COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
A high pitched whirring begins as three pilots prepare for their flight inside a T-1A Jayhawk on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.
The sun peaks over the horizon while the 48th Flying Training Squadron students and instructors walk to their aircraft or classrooms, beginning another day of pilot training alongside the other training squadrons.
The repetition in the squadron is not by accident. Pilot training in the 48th FTS is all about preparing the next generation of ‘heavy’ pilots to take on operations flying anything from a C-5 Galaxy to the KC‑135 Stratotanker.
“We train pilots. We train them during phase three of training,” said Lt. Col. Charles Gilliam, 48th FTS commander. “When they leave us they are winged aviators ready to go out to learn a new aircraft and fly, fight, and win.”
Throughout pilot training, students will have opportunities to speak to the instructors to learn about the kinds of missions they may encounter outside of training.
“I always tell the students who ask me about my career this same story,” began Gilliam. “I was sitting with my aircrew on alert with our pagers. We were waiting to go when we got the call, and didn’t think a whole lot of it. I thought it would be moving cargo from here to there...”
As the crew prepared for their mission, he said the feeling was a little different than normal. They got in the air and headed to their objective. When the C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft landed and took on their cargo, Gilliam saw a single Marine. He was carried into the bay in stable condition, but had taken a blast from an improvised explosive device.
“What they were worried about was his eyesight in one of his eyes,” Gilliam said. “You know I was expecting multiple patients to come on, maybe some cargo, but he was our only cargo. To me that spoke volumes that the U.S. would send this expensive aircraft in harm’s way to save a wounded troop’s eyesight.”
Normal wounds are treated as soon as possible in Germany, but the pressure on the Marine’s eyes would disrupt the treatment and could have cost him his vision. Instead Gilliam was to fly directly to Texas from their location in Southeast Asia.
“One mission. We got gas around England from a tanker aircraft and successfully received the thousands of pounds of gas we needed while in flight to Texas,” Gilliam said. “The coolest part to me was the American air traffic controllers that cleared us a direct flight to Texas as soon as we hit U.S. airspace. It was a cool experience to realize our country cares so much about what we do, they would do whatever they could to save this man’s eyesight.”
Every other 48th FTS instructor who has flown a mission can bring back a story like this to the students, showing them the immense impact they can have overseas or even back home.
Any pilot graduating from the T-1 phase will be more than capable of flying any aircraft the U.S Air Force needs them too for any mission in front of them.
“The enjoyment is seeing them barely being able to fly the T-1 aircraft and leave with wings on their chest,” said Lt. Col. Carl Rotermund, 48th FTS director of operations. “They come with some flying ability, but to put the polish on and get a final product in terms of a rated pilot, to watch the wings pinned on their chests, and to see them go on to fly in their assignment, that’s the biggest reward for I think any instructor in any squadron really.”
Rotermund flew as a commander of his C-17 on the same deployment as Gilliam, and experienced almost 6 months in the Southeast Asia with a crew he still has contact with today.
“That deployment was actually thoroughly enjoyable for me because I had a dedicated crew for almost half of that deployment so we built an amazing comradery and really made the best of it,” Rotermund said. “I also flew a ton of hours and that’s something the students can experience after completing their training.”
Gilliam mentioned how the comradery starts at the 48th FTS, saying the military is a large family serving side by side.
“We accomplish the mission every day, and I think we do it better than anyone else in the Air Force, but we as a squadron make it a good time,” Gilliam said. “I don’t know if that’s unique to us, but it makes for a good work environment. It’s the nature of crew airplanes and having to work with people, it permeates not only in our mission but in our day to day.”
On the flightline at the end of each flight there’s two future ‘heavy’ pilot stepping out of their T-1, preparing to directly support any unit with their team, providing aid to those in need anytime and anywhere.