Once you receive a commissioning into aviation, your first stop is Pensacola, Florida.
One of the neat things about Naval Aviation is that every last one of us has been through flight school in Pensacola. We all have similar stories about Pensacola Beach, having an Irish Wake at McGuire’s, or the mullet toss at the Flora-Bama.
When you first arrive in Pensacola, you’re in a gigantic pool of your fellow ensigns, waiting to “class up”, which means that you’re waiting for your class to start. The term “class” is used the same way as “Class of 2005” – it’s the group of aviators who start the flight school process together and should graduate at a fixed point in time together.
I had to wait 7 months before my aviation preflight indoctrination (API) class started. While I waited, I was paid per my rank, and did very minimal work. Usually the “free time” between arriving in Pensacola and classing up is very short and it is one last opportunity to enjoy a carefree beach lifestyle, but unfortunately for me, Hurricane Ivan wrecked Pensacola shortly after I arrived (hence the 7 month wait). It still didn’t stop us from having fun, but it did put a damper on what could have been an epic 7 months of partying.
Once API did start, the real stress began. API consists of basic aeronautical related classes and exams including weather, aircraft engines, aerodynamics, and navigation.
One of the many problems with the military is that you’re always at the whim of the service, and what happens doesn’t always make sense. When I arrived in 2004, there was a surplus of student pilots. I’m not sure how they allow such a thing to happen, but, as a result, they needed to get rid of some of us. In order to get rid of us, the Navy increased the minimum passing grade continuously throughout API. So, the passing grade to start the program was significantly lower then the minimum passing grade at the end of the program. Lots of students flunked out quickly. As a result, students that passed in previous classes would have failed out of my class, and candidates who failed out of my class would have passed in previous classes.
I prepared more thoroughly for those exams than I had for any others in my life, and true to form, my grades were mediocre compared to my peers. In years past, an 80% was all you needed to pass those exams. The curve when I went through was set so that you needed an average of a 94% on all the exams. I made it with a 95%. The problem with these Navy tests is that you can put a correct answer on some questions, but it may not be the most correct answer, or you can answer from some previous knowledge you received as an engineering major (not an issue for me), but while you are most likely correct in terms of pure science, the Navy is more correct because they grade your test.
Another aspect of API is “swim phys”. We practiced basic water survival, which included putting on all the flight gear, acclimating to moving in water while wearing said flight gear, and treading unaided for 2 minutes while being weighed down by the saturated flight gear. We had to jump off a 15-foot high dive, then swim some distance underwater without coming up for air. There was a mile long swim that needed to be completed in an hour (57 minutes baby!). There was also the dreaded helo dunker. The dunker is a gigantic contraption that you strap into as if you were riding in a helicopter. They raise it a couple feet above the water, and then drop it. It quickly fills with water, and then flips upside down. Your goal is to not get disorientated while trying to escape completely submerged and upside down. You do it three times, one of which while wearing a blindfolded. If you’re wondering, it’s as awful as it sounds.
If all goes to plan, you’ve now passed API, and you can finally select where you want to go to “Primary”, the next step in the aviation program and the first time you finally learn how to fly.