Guest Post: How to become a Naval Aviator – Advanced Training at Meridian

This is the 4th installment of my husband’s guest post series. My husband is a F-18 pilot in the United States Navy and these blog posts are his experience in becoming a Naval Aviator. Later posts will talk about his experience being a pilot in a squadron, what deployments aboard an aircraft carrier are like, and other related topics. He has been a qualified F-18 pilot since March 2007, and he has been a Naval Officer for 10 years.

Previous posts:
1. ROTC & getting selected for flight school.
2. API in Pensacola.
3. Primary flight training at Vance AFB.

Advanced Training at Meridian

Advanced training (or, as we call it, “Advanced”) is where students learn to incorporate tactics and advanced flying skills and techniques, which is much more complicated then the basic stick and rudder skills that we focused on in Primary. Advanced training is important because it is where we learn the skills that we need for the rest of our careers. After graduating from Primary in Enid, I was assigned to Advanced Training in Meridian, Mississippi.

I believe that my experience at Enid in Air Force Primary Training was really good for me because the Navy kicked my ass into “Navy” shape once I rejoined the Navy flight program in Meridian. Let me explain further: I was woefully unprepared when I first started T-45s in Meridian, and it took most of my time there to dig myself out of the my hole of unpreparedness. At first, I didn’t understand how much I was expected to do and learn on my own because the Air Force had spoon-fed me everything. Had I actually gone to Navy Primary training, I would’ve had a better idea of what was expected of me. The long and short of it is that I was miserable in Meridian. Each and every flight was like taking the worst final exam I ever had in college, except it was more stressful, and with more on the line. I was very stressed the entire year that I was in Meridian.

Before I get into the flying syllabus, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the flight simulators in Meridian. The flights were indeed at times miserable, but at least you were actually flying. The simulators were a different level of wretched. Part of training was spending a few hours every week in a simulator to practice new skills before I applied them in the air. The sim instructors at the time were mostly Vietnam Vets, all of whom had seen some combat and been shot at (pretty rare in today’s aviation community), and some of the sim instructors had spent several years in POW camps. These gentlemen are truly national heroes with an unmatched level of knowledge and experience. Having said all that, the old bastards sure knew how to yell at you if you screwed something up in the simulator. Much like Pensacola, there is a common bond among those of us who went through Meridian that spans decades: we’ve all had at least one sim go from bad to worse as we got screamed at for screwing up so horribly. Sadly, the newest generation of students has decided that being yelled at hurts their feelings, and the sim instructors are no longer allowed to make the training miserable. This is a shame because the stress felt in the sims was a legitimate part of flight training. You shouldn’t be able to fly unless you can perform at a high level under a lot of stress.

The Advanced syllabus is broken up into two parts: The first phase is basic and advanced instrument flying, visual familiarization flights, and formation flying. Even though I did reasonably well in Primary, I didn’t exactly kick ass at instrument flying with the Air Force; once I dove face first into the deep end of Navy training, the instrument flights severely kicked my ass. I eventually got my act together, figured it out, and started to succeed enough to survive for the rest of phase one.

After phase one, the powers that be decide if you’ll stay with the T-45 and eventually go to F-18s, or if you will change to prop planes and eventually fly the E-2/C-2. This is a recent change, because when I went through, we already knew we were staying in jets before we showed up.

Phase two was different from phase one — we started learning basic tactics of a strike fighter aircraft (the F-18): low level flying, tactical formation, bomb dropping, and dog fighting were all a lot of fun. Although I wasn’t a rock star in phase two, these types of flights didn’t kick my ass nearly as much as the flights in phase one.

We finished phase two with “the boat.” The boat involved flying your little T-45 to an aircraft carrier that is at sea and landing on the deck for the first time. We practiced landing on a normal runway hundreds of times before taking the T-45 to sea.

In my opinion, Navy aviation IS carrier aviation. This opinion may be what causes some bad blood between the helo and P-3 guys and the jet pilots, but it’s true. The ability to park an advanced fighter jet on a floating runway off the coast of any country is unreal, and the precision with which we accomplish that on a daily basis is eye watering. To me, success in flight school was the ability to qualify as a carrier pilot in the T-45, regardless of whatever else happened. The difficulty of this task is nearly impossible to describe. Many have written about landing on a floating postage stamp sized runway, and some say that every landing on a carrier is a controlled crash; all those people are correct.

The first time I “rolled” into the “groove” (the period of time that is 15 seconds from touching down on an aircraft carrier) and saw the microscopic place I had to put my jet, I experienced the “training taking over” that you hear about from soldiers and Marines in combat. I’m not comparing what I do to them, but I know my brain and limbs were purely on muscle memory for that first landing attempt because I was in such disbelief at what I was trying to do. All of us in the military train hard to create this kind of muscle memory and the ability to rely on the training; I experienced it the first time I landed on a carrier.

Like everything else I had done to this point, I didn’t make it easy on myself the first time I tried to land on the boat. Part of successfully landing on the carrier is actually stopping. Weird, I know. I had a hard time stopping on the first day of attempted landings. I was scared of getting too low and disqualifying for poor grades, and, as a result, I got too high and missed the arresting wires on the deck of the carrier (landing jets hook on to an arresting wire that helps stop the jet quickly). As it was, my grades were just fine, but there was a minimum boarding rate percentage that I was in danger of not achieving. Had I not met the boarding percentage, I would have been disqualified from flying jets, regardless of my grades.The ability to land safely on the carrier is one of the most challenging aspects of being a jet pilot, so it is paramount that we pass the landing qualification. An instructor told me that he had seen “students recover from worse, buuut…”. After that conversation, I got the message and the next day I stopped when I was supposed to. I finished up strong.

I have to say that the most exciting, thrilling, amazing, fantastic, {insert adjective} thing that I have ever experienced in my life was successfully completing carrier qualification in the T-45.

Since this is my wife’s blog, let me explain why comparing my happiness at our wedding and my happiness at successfully landing a jet on an aircraft carrier is comparing apples and oranges. The pure adrenaline of the cat shots and arrested landings on the carrier, coupled with how much I struggled my first day on the carrier, fed into an epic sense of relief and elation that tied back into all of flight school, API, and even back into college. I had finally *done it*, I had qualified to fly F-18s, and it was something I had wanted most of my life. It was an incredible relief and sense of accomplishment. I didn’t feel relief when I got married. I felt joy, love, and excitement for the future, but not relief. When I was told that I had qualified, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I had accomplished something that no one would ever take away from me. I imagine the feeling was similar to how a professional athlete feels at winning a championship in their sport. I don’t know if my peers felt the same way, or as strongly about it, but that was my experience.

After the boat, I had a few weeks of tactical flying to finish up, and by then, for the first time in nearly 2 years, I was finally confidant that I would earn my wings. My whole family and one of my best friends came out from California to my winging ceremony. Being able to finally call myself a Naval Aviator was an amazing experience. I learned and grew a lot during flight school. It wasn’t always fun or pretty, but I had finally fulfilled my dream of becoming a Naval Aviator.

Flying in a T-45
Flying in a T-45
The deck of an aircraft carrier with our T-45s
The deck of an aircraft carrier with our T-45s
"In the groove" on my way to land on the boat
“In the groove” on my way to land on the boat

4 comments

  1. My husband loved every minute of his flying time in Meridian. Having already known he was going C-2s after his time there, he savored every second of jet flying. On the other hand, I detested every moment we lived there. This northern girl did not get along with the southern way of life!

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