U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Ask most pilots how they feel about landing an aircraft with no engine, and you might get some dirty looks, but cadet instructor pilots in the Air Force Academy’s soaring airmanship program take it in stride.
Experienced cadets make decisions every day about ensuring student pilots’ safety, meeting training requirements and generating sorties, which can number more than 30,000 per year, said Lt. Col. Jack Julson, commander of the 94th Flying Training Squadron, which supports soaring operations here.
“I find it incredible how much the soaring instructor pilots develop over their three years with us not only as teachers but especially as leaders,” Julson said. “They are challenged with making the tough choices about a $160,000 aircraft or whether to solo a student.”
Seniors fill cadet leadership roles within the squadron, which closely mirrors the structure of operational Air Force flying squadrons, Julson said. They lead roughly 140 fellow cadet instructor pilots and more than 100 students supervised and monitored by veteran Air Force aviators.
Instructor pilots’ roles are not only to teach student pilots but also to serve as role models, said Cadet 1st Class Drew Burns, captain of the Academy’s Sailplane Racing Team.
“Our commander’s guidance is to be credible, approachable and humble,” Burns said. “We have to know the rules and be that calm, cool, collected person in the cockpit with them. We’re there to improve their flying ability and hone their decision-making skills.”
The squadron’s operational structure prepares cadets for their Air Force careers, Burns said.
“Having a training officer, a standardization and evaluation officer — these things are incredibly applicable,” Burns said.
Cadets who demonstrate talent in the soaring airmanship program can participate in advanced soaring, which includes the Sailplane Racing Team and the Aerobatics Team, said Cadet 2nd Class Joshua Wilson, who’s on the Aerobatics Team.
“It’s a great bonding experience, to go out and compete,” said Wilson, who will join his teammates this weekend in Dennison, Texas. “We want to exemplify the Air Force core value of Excellence in All We Do: We want to go out there and say, ‘This is what we do, and we’re really darn good at it.’”
The teams’ past performances demonstrate their talent and dedication. The Academy took second and third place in an aerobatic competition here in April; engineer and longtime soaring pilot Dr. Klein Gilhousen took first. Meanwhile, the Sailplane Racing Team has logged more than 21,000 miles so far in 2013, on a pace to eclipse the 30,000-mile record it set in 2012.
“The last two years have been the best in Air Force Academy history for the soaring program,” Burns said. “We’re among the top 12 percent in the world with just 10 cadets and five gliders.”
Wilson said the airmanship experience has been a positive one.
“Participating in the airmanship program is the best thing that you can do as a cadet,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who comes down here to the airfield and regrets it.”