COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
As an Undergraduate Pilot Training student back in 2010, I got used to operating under a syllabus. Everyone gets the same number of sorties with somewhat scripted profiles, and there is adequate time and sorties to learn what is required.
I never dreamed that two years later, as a young wingman in the F-15E, I would walk into the squadron and be told due to budget cuts from sequestration the squadron would be grounded for the next six months.
Flying is a perishable skill and there is nothing a young pilot needs more than hours and experience. Like many squadrons at the time, we sat while our skills atrophied waiting for funds to fly. When we finally began flying again, the squadron was a full year behind in training and upgrades and was scheduled to deploy in seven months. While most squadrons typically accomplish an extensive deployment spin-up which focuses heavily on the mission type conducted down range, we scrambled just to have our entire squadron combat mission ready by the time we left.
In the months leading up to the deployment, the squadron had to get creative to ensure everyone would be prepared. Every sortie we flew was an upgrade for at least one person and every available pound of gas was meticulously planned to accomplish as much training as possible. Despite our inexperience and the rapid spin-up, we felt confident going down range knowing we had done as much as we possibly could to get ready.
The first half of our deployment was fairly uneventful as the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was in full swing. However, in late June 2014 when ISIS crossed the border of Syria into Iraq, the squadron was called upon to fight an enemy we had not prepared for and knew very little about. Keeping track of hourly changes and rules of engagement, the squadron participated in missions to support operation Inherent Resolve.
We deployed as a squadron expecting to do close air support over Afghanistan, but ended up conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, pre-planned strikes, and dynamic targeting over a completely separate area.
Prior to sequestration my attitude toward flying had become somewhat routine. While I always worked hard and tried to get better, I looked at flying as something guaranteed. That changed drastically after being grounded.
Every flight should be viewed as a precious opportunity to improve, even while still a student in UPT. In the future there are no guarantees for the military budget or the amount of flying hours pilots will get. In order for the U.S. Air Force to maintain its place as the most highly trained in the world, it is crucial everyone takes advantage of every opportunity to fly regardless of the type of airframe.
Additionally, as UPT students leave Columbus Air Force Base, they must be prepared for the unexpected. I was always told to treat every flight as potentially the last training flight you will have before going to war. While our squadron had months to prepare for the deployment, it was still a challenge for both aircrew and maintenance. Despite our struggles as a squadron, we had great success during our deployment that can only be attributed to our maximum effort during spin up. In the future, make every sortie count and be ready for anything.