Are You Cut Out For It?
by Mal Bloggs
February 11, 2018
Next year Maverick the fighter pilot from the Top Gun Movie make a reappearance on the big screen. It looks pretty cool – fast jets, motorbikes, pretty girls, leather jackets, corny one-liners, plenty of beers and roaring around at supersonic speeds. Well the reality is quite different. Firstly a few hard hitting facts. Flying in the military is serious and expensive business. Once fully trained, pilots will be trained for war and may be ordered to pull the trigger and engage in direct action against enemy forces and the aircraft could be shot at. This could lead to loss of life and is no joke. Pilots will be required to accept responsibility in expensive, technologically advanced, military hardware potentially on a daily basis protecting our country and its citizens. In addition, there could be deployments at short notice into a warzone in a foreign country for no set timeframe.
When training for war, the margins for error in some typical mission profiles are small. Whilst the ADF has an excellent and proactive safety culture, the nature of the business has seen accidents occur in the past and unfortunately, based on the laws of probability, will see accidents occur in the future. For example, the RAAF fly some aircraft very fast and very low sometimes at night.
This sort of flying is not without risk, but is a required capability within our Defence Force. In addition, the ADF also carries out major exercises, search and rescue missions and natural disaster relief, where a degree of personal risk still exists. The standard for pilot training is high and the ADF makes no apologies for that. Having said that it can also be one of the most exciting jobs on planet earth. It is challenging and no two days are the same either operationally or in training.
After officer training, candidates will undergo pilot’s course. This course will require a genuine strong desire, a large dose of determination and stamina both physical and mental. Getting a set of wings shows that a candidate has the required attitude, hands and feet skills and mental capacity to learn at the required rate to convert onto an operational aircraft, be it fast jets, rotary wing or airlift.
The awarding of a wings brevet is indeed a ‘fun ticket’ to fly an exciting array of military hardware. It is a significant achievement and one you should be proud to own. But it doesn’t come easily.
So just why is pilot’s course one of the toughest training programs on the planet? Most people can be taught to fly, eventually. The key is to achieve the tiered, specific competency levels within the prescribed limit of simulators and flights and hence resources. This then demonstrates that a candidate can potentially cope with the required learning rate for post graduate operational aircraft conversions. One extra remedial sortie in an FA-18 Hornet for instance is over $50,000! It is this time pressure and the continuous required level of learning that combine to make the course very challenging. There is no plateau period.
The next sortie (flying mission) in the syllabus will bring with it new sequences and challenges that build on techniques previously taught with very little time for consolidation. Anything taught will be assumed knowledge in the future. This is not only closely monitored and assessed on every flight and simulator, but also checked at specific intervals by undergoing flying tests and ground based examinations, some of which require a pass mark of 100%. More than anything, pilot’s course is about your ability to learn.
Simply put, studying on pilot’s course requires effort. Candidates CANNOT bluff their way through and breeze it like perhaps some may have done in the past. There is no ‘coasting’. Candidates need to be prepared to work hard over a long period and need to be prepared to change, particularly in the method of study. Some of the techniques are different from typical secondary school or university study as pilot’s course has a more practical element. The key is quality study patterns rather than quantity. It’s all about prioritization and time management.
Previous Flying Experience
Military flying and subsequent operations are quite different to any form of civilian flying. Whilst perhaps an indicator of innate motivation, civilian flying experience does not necessarily increase performance on pilot’s course. Indeed, some applicants have found it difficult to adapt to military techniques as a consequence of their previous experience. This could be due to the reinforcement of different techniques to those used in military aviation. For instance the technique utilized by the ADF to fly visually is the Attitude – Lookout – Attitude – Performance (ALAP) work-cycle. Civilian pilots may have never heard of this and may be reliant on autopilot, or other techniques. This would have to be unlearnt.
With all due respect to the civilian flying world, no matter how much civilian flying experience a candidate has, the nature of military flying will challenge all candidates at some stage. Many flying sequences are not done regularly or even at all in civilian flying – for example: high G force activities, close formation (flying within 2-3 metres of another aircraft at 500 kph, or faster), low level navigation at 250 feet at 500 kph or faster whilst aiming to find a precise target within 15 seconds after 80 minutes flying time.
Accuracy standards are very high for good reason. For instance, bombs need to be dropped precisely on time and on target or there could be friendly personnel still in the area. Flying too high at low level could lead to detection by radar and being shot down.
Flying too low at high-speed means the aircraft could hit the ground in a moment of distraction. Sustained errors outside of ADF flying accuracy standards can show a lack of mental capacity, fixation and limitations in potential – all recipes for potential disaster. Most military missions are debriefed utilizing on board recording devices to enhance the overall learning from the mission. Nobody can’t hide!
Further, there may be an opportunity in civilian flying to develop habit patterns not necessarily beneficial to ADF aviation. For instance, numerous ADF aircraft require that the checklist be recalled flawlessly from memory alone, especially emergency procedures.
The military paper checklist is simply a backup if required. Pilot’s course students must strive to operate independently utilizing memorized procedures without errors often under time constraints whilst operating flight controls. In this case, it may be easier to teach an aviation novice new habits from the beginning rather than convert or unlearn some habit patterns attained by a high time civilian pilots who undergo pilot’s course. Having said this, many high time civilian pilots do quite well especially early on in the conversion phase, due simply to their exposure to the airborne environment, but this slight advantage often fades quickly.
“It is recommended to conduct a small amount of civilian flying before joining the military. Anywhere between 3 flights and a PPL (Private) is probably ideal. This will be beneficial to have at least experienced the airborne environment. A basic knowledge of what a circuit consists of (i.e. crosswind, downwind, base and final for instance), what is a yoke (or control column) and what happens to the aircraft when the yoke is pushed forward, or turn it to the left? What is a rudder, an aileron or a stall? What is required to operate the radio? Candidates will learn an amazing amount just going for a fly plus it provides evidence at Recruiting that there is a genuine interest in aviation if you have payed for some!”