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  • Writer's pictureSantiago Garcia

6 Lessons Learned in the T-6

I recently completed Phase 2 of Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), where I was able to learn the basics of aircraft control, navigation, and formation flying in the Air Force. After 85 hours of flight time and countless hours of study, I wanted to share a few lessons I learned during my time as a student in the T-6 that helped me grow:

Flying exposes you

There is nowhere to hide and nothing you can do to mask flying performance. In aviation, we know whether or not we are maintaining aircraft control by whether we are on the appropriate altitude, heading, and airspeed. Several factors play into controlling these things including the engines’ power setting, relative wind, and pitch attitude of the aircraft. Unlike most career fields, something that makes aviation unique is that the evaluator can constantly get feedback on how a student is doing (other evaluation methods often require the student to turn in the test and await the results until the end)… all they have to do is take a quick glance at the instrument panel.

I would be lying if I said I never had an instructor/evaluator take control of the aircraft from me in order to correct one of these three parameters (heading, altitude, and airspeed). It is a normal part of the learning process, and ultimately teaches the student how to speed up their crosscheck to maintain more precise and consistent aircraft control, over a longer period of time. In aviation, there is nothing you can do to “fake” being on parameters. The flight instruments don’t lie, and ultimately it is up to the pilot to fly the aircraft. Nobody else will do it for them. Take charge of whatever challenges you’re facing. Get a goal, make a plan, and take action to get it done. Apathy is the enemy. Fly the aircraft! Don’t allow the aircraft to fly you!

Control what you can control

The only thing you can truly control in pilot training is your attitude and effort…everything else is practically impossible to control. To put it in perspective, here’s a list of the things students have to consider when planning and executing a flight: weather, maintenance issues, scheduling, airfield conditions, life support equipment malfunctions, biased graders, non-standard air traffic control guidance, birds, other aircraft, etc. Sometimes no amount of hard work or preparation can make you have a successful flight. Preparation certainly contributes to positive performance, but there is nothing one can do to guarantee success as there are so many uncontrollables. I encourage you to think about your own life, and what things you can or can’t control. I’m sure you will find that in your own life, attitude and effort are probably the few things that are ultimately within your control.

Plan for contingencies

Things will inevitably never go according to plan, there will be several times in your life when things will not turn out exactly the way you envisioned them. Something I’ve observed is that the pilots with the most consistent success were always the most prepared. The pilots who show up to the brief having mentally rehearsed several different outcomes and iterations of the game plan are those who don’t panic under stress and are able to make timely, correct decisions when things don’t go as planned. A technique we use in aviation to visualize the flight is called “chairflying”. Chairflying is when we visualize ourselves in the cockpit going through every portion of the flight from brief to debrief. A great tip I was given by one of my instructors is to never put the aircraft somewhere you haven’t first put your mind. What they meant by this is that you should always have thought through a situation before you expose yourself to it in real life (in the case that something might happen that you are not prepared for).

Always do your best to be over prepared. “Luck and timing” favors those who have done everything they can to familiarize themselves with the mission and the challenges at hand. Don’t be the lucky loser or the ill-informed free-loader. Don’t be apathetic when things don’t go as planned. Visualize the flight in detail ahead of time, do everything you can to rehearse several iterations of what could happen during the critical phases of flight. Don’t get caught in a situation and make a dangerous, irreversible decision that could have been avoided had you been prepared for it on the ground. Do the right thing, chairfly as much as possible!

Root cause, contributing factors, and the instructional fix

In pilot training, students are introduced to the debrief methodology that is responsible for creating the greatest Air Force in the world. When pilots make mistakes, there is always a root cause and one or more contributing factors that caused the mistake to occur. A root cause is defined as, “the single contributing factor that, if avoided, would have prevented the mistake from occurring all together.” A contributing factor is, “an event or an occurrence that contributed to the mistake.” Contributing factors may come in the form of a perception, decision, execution, knowledge, or planning error. The best instructors are the ones that teach their students to identify the root cause of the problem on their own, so that they can begin to develop the mindset of “becoming their own coach”. Once the root cause of a mistake is identified, the remainder of the debrief is focused on preventing that mistake from occurring again. Instructors will generally offer one or more instructional fixes that the student can take with them on the next flight. An instructional fix is, “a solution(s) to a problem(s) presented by the root cause and/or contributing factors. Instructional fixes should prevent the root cause from reoccurring.”

The root cause/contributing factor/instructional fix is one component of the Air Force’s debrief methodology that allows pilots to get to the bottom of their mistakes, and prevents them from making the same mistake twice. When you find yourself reflecting on a mistake you’ve made (flying related or not), always try to get to the bottom of it. Ask yourself what the root cause of the error was, identify the contributing factors, and make sure you have a solid instructional fix and you will be less likely to make the same mistake in the future!

Purpose overcomes pressure

When shit gets real, wanting to achieve peak performance, striving to finish at the top of your class, and wanting to earn the coveted USAF Pilot Wings all ultimately end up being superficial reasons to complete pilot training.

Exhibit A:

It’s Friday night at 8 PM and you’re sitting on an elimination checkride on Monday morning, and everybody wants to go home for the weekend but you know you must do everything you can to prepare. This may be your last ride in pilot training, your very last chance to become an Air Force Pilot! What will you do? What will your classmates do to help you?

It is moments like these that expose people’s true intentions and show where their hearts are. It is in those moments of doubt and uncertainty that “peak performance” or “getting a nice flashy fighter jet” no longer hold water, for it is under the pressure of performance that our true character is revealed. The only way to deal with the continual pressure of performance experienced throughout pilot training is to have a purpose that is bigger than yourself. There have been several moments of nervousness, hesitation, and fear that I have had to overcome before going to fly. Through prayer, the support of my family, and focusing on my purpose, I have been able to overcome these negative emotions and take action. When I feel scared, intimidated, unmotivated, or tired, I remember that it doesn’t matter what my feelings or emotions are telling me at that moment, because my family and my country need me. When I find myself drifting or worried about things that are outside of my control, I remember that those I love and care about are counting on me to complete this training to the best of my ability… NO EXCUSES!

This recollection trumps any negative thoughts or emotions that could interfere with my mental performance. If and when you find yourself in an emotional pickle or unwilling to give maximum effort before going to work, visualize those you care about deeply, remember the commitment you made to them. They are counting on you to be your best!

2d Lt Anthony Wentz (07/17/98-11/19/21)

A defining moment in the T-6 was witnessing the loss of a brother.

I was finishing the engine shutdown checklist following a routine contact sortie on a beautiful CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) Friday morning, when I suddenly heard my crew chief screaming hysterically, “Get the supervisor! Get the supervisor! The T-38s, the T-38s!” Startled, I looked around attempting to get an understanding of the situation, some grasp as to why my crew chief would be screaming… All of a sudden a large wisp of dust near the flight line caught my eye. I will never forget this moment because it changed my life forever. I saw two T-38s impact the right and left sides of the approach end of the runway. One of them was belly up, skidding down the runway with the gear collapsed. The other aircraft was knife-edged into the ground, skidding on its side before it came to a complete stop, fully inverted and facing the opposite direction of movement. Just as I saw the belly down aircraft’s front cockpit canopy open, my instructor directed me to go inside, gather my classmates in the flight room, and report to the auditorium until further notice. After what felt like an eternity (3 minutes in reality), I finished my after-shutdown checklists, grabbed my flight equipment and began walking inside, unable to conceptualize what I had just witnessed. Was it a formation low approach gone wrong? Did the engine flame out on short final? Did the aircrafts collide in midair? Why didn’t anybody eject? Thousands of thoughts and questions I didn’t know the answers to clouded my ability to think clearly. Had those pilots been any of my friends? Was everyone ok? Is there something I should be doing to help? Before I had a chance to ask my friends in the T-38 squadron if they were ok, my phone was taken from me and I found myself sitting in the auditorium, where we would soon learn that one of our classmates had just lost their life in an unfortunate training accident.

I always knew there was an inherent risk to flying, but it wasn’t until that moment that it truly hit close to home. This accident occurred during perfect weather and in a training environment. No enemies, no threats, just a normal training sortie in little Del Rio, Texas. This goes to show that no matter how high or low the threat is, flying is always going to be dangerous. No matter how much risk mitigation is used, it is impossible to fully eliminate the risk that comes from flying (no matter the type of flying: civilian, military, combat, recreational, etc.). Every time we show up to fly, there’s always a chance that flight might be the opportunity God uses to call us home. On Friday November 19th, God called 2d LT Anthony Wentz home. Tony lived more life in 23 years than most who live to be 100. And while he still had a lot left to give, I am certain he will do more for us from Heaven than he ever could on Earth. It shouldn’t take a tragedy like this to remind us to live each day with gratitude, joy, and conviction. Be grateful for the moments that God has given us, because we never know just how quickly they can be taken away.

The T-6 taught me a lot more than just stick and rudder skills. In fact, most of the long-term lessons I learned during Phase 2 were not related to flying at all. They mostly had to do with character and growth as a leader/teammate/wingman. I hope these six lessons are able to help you with your relationships, short and long term goals, and life in general!

Stay grinding!

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