Fighter Pilot - Jeff

" ...you hit the deck hard. Feeling like a small car crash, you stop suddenly and everything jolts forward...there are planes right next to you, a ton of noise, and people running around the deck.."

Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do?

My name is Jeff, and I am from Fairfax, VA. I attended UNC - Chapel Hill, where I was a business major and member of Navy ROTC. I am currently stationed in Lemoore, CA, flying the F-18 Super Hornet in the United States Navy.

What is your mission as an F-18 pilot?

The F-18 is a multi-mission fighter and attack aircraft for the Navy. It is the primary force projecting aerial platform, and we are capable of air-to-air, as well as air-to-ground missions. This includes striking a ground target with guided bombs, reconnaissance, fighter escort, day and night strike missions, setting up no-fly zones, and carrier defense. We have the advantage of operating from the aircraft carrier; therefore, we can position ourselves off of the coast of just about any country and can be available for whenever the U.S. Government needs us.

What does your typical day look like?

I am currently preparing for a deployment and fly about every day. The flight schedule is written only one day prior, so I find out the day before when I need to be into work. I spend a lot of time preparing for each flight - mission planning, researching, and brushing up on recommended tactics. We brief, reviewing and discussing what will happen during the flight, about 2 hours prior to the flight. I then walk to the jet, start it up, and fly the flight. Most of my scheduled events are short flights, about 1 to 1.5 hours in length. When I land, I grab a quick bite to eat and get ready to debrief. The debrief can last for 1 to 5 hours. It usually takes around 8 hours for the brief, flight, and debrief. My whole workday revolves around 1 flight and includes hours of preparation and analysis.

Now that I am in the fleet, I have a ground job as well. I am the legal officer, and I work with anyone in the squadron who needs legal advice. Although I am by no means a lawyer, I am given the responsibility of directing and assisting personnel to the right people. This includes  guiding someone in creating a will or power of attorney or assisting someone who is having trouble with a lease. Unfortunately, I am also the point of contact for writing up all paperwork for disciplinary actions as well.

Officers have different collateral duties such as writing the schedule, mission planning, and being in charge of the software. Some stand as safety officers while others have whole divisions and are in charge of enlisted personnel. As an officer, I have a flying job and a ground job. Throughout the entire flight training pipeline, these collateral duties were at a minimum as we were focusing on flying. This is an additional role and a responsibility that comes with being in a squadron that is deployable.

Tell us more about flight training in the Navy.

After commissioning into the Navy and graduating from UNC - Chapel Hill, I moved to Pensacola, FL, for Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API). This is where all Naval Aviators begin training and where we focus on academics - aerodynamics, weather, engines and systems, navigation, and flight rules and regulations. I spent the majority of my time in the classroom studying and taking exams. Some of that time was dedicated to land and water survival training.

I was then stationed north of Pensacola, in Milton, FL, for Primary Flight Training. There, I trained in the T-6, Texan and covered the basics of flying: learning how to land and take off safely, basic flight maneuvers, how to get from one place to another, how to talk on the radios, etc. Upon completion of Primary Flight Training, I selected for the type of aircraft that I would fly in the fleet. The platforms included jets, props, and helicopters. I selected jets and the tailhook community, which includes 4 fixed-wing aircraft that land on the aircraft carrier: the F-18 Super Hornet, EA-18 Growler, E-2 Hawkeye, and C-2 Greyhound.

I was then stationed in Meridian, MS, for about a year for both intermediate and advanced flight training. There, I learned how to fly formations in the T-45 trainer jet and completed more advanced instrument procedures, introduction to bombing, and introduction to air-to-air combat. The training culminates with landing on the aircraft carrier (the Navy’s bread and butter). I landed my first 10 traps on an aircraft carrier in September 2014. I received my wings, signifying that I was no longer a student pilot, and my 8-year military commitment began. I selected F-18 Super Hornet and then moved to Virginia Beach, VA.

I was stationed at NAS Oceana for about a year in the Fleet Replacement Squadron(FRS) and started flying the F-18. I learned everything about the F-18, from the radar system to bombing to air-to-air capabilities. This phase of training culminated with landing the F-18 on the aircraft carrier. After about 3 years of flight training, I am now in the Fighter Strike Squadron in Lemoore, CA, doing the missions that I am trained to do.

What aspects of your job do you like/dislike?

I absolutely love flying. I have an incredible perspective of the world at or above 20,ooo feet. I am currently training on the west coast and the California coastline is especially beautiful to witness. I also love that this job is challenging. It is never stagnant and I can always improve. I never feel like I have it all down and under control, and I like the challenge of having room to improve, continuing to learn new things, and working towards the next level.

A few aspects that make a military career difficult are the constant travel/moving and inability to make plans. I do enjoy traveling and seeing new places, but it is difficult to have a schedule and routine. For instance, preparing for deployment involves multiple work ups where we train and fly in a different location for weeks at a time, return home, and leave again for a new location. Typically, the flight schedule is written a day in advance. You have to be able to remain flexible and know that you can’t make big plans months, or sometimes just weeks ahead.

What is it like to land on an aircraft carrier?

It is the coolest thing that I have ever done. We train a ton in the simulator and on the airfield to practice prior to landing on the carrier. When we finally get to the point where we are about to land on the carrier it feels somewhat natural because of all the preparation. The first time, I flew over the ocean, scanning the water to find the aircraft carrier, it struck me just how small the boat was. I knew that I had to land on it, and as I flew towards it, I did everything that I was trained to do.

When you land on an aircraft carrier, you hit the deck hard. Feeling like a small car crash, you stop suddenly and everything jolts forward. Typically, when we land on a runway, there is no one around the aircraft, and you taxi about half a mile before you see people. On the carrier deck, there are people everywhere. You look around and there are planes right next to you, a ton of noise, and people running around the deck doing their jobs. But that’s only half of it. Taking off from the aircraft carrier is epic. Being catapulted off the deck is like the fastest roller coaster you can imagine. You go 0-130 miles an hour in 3 seconds and fly off the end. The G forces are incredible.

When did you know this is what you wanted to do? /Why did you want to pursue this career?

My grandfather was in the Navy and if I was going to join the military, I was going to join the Navy. While I was in ROTC, thinking about what I wanted to do within the Navy, flying was the only choice that came to mind. It seemed the most adventurous and fun. I knew I wanted to be a pilot, although I did not know what I wanted to fly.

I got the opportunity to ride in an F-18 as a senior in ROTC at UNC - Chapel Hill. Flying and hanging out with pilots in an F-18 squadron, who all had the best things to say about the aircraft, was significant in my decision making. It fit my personality and although there was not an exact moment that I knew, that experience started it all. By the time I had to make the decision after primary flight training, I remembered that advice from others and considered my own desires. It was ultimately up to the Navy, but I am so glad I put jets as my first choice because it has been a blast.

What is the biggest misconception people have about what you do?

The biggest misconception most people have is that all we do is fly, hang out when we aren’t flying, and hit the bars afterward. Most people don’t realize how much work it takes. Every flight costs the taxpayers a large sum, so we take advantage of each flight we fly with the brief and debrief. There is a ton of work and constant studying and preparation that goes on on the ground in between flights.

What is the work/family/life balance like?

As a single guy, I am pretty flexible and don’t have too many demands. It does depend on the individual, however. I know some people struggle, given the amount of work that is required and all the time spent away from home. It can take a toll on the family. I know it is doable and a lot of people that I admire the most have been successful at balancing the two. Usually these people are very flexible. It takes a lot from the spouse to be flexible as well. Most people like to plan something a week or month out, but it is always subject to change. Although I don’t have any personal experience yet, I know a lot of military personnel who have been successful at having marriages and raising children. A lot of Facetime and talking over the phone is required to keep up any relationship.

how did you become an officer in the Navy? 

Personally, I think joining ROTC is the best avenue for becoming an officer. Most Naval Academy graduates may disagree, but I loved UNC-Chapel Hill and having the opportunity for a normal college life. I loved the freedom of traveling on the weekends and hanging out with friends whenever I wanted. I joined ROTC my freshman year and signed papers to accept my scholarship second semester. Navy ROTC adds structure and discipline, and you are held to a higher standard. If the Navy is paying for your tuition, you need good grades. You are held accountable and some people could use some of that through college.

If you are in a position where you only want to fly in the Navy, it may not be the best option because there is a risk that you could end up on a sub or ship. With a scholarship, I was not guaranteed a pilot spot. There is some security if you pay for college on your own with ROTC, because you are not committed to serve and can chose to join with an aviation contract if available. A Navy ROTC scholarship is a great deal, and you can still attend an awesome school. Another option is to apply to Officer Candidate School (OCS) after graduation, as you will be guaranteed a pilot slot before attending.

WHAT WOULD YOU TELL SOMEONE WHO WANTED TO PURSUE YOUR CAREER?

I would say that you have to be prepared to work really hard. No matter what you want to fly in the Navy, the best thing you can do is to do the best you can. There is a lot of chance and timing involved in selection. There are times where another student may have had higher scores, but because he/she selected at a different time, there weren’t spots available. You can’t control the Navy’s needs at the time, but only how you perform. There is a minimum grade for jets early on and a standard to meet, but later you just need to work hard, study often, sleep well, and put in a solid effort.  I have loved every minute. I think it a fantastic career path for those who want to work hard.