A day in the life of a Vance student pilot

  • Published
  • By Capt. Tony Wickman
  • Public Affairs
Monday started early for 2nd Lt. John Lieber, much like the previous five months of undergraduate pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, with a 5 a.m. wakeup and ended when his head hit the pillow at
10 p.m. to get his rest.
Lieutenant Lieber, a student pilot assigned to D-flight in the 8th Flying Training Squadron and member of Class 07-03, represents one of more than 300 Airmen, Sailors and Marines currently working on getting their wings.
Nearly six months into the training program, Lieutenant Lieber is close to the halfway mark of the program and the point for getting selected to fly fighter aircraft, airlift aircraft or helicopters.
"I'm currently in Phase II of training and looking forward to track select," he said. "My class will find out on June 6 -- D-Day -- whether we get fighters, heavies or choppers. I am hoping to get heavies so I can be a C-17 pilot."
His choice is based on the mentors he has encountered and desire to work with an aircrew.
"Flying a C-17 involves many varied missions, from combat cargo drops to humanitarian missions to paratrooper deployments," he said. "Also, I want the opportunity to work with enlisted Airmen and be a part of an aircrew."
In the hustle and bustle of the second busiest airport in the Air Force, with more than 80,000 flying hours achieved yearly, hundreds of young officers come to Vance to see if they have what it takes to be pilots. Almost all will repeat the same sequence of events Lieutenant Lieber is undergoing.
Once a student pilot completes his or her commissioning program, almost all come to Vance as casual students. Many of them previously spent time at other units getting additional training requirements completed. Upon their arrival here, they are given a class and start date. Once they start training, it is continuous 10- to 12-hour days of academics, simulator training and flying.
"There are three phases to training," Lieutenant Lieber said. "Phase I lasts about six weeks. During that time, you spend about a week going through aerospace physiology and egress training, and then you go to the academics that are focused on systems knowledge, flight operations and flight fundamentals."
Much of the academics are done with computer-aided instructions. In this phase, students use a computer terminal to receive academic lessons and then review results with an instructor.
After that six-week period, students move into Phase II training, referred to as "hitting the flightline," and spend another five months applying their academics and learning how to fly military aircraft.
"It's like trying to take a drink from a fire hose," he said. "The first 15 days into Phase II you get everything coming at you at once at full throttle. Not only do you have the academics, but you have the stand-ups -- scenarios where instructor pilots quiz students on everything from emergency procedures to general knowledge -- to deal with. It is a real emotional roller coaster."
Lieutenant Lieber said he now appreciates the sentiment almost every pilot has used that "training pays off" when it comes to an incident or accident involving an aircraft.
Once they progress in Phase II, students move into flying simulators and aircraft. The primary aircraft during this phase is either the T-6A Texan II or the T-37 Tweet, which are being replaced in late 2006 by the T-6.
This is called "contact" training, or basic flying, Lieutenant Lieber said. Students learn how to control and maneuver the aircraft, and progress into soloing and aerobatics flying.
All the while still getting academic instructions, meeting appointments and having a little bit of time for personal endeavors, he said.
After a student gets notified at track-select of what military aircraft they will fly, students move into Phase III and fly either the T-38C Talon II or the T-1A Jayhawk. Students selected for fighter or bomber aircraft will fly the T-38, while "heavy" selects will fly the T-1.
Again, students continue to advance their knowledge and skills in flying until they meet graduation requirements and earn their wings.
For Lieutenant Lieber, an Air Force brat whose stepfather retired as a master sergeant in Spring Lake, N.C., getting to this point has been a long and worthwhile journey. He was born a citizen of the United Kingdom and spent his youth bouncing from base to base. Upon graduating from Royal Air Force Lakenheath High School, he worked in a box factory while he was a Delayed Entry Program recruit to the Air Force. After immigrating to the U.S., he spent three and a half years as an enlisted Airman serving as an information manager.
It was during his enlistment he decided he wanted to serve as an officer. To do so, he would need United States citizenship, which he got February 19, 1998.
"I had to renounce the throne and take the oath of citizenship," he said.
After a year at the Air Force Academy prep school, he attended the Academy and graduated in 2005.
"It was a challenge," said Lieutenant Lieber. "The rigors of the Academy helped prepare me for flight training."
It was at the Academy he found out he could fly aircraft.
"I thought I would be a maintenance or communications officer," he said. "I thought because of my eyesight I would not be allowed to fly. I was told they had changed the rules and so I applied."
Most student pilots obtain their private pilot's license prior to being assigned to a flying training wing, which can be Vance, Columbus or Laughlin. Vance is the only joint specialized undergraduate pilot training base in the Air Force, meaning it also trains pilots from the Navy and Marine Corps.
For Lieutenant Lieber, dealing with the emotional roller coaster, his inner fears and the pressure are the hardest things for him as a student pilot at Vance.
"It's something I've never experienced before and it is difficult to explain," he said. "The academics and flying are all tasks that challenge you and sometimes make you feel overwhelmed. You are doing maneuvers you learned just last week, but you suck it up, laugh it off and press on."
Other pressures include making time off-duty to spend with his fiancée and fellow student pilot, 2nd Lt. Annalee Thurber, who is two classes behind in Class 07-05. The lieutenants met while freshmen students at the Academy, and began dating in their sophomore year.
"It is a challenge. One of us is pretty much gone, whether it is flying or academics," Lieutenant Thurber, a Humboldt County, Calif., native, said. "It's difficult to find time to spend together right now. But we are both working toward our goals, and we use the weekend to relax and unload and make up time. Then its hit the books and do it all over again."
As for his progress thus far, Lieutenant Lieber is described as being on track by Capt. Trent Magyar, his primary instructor pilot.
"Being a student pilot is demanding and it goes beyond 12 hours a day," said the captain. "Students have to put in hours of study off the flightline during their personal time. It is obvious Lieutenant Lieber has the qualities of being a good student and it shows in the efforts he puts forth in being a pilot."
(Editor's note: This is the first in 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 Vance instructor pilot.)