The long-awaited day has arrived. After three years of difficult training, countless efforts and a stubborn strive toward their goal, the cadets of IAF’s Pilot Training Course have reached the ultimate flight.
Nina Mindrol | Translation: Loren Mashiah
It is nine o’clock on a Monday morning. I’m making my way to the “progressing” squadron of the IAF’s Pilot Training Course, ready to escort the cadets to the final stage of their course: the concluding flight at the “Hatzerim” airbase during the cold month of December, accompanied by clouds, humidity and heavy fog.
Going into the Formation I can hear the frustrated voices of the irritated cadets who are trying to shed some humoristic light over the uncertain situation, aspiring for an immediate change of the weather.
They are sitting together in a small corner the Formation, ready for takeoff, some even wearing their ‘G’ suit, waiting for some sort of change which could allow them to complete the exam. “The aerial fighters have been defeated by the fog”, they say with sarcastic humor.
I Can Handle Anything
“Today’s brief was very much like any other brief we go through, though this time we have extra anecdotes to emphasize the fact that this will be their final flight”, explains First Lieutenant T’. “All has been explained: how to deal with weather, where the proper aviation areas are, the final flight destinations and we also gave them a few highlights that we have to pay extra attention to”. The final flight summons up all subjects covered during the “progressing” stage, aiming toward giving commanders the chance to observe the next generation of Israeli pilots.
The cadets have informed me that the exam actually begins on the ground. While flying, they’ll face several aerial combat, some of which may be unpredictable, meaning that the cadet will only become aware of the confrontation while flying and not before then.
“During the brief, the cadet can choose the predictable aerial battle he wants to tackle. They are not sent up to the sky and are told to cope with whatever comes. The beginning of their flight has already been planned. It’s up to them to make a decision for when to start and how to start the fight. Once you think about it, there aren’t many operational options for which there is a right way or a wrong way to perform”, says First Lieutenant T’.
First Lieutenant N’, also a cadet, adds that it is crucial to show the examiner that you know what you’re doing, that you can handle and deal with anything that comes your way.
Combat & Complications
The primary data of the unpredictable battles is coordinated between the examiner and the guide sitting with the cadet in the leading airplane.
“While we’re in the air, the guide and the examiner get the airplane in a certain position and say ‘go ahead’. You have the responsibility to prove your abilities, first recognize the position you were placed in and then continue on to actually executing the flight and everything you have learned over the years. If you start off by choosing the right option, it is bound to get easier because you will know how to operate in each battle”.
The final flights, as I’m told, aren’t as crucial as I thought: “The unique thing about this particular flight is that it combines everything we have learned at the ‘progressive’ stage. Also, this isn’t an instructional flight. Here you have to show what your abilities are and what your level is. Whoever flies with you is a very senior pilot and it only takes one flight to leave an impression on him. But you don’t get kicked out of the course because of a lackluster performance in the final flight”, says First Lieutenant D’.
“The final flight is a chance to prove your worth and may be even the first time you face an operational flight since you’re under so much pressure and you want to do your best on a specific flight on a particular day”, clarifies Major P’, Commander of the “Progressive” squadron. “The requirement is to show the level you can be categorized in and even more so. It is the challenge of the flight which is also the beautiful and tough thing about it. Sometimes we have cadets we haven’t exactly figured out. That is when another opinion from someone outside of the airbase with years of experience who doesn’t know the cadets and has no prejudices comes in handy”.
It is not only contribution of opinions of the commanders and guides which help those responsible make up their minds about the cadets, but it is very helpful for the cadets themselves because they can see how to deal with tough situations and the Force’s seniors can see the level of the IAF’s future pilots.
Clean, Beautiful and flowing flight
The examiners who arrived today are the Head of the Headquarters, Head of the Aerial Squadrons, Head of the Aerial Intelligence Directorate, Commander of Aviation Academy, Lieutenant G’, Commander of the “Flying Tiger” Squadron, Colonel Nir the previous Commander of the Aviation Academy and many others.
Lieutenant Colonel Dan, Commander of “Hatzor” Airbase and a veteran F-16 pilot: “Usually I really enjoy the final flights. It’s very nice to see a cadet on his last day of flights. I remember myself at the same situation which is full of emotions, that’s why I really try to make the flight as comfortable as I can so that the cadet doesn’t feel like he is in a fate-deciding final exam”.
After hearing about what examiners look for at a final flight, I went back. “I’m going to treat this flight just like I do any flight, that way my nerves won’t be shaky”, says First Lieutenant S’, “The outer impression is important too, meaning how you manage the flight, the updates you get during the flight and how independent you are. It’s hard for me to imagine that they give much attention to the droppings”.
“Take it very seriously”
“The people here are so nervous. They already had their G suits since the morning. The weather is the only thing keeping them from rushing to the cockpit”, giggles First Lieutenant M’ while staring at first Lieutenant Y’ and I notice that he is wearing his G suit.
First Lieutenant D’ says that he is afraid of the emergency situations that the examiner might tackle him with, yet First Lieutenant N’ surprises me: “The bottom line is that there isn’t anything specific that’s making me nervous, the whole flight is nerve wracking. I have to take it very seriously because I would like everything to go according to my plan. For example, I have gone through many aerial combats but once I’m up there, the whole flight hangs on a really small mistake or a really good idea and it’s very scary. A wrong identification or action in a certain situation can be a big disadvantage”.
Lieutenant Colonel D’, an aviation instructor in the Formation: “They will be very good pilots. I was a commander here 18 years ago and there is no doubt that the skill of the cadets here has reached new levels. The instruction level, the airplanes and the investigative abilities have miraculously changed and when you look back you cannot help but notice the transformation”.
It’s been only the beginning
At the end of the conversation I notice First Lieutenant T’, who participated at the first flyover. He doesn’t exactly seem happy and I decide to find out why.
“I made many mistakes on this flight that I never made before. It wasn’t catastrophic, it was okay, but I aimed for more than okay. Now, I’m just glad that it’s over, but I know I would have been really happy if it had been an amazing flight. I wanted to get off the plane with that ‘spark’ in my eyes, but I’ll get over it. There will be other opportunities”.
On the other hand, First Lieutenant M’ has a big smile across his face. “It was amazing, really, so much fun”, he says excitedly, “I managed to drop during the aerial combat, took a picture and continued into a slow landing toward home base. It was awesome. The examiner also had good feedback and that adds to my joy. I’m now done with ‘progressive’ and it feels so good”.
The weather cleared out, flyovers occurred as planned and one by one the cadets completed their last flights of the Pilot Training Course.
Two weeks later, they all stand at their graduation ceremony, getting their coveted “Pilot Wings”. Soon, they will begin a new course, each where he was assigned to. Lieutenant Colonel G’ concluded: “That was only the beginning, now they are starting their journey”.