Taking first steps toward takeoff

In Navy aviation program, students learn on small aircraft before plunging into flight school

August 17, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

The first time Midshipman Taylor Brashear tried his hand at landing a small airplane his insides jiggled around and he tried to ignore what sounded like extremely loud breathing on his headphones.

Before he knew it, the Cessna had touched down, and then, he was up in the air again, preparing for another maneuver.

As the plane took off from Tipton Airport in Odenton a few weeks ago, at least two things were clear: He hadn't aced the landing or the takeoff, and he realized he loved flying just as much as he thought he would.

"I'm getting better now, after a few flights, and it hasn't been so nerve-wrecking to touch and go like that," said Brashear, who later realized that the loud breathing he heard was his own, when the microphone had moved just under his nose. "My father and grandfather are both pilots, so I've been around aviation all my life. It's good to know I can make this stick."

Brashear is one of about 450 midshipmen and recent academy graduates every year who are given up to 50 days to complete a rigorous introductory flight program that prepares them for the challenges of Navy's aviation program and allows them to make sure they've picked the right military career.

For the Navy, it's a chance to weed out those who aren't suited to fly well before their training becomes costly. Midshipmen and recent graduates complete the program - called "Introductory Flight Syllabus" - at a cost of about $5,200 a head. Navy officials estimate that placing wings on an aviator costs about $1 million.

About 5 percent of Mids and newly-commissioned ensigns and Marines from the academy who participate at several nearby airports drop out, said Tom Feeks, a 1973 graduate and retired captain who runs the program for the academy.

Feeks said he knew such a screening opportunity was necessary when he was the commanding officer of a Reserve Officer Training Corps unit in Rochester, N.Y. One student had chosen to be a pilot on a whim, he remembered, only to be delayed from beginning his training for nearly a year because of an injury. Once the student finally got into the cockpit, he got sick and quickly found out that flying wasn't for him.

"I felt like the Navy had failed him," Feeks said. "He hadn't been given any hands-on experience, and he had to start over then a year behind his contemporaries."

The flight training program sprung out of the desire in 2001 of Vice Adm. John Ryan, then superintendent, to create an aviation program that gave as much training to future pilots and naval flight officers as the academy already did to future seafarers through Yard Patrol boats and sailing instruction.

The chief of naval air training had also noticed recently graduated Mids were having a harder time keeping up with Air Force officers in primary flight training. In its own program, the Air Force had helped its future airmen get a pilot's license before they even started military aviation training.

By 2002, Feeks said, the academy had 100 percent of its future pilots and navigators involved in the program. Last month, in an effort to make the program more challenging and prepare for a more difficult training platform coming soon in the military aviation, they stepped up some of the requirements. Now, those participating have to perform a solo flight sooner and pass an FAA-administered test.

The syllabus gives the students 25 flight hours, about two-thirds of what they would need to get a pilot's license, and many midshipmen who have finished the program go on to take that step.

Becca Tucker, a political science major from Oregon City, Ore., who wants to fly jets for the Navy, said she was overwhelmed her first time in the cockpit, but was glad to learn some of the basics before heading to Pensacola, Fla., for more rigorous training when she graduates next year.

She got to ride in an F/A-18 Super Hornet and compared the thrill to "the best roller coaster you've been on in your life, times about a billion."

"IFS is a really good idea, not only for the Navy to figure out if we have the basic skills to fly an aircraft and not die, but also perfect for us so we can realize if this is the right step," said Tucker, 21. "For me, as soon as I got up, I told myself: `Yeah, I knew I loved flying.'"

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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