International military student officers help build worldwide partnerships

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jake Jacobsen
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

Airmen at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, don’t just create the next generation of aviators for the world’s greatest Air Force; Columbus Airmen also help bolster international relationships by training partner nation pilots.

The journey of an international student in U.S. pilot training can be challenging whether it be language barriers, different perspectives or comprehension. The international military student officer provides support and assistance to these students during training.

Capt. Christy Martin, from the 14th Student Squadron, is the primary IMSO at Columbus AFB and Maj. Dave Cote, 41st Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot is the secondary IMSO. Together, they take on the administrative hurdles and help ease the workload of the international students who are in pilot training here.

IMSOs handle student documents such as renewing passports and visas, updating orders, living allowance payments processed for each officer and all other administrative duties.

At Columbus AFB, currently, there are 63 international students from 23 countries going through pilot training. First Lt. Sanni Kafayat, a student pilot from Nigeria, completed pilot training here July 25.

Kafayat has been flying the T-6 Texan II and wants to fly fighter aircraft when she returns to Nigeria. She was chosen by her officials to train in the U.S. and she is one of five women pilots in Nigeria, and the only fighter pilot among them.

“Nigeria only has a few selected students who come to the U.S. each year,” Kafayat, said. “I was extremely excited when I heard that I was chosen. This is a very rare opportunity that I did not want to miss.”

She said during her time at Columbus AFB, Martin was a huge help. When Kafayat first arrived, Martin introduced her to the instructor pilots and flight commander as well as bridged communication gaps.

IMSOs also work closely with several organizations that track the student’s progression, to include the Air Force Security and Assistance Squadron, located at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, and the international country managers. IMSOs monitor student training progress and address any concerns or administrative challenges during the student’s time in pilot training.

“Our International students often do not arrive at Columbus with a U.S. driver’s license or have established proof of residency to show the local (Department of Motor Vehicles) that they are going to be in the U.S. for a lengthy stay,” Cote said. “Things we take for granted as permanent residents can be a challenge and often take a bit more time to accomplish for our international students.”

According to both IMSOs, another major aspect of focus during a student’s time in the U.S. is to promote cultural and informational exchanges to develop mutual cooperation and understanding between the U.S. Air Force and participating nations’ air forces. 

As part of the field studies program, Martin and about 15 students, visit Washington, D.C., to see the U.S. Capitol Building and the U.S. Supreme Court. According to Cote, this gives students “a chance to see the U.S. wheels of government in action at the national level and experience another aspect of American culture in our nation’s capital.”

Martin added that “a big part of the reason why we have an international program is to develop relationships with the countries participating.”

Another IMSO responsibility is to ensure the health and well-being of the international students.

“Being away from home for so long and it can put a strain on the students,” Martin said. “It’s our job to remind them that their pilot’s wings are within reach and soon they’ll be back home to show off their newly acquired skills learned during pilot training.”

Kafayat said that before training she thought that one of the biggest hurdles would be the physical aspect of training. She said that the training is actually more challenging mentally.

One of her biggest obstacles was the fear of failing which weighed her down for a long period of time, according to Kafayat. She was homesick but then realized how many people were there to help her. Kafayat said Martin and her flight commander helped push her along the way.

Ultimately, Kafayat said she learned what she came here to do, which is become a pilot, but she also learned how to deal with ups and downs, and matured as a person.

The mission at Columbus AFB is to create pilots, cultivate Airmen and connect. Connecting and creating relationships with international students builds stable friendships around the globe that will continue well into the future.

“As a military, we cannot be everywhere, all the time,” Cote said, “But, we can have relationships everywhere and all the time. The connections and relationships created today in flight rooms and through the rigors of pilot training will hopefully remain 15 or 20 years from now.”