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Letter to My Former Self

Posted on: April 11, 2014 08:00 EDT by ENS Charlie Hetzel,

First, congratulations to all of you who have selected Navy or Marine Corps Aviation from the class of 2014.  I hope this brief note may be of some service to you as you embark on your long but rewarding path to wings of gold.  To those who are awaiting their turn to put on the sorting hat that is Naval Academy Service Assignment, I hope if nothing else you may take something away from seeing the world of Navy Air from a student’s perspective.  

My name is ENS Charlie Hetzel, Class of 2012.  During my time at the Naval Academy, I was in the 23rd Company, a Chinese Political Science major, and a member of the swim team.  My interest in Navy Air came later in my time at the Academy than most, but is a decision I will never regret.  After graduation I did a TAD teaching the Class of 2016 Plebe Summer Sailing before moving to Pensacola to start flight school in September of 2012.  After a short wait, I completed API in January, and moved to Corpus Christi, TX for Primary flight training with the Rangers of VT-28.  In October 2013, upon completion of the Primary syllabus, I reported to VT-22, the Golden Eagles, for Jet Intermediate/Advanced in Kingsville, TX.  In the almost two years since our Commissioning, my classmates and I, and all Student Naval Aviators, have learned a number of lessons about the community, about being a young adult set free from the shackles of Bancroft, and about life as a JO.  I hope you all can learn from these lessons in the hopes that they will help you to make informed decisions for your life and career.

1.  Enjoy basket leave.  It’s one of only a few times that the Navy will let you literally take your money and run.  Paid, uncharged leave is not something to be wasted.  Come back prepared to do your job as either a TAD or as a student in API, but don’t worry excessively about studying or trying to fork over a thousand dollars for civilian flight time.  Unless you have 500+ hours or are an instructor pilot, noone will notice.  (If you do have either of these, be prepared to relearn the Navy and Marine Corps way).  Enjoy the time off and come back refreshed and ready to go.

2.  Location, Location, Location.  Choosing a place to live in Pensacola is exciting.  Its your first time living on your own with friends, and everyone is looking to find that perfect spot.  When I moved down, we thought we’d hit the jackpot.  A furnished six bedroom beach house on Perdido Key seemed perfect.  Well, it depends.  Sure, living on the beach is great, but you’ll pay considerably more, and the drive to the Schoolhouse each day is over 20 minutes.  That being said, it is the beach.  The three general locations to live are Perdido Key (beaches, some restaurants, Flora Bama), just outside the back gate (cheap but nice homes, short drive, halfway between downtown and Perdido), and downtown (lots of restaurants/bars, further from beach, ten minutes from the front gate).  If possible have someone look at the house you want to rent before you sign a lease. Happy hunting.

3.  Do something new in A-pool.  A-pool is where you will sit for anywhere from a few days to three months waiting to class up for API.  Don’t waste it.   It’s the second (and last) time that the Navy is basically paying you to do nothing.  Try something new, like fishing, or golf.  Get a boating license, or a kayak.  Write a book, I don’t know, just do something other than watch every episode of How I Met Your Mother for a third time - that’s what Youngster year was for.  

4.  Never be ‘that guy.’  There are two ways to do this: the career ending way, and the embarrassing way.  It happens every year.  The first normally involves alcohol, late hours of the night, automobiles, or endangered birds and a shotgun.  Be smart and don’t do something you’ll regret.  In Annapolis, Mids are the norm and the town knows what to expect.  There’s a sort of unwritten understanding between the town and the school.  Not so anywhere else. If you act like a fool, no one is going to care that you’re in flight school, so watch out for each other.  

The second type usually involves a student who thinks they’re the second reincarnation of Maverick taking ridiculous selfies next to a plane they don’t know how to fly, or posting a horrifyingly embarrassing video to the internet showing off their sweet new API issued flight gear.  Sure it’s a cool job, but let’s wait until we actually do it to act like pros. People don’t forget.  Your reputation really does start right away, and it’s never too early to earn a call sign.

5.  Choose roomates wisely.  Everyone wants to live with their best friends, of course, but be careful if you think it will keep you from getting work done.  At least buy a good desk and some noise cancelling headphones if you think it might get rowdy.  That being said, don’t live alone!  Living with roommates saves lots of money, and allows the growing pains of learning to pay bills, shopping for groceries (harder than it might seem), and taking care of a home or apartment to be shared among multiple people.  It’s also way more fun and extremely helpful, especially if you can live with the same people across multiple moves.

6.  Realize that flight school does not live up to it’s reputation.  For some reason, everyone at the Naval Academy talks about how much fun flight school is, and how it’s just a year of beach volleyball, parties, and some high flying on the side.  False.  That’s A-pool, minus the flying.  For some reason, everyone forgets about the rest, or at least stops telling midshipman about it.  Probably because they have their heads buried in a book, or twelve.  API is tough, but nothing to be scared of.  In Primary you’re consistently flying, so it gets infinitely better, but ten times harder.  Be ready to be issued a plebe year amount of books and to be expected to have a large amount of information memorized very quickly.  Parts of Primary involve hours that rival exam week for weeks at a time.  Advanced gets even tougher, and from what I hear, the FRS takes the cake.  That’s not to say it’s not an absolute blast as well, just realize that there are two sides to the puzzle.  Be prepared for years of hard work and some long hours in the books, but know that it can all be extremely rewarding.

7.  Don’t let anyone influence your platform selection directly.  Before you know it, it will be time for you to put down your preferences for what you want to spend your time in the Navy flying.  Along the way, you’ll hear countless instructors sing the praises of their communities or possibly even badmouth others.  Listen to what they have to say, but realize that there exists a strong bias.  At the end of the day if you’ve put in the work to get the grades, it’s your decision.  You have to look at all the options and their consequences.  Be sure to look not only at the day to day missions of various communities, but also their long term career paths, locations, graduate opportunities, and ready room environments when making your decision. Be honest when an IP asks what you want to select, don’t shy away from telling them you want something other than their community, because they may be able to apply the training towards your preferred platform. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with being undecided.  When all is said and done, there are no bad choices in Navy and Marine Corps Aviation.

8.  Sharing is caring.  No one gets through flight school alone.  You learn as much from your peers going through with you as from the instructors and from your own mistakes.  If you do something wrong, share the lesson with your friends so they can avoid the same traps you fell into.  Talk amongst each other in the ready room.  Instructors become fairly predictable.  An IP who gives you a particular emergency is likely to have given that same emergency to countless other students.  Ask around about instructors, find out their techniques, what type of questions they emphasize, etc.  In our house in Kingsville now, almost nightly we end up sitting around our kitchen table talking about our various sims and flights and sharing our mistakes and the lessons learned, and its possibly the most valuable 30 minutes of learning and instruction I get every single day.  


9.  Don’t isolate yourself from ROTC/OCS students.  Going into flight school from the Naval Academy has certain advantages.  You will have a pre-established group of close friends and hundreds of more acquaintances that will make adjusting to flight school much easier. Your ROTC and OCS peers will not have that luxury. At most they will know a few people from their school or OCS class, so be sure to try to involve them in your study groups and social activities.  Not only will you make some great friends, but the different perspectives they bring to the table can make a huge difference both in study groups and social settings.  That, and no one wants to perpetuate the ring knocker stereotypes.

10.  Don’t get ahead of yourself.  Flight school is long.  I didn’t realize how long when I started.  For me personally it will be two years from checking into A-pool to getting winged (knock on wood), give or take a month.  Take it day by day.  A few bad flights didn’t ruin anyones Naval career, as long as you end up safely back on the runway with three down and locked.  If you stumble, ask for help and practice as much as possible.  Sim time is invaluable.  Don’t forget your eventual goal, but realize the process is more important than the final result.  Lastly, enjoy every day.  You are about to start what can seriously be considered one of the greatest jobs in the world.  You’ll meet great people, fly great aircraft, and have a blast doing it.  

FLY NAVY

ENS Charlie Hetzel

P.S.  Don’t lose money on moves!  Always fill out the proper forms and go to personal property BEFORE you pack up so you can weigh your car.  Also, save your home of record move.  People make the mistake of using a home of record move to move a few thousand or even hundred dollars of furniture as an Ensign instead of saving that one time deal for later in life when it is much more needed.

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