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Summer Training Program Helps Mids Experience Rigors of Navy Flight School

Posted on: June 19, 2014 08:00 EDT by Jessica Clark

A new program is helping Naval Academy midshipmen experience some of the rigors of flight school before they decide on their service community.

Designed by Capt. Ken Ham, retired astronaut and chair of the Naval Academy Aerospace Engineering Department, the goal of the program is to help with flight school attrition.

The main reason officers fail out of flight school is because they voluntarily quit, said Ham. He found that most of those officers felt that they had no idea what they were getting into when they chose flight school.

The flight training course was started last summer to fix that.

“This program is a chance to show them the high stress and pressure and what kinds of skills you need to get through flight school,” said Ham. “It’s not just hand-eye coordination and being able to fly a plane. It’s being able to understand systems, understand procedures, be able to spit them out while you’re flying and have someone breathing down your neck making sure you can do all this.”

Last year, 150 midshipmen participated. This year, that number has doubled. The instructors include military pilots stationed at the Naval Academy and civilian instructors at Easton Airport. Two instructors are midshipmen – Midshipman 1st Class Joe Esposito and Midshipman 2nd Class Ruben Hays – who had acquired their instructor qualifications on their own time.

Each block of training lasts four weeks. The mids start with ground school, learning FAA regulations and basic flight concepts. They learn more flight principles and the different instruments while sitting in the cockpit still on the ground before they begin flying.

They then move into flying with a certified flight instructor in the co-pilot’s seat. They practice coordinated turns, stalls, landing and take-offs, and learn emergency procedures and radio communications.

If they make it through nine accompanied flights and pass a major test, they get to do a tenth solo flight, demonstrating landings and take-offs, staying in pattern, turns, and stalls.

“It’s been stressful, but a lot of fun – a lot of ups and downs and challenges,” said Midshipman 1st Class John Finch, of San Francisco, Calif.

There’s a lot of information the mids have to study and memorize, and their work doesn’t stop when they leave the hangar at sunset.

“We have to study a lot every night. It’s kind of like schoolwork but more fun because we get to fly,” said Midshipman 1st Class Christine Wilson, of Charleston, S.C. “The hardest thing so far is learning what to do on paper and then actually applying it. Sometimes there can be a disconnect there because we don’t have a lot of experience.”

Success for the instructors isn’t just about keeping pilots in flight school. It’s about keeping officers in the Navy. When an ensign fails out of flight school, they can be reassigned to a different community to continue their naval career. But with fleet drawdowns, it’s equally likely they will be released from the military. Ham wants to keep that from happening.

“We’ve had mids say ‘You know, this is not for me,’ and that’s great,” said Ham. “Go be a great submariner, great Marine, great surface warfare officer.”

So far both Wilson and Finch still want to be pilots, and they recommend the program to other midshipmen who are interested in aviation.

“This is a great way to get a feel for it,” said Wilson.

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