good instructor pilot because I still fly the line. But I also have to make sure the training environment and instruction students receive are good," he said. "I do this by being both an instructor and a manager."
Some of his responsibility as the flight commander is ensuring IPs assigned to his flight stay current on their qualifications and additional duties and are training to the syllabus.
"This ensures the students get the best instruction possible and sets them up for success no matter where they go from here," Captain Westby said.
Working around the manning is the biggest challenge he faces day to day, but the most rewarding thing is leading people to success.
"Whether it is team sports or when the flight is Flight of the Month for the 32nd or when students get assignments they want, that is the most gratifying," said the captain. "I'm looking forward to this flight (06-09) graduating because I have taken this flight from cradle to grave, so to speak."
Where he sees a difference between a line IP and flight commander is in the level of responsibility.
"When I was an IP, as long as I took care of myself I was good to go," Captain Westby said. "Now, other people's mistakes are my responsibility because they work for me. I am accountable for it and that is different than the average line IP. The good things and bad things are my responsibility."
His day does not start or end at the flightline, though. Captain Westby is also a husband to Calley, whom he met in college and married in November 1997, and father to Braden, 6, Bryn, 4, and Mason, 2.
"My wife and kids keep me grounded," he said. "It is nice having someone who doesn't care about the 'administrivia' of the job and just cares about me. And my kids don't care about me being a pilot; they just know me as 'Dad.'"
For Calley, her husband does a good job of balancing his duties with his family.
"The most difficult challenge is managing the timeline," she said. "The whole IP and flight commander duty is time consuming, and Eric has to deal with things that pop up at the last minute. But, he is a great dad and husband who does the best he can."
Calley said she knows her husband likes teaching and sharing what he knows and that is why he is a good IP and flight commander.
"I know he likes being with students, especially when the light bulb goes on. He enjoys seeing the students' progress," she said. "I know flying is what he truly loves, and I kind of help out as much as possible."
Someone who likes the captain's leadership and experienced a "light bulb" moment is 2nd Lt. Robert Diaz, Class 06-10 student pilot.
"He is a really great guy who cares about the students," said the lieutenant. "Both times I have flown with him, I have learned quite a bit. I like his teaching techniques and he has methods of training that are effective."
High praise is also reflected in the chain-of-command above Captain Westby.
According to Maj. Dave Morrissey, 32nd FTS director of operations, the captain is a guy you can count on at all times.
"He is on top of it. He knows his students, he knows his IPs, and he knows the intimate details of his flight," the major said. "So when I think about folks who are on my board to fly, I know L-Flight has their stuff squared away, and that is what you rely on the flight commander to accomplish."
"He sets the standards and never asks his IPs or students to do something he is not willing to do himself," Major Morrissey said.
(Editor's note: This is the third of a four-part series detailing the rigors of student pilot training and those involved in it. Next week's story is on a day in the life of a flying training squadron commander.)