Pilot Prep Program: 'Right Answer for the Air Force'
Civil Air Patrol’s experimental Pilot Prep Program is accomplishing just what its founder intended — providing U.S. Air Force airmen with a fast-paced introduction to aviation designed to identify future fliers in the ranks and propel them into the sky.
The new Air Force initiative to fill the need for military pilots was forged by Brig. Gen. Christopher M. Short, director of the Aircrew Crisis Task Force at the Pentagon. It’s one of many Total Force partnerships between the Air Force and its longtime auxiliary, CAP.
This month, CAP is hosting 52 Air Force officers from 38 bases around the world, 26 each week, as part of its largest training activity of the year — the National Emergency Services Academy, or NESA, at Camp Atterbury, a 30,000-acre Indiana National Guard facility in Edinburgh, Indiana, and Columbus Municipal Airport in Columbus, Indiana.
The plan for the Pilot Prep Program is to provide six to eight hours of actual flight from Columbus Municipal along with ground instruction and additional training time in flight simulators to make the participants competitive for the Air Force FY20 Undergraduate Flight Training Selection Board in September.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said 1st Lt. Sherry Meadows, a three-year Air Force officer stationed at Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy. “I’m learning a lot so far,” she said four days into her week of training.
Each Pilot Prep Program student was required to complete an online ground school before attending. While in Indiana, they received a minimum of 6½ hours of actual flight time and were mentored by Air Force-rated officers as well as CAP pilots.
“They are highly motivated, quickly comprehending the material and executing aviation concepts in flight,” said Air Force Capt. Brian Keith I. Quenga, the executive officer to Short. Quenga said he is impressed with the “high degree of motivation and positive mentorship to ensure the success of the program” offered by CAP’s certified flight instructor pilots.
In addition to the mentorship and the actual flight time, the students also raved about the onsite Redbird flight simulators that use artificial intelligence to provide feedback and allow the students to acquire additional time. The students also had the unique opportunity to fly virtual reality simulators provided by Flight Safety International – the same virtual reality simulators the Air Force uses to train its pilots.
The Pilot Prep Program is effectively giving Meadows and other airmen like her the chance “to experience the possibilities” while getting more flight time and the additional opportunity to retest for the UPT Selection Board.
“It definitely has been worthwhile,” said 1st Lt. Makenna Elliott, another three-year airman, who’s serving at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. “We're trying to raise our pilot certification selection score, hoping to improve it,” Meadows added.
Those who score high are eligible for more intense flight training and service. “This allows us to make a well-informed decision” before opting for the 10½-year obligation required to be a pilot in the Air Force, Elliott said.
The students’ instructor, former Air Force fighter pilot and current American Airlines pilot CAP Lt. Col. Ken Curell, is enjoying the experience, saying it has rekindled the passion he remembers from his earliest days of flight.
“When you see the passion personified, it's really invigorating,” Curell said.
One of 28 CAP instructor pilots with significant flying time either in the military or general aviation, Curell has over 20,000 hours of flight time counting his Air Force and CAP service as well as his time with American Airlines.
Commitment and passion are crucial to a pilot's success, he said, adding that Elliott and Meadows possessed those intangibles.
Curell, a mission pilot in CAP’s Ohio Wing, said the Pilot Prep Program is a good way to bring new Air Force pilots on board.
“It gives you an appreciation for the talent pool that is out there,” he said, calling the experimental program “the right answer for the Air Force.”
The program is being conducted at Columbus Municipal Airport alongside NESA’s Mission Aircrew School, one of three schools that combines task-based training with practical application. In addition to its Air Force students, over 500 CAP members will participate in NESA this year from every state.
Photos by Ron Olienyk, CAP National Headquarters