By Master Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
The journey begins at Undergraduate Pilot Training or maybe long, long before, but for this account an Air Force pilot starts the road to the cockpit at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, in the T-6 Texan, a 1,200 horsepower propeller-driven trainer. From there, they have to find their way in a T-38 supersonic jet trainer, if they make the cut for fighter aircraft.
A fledgling fighter-pilot-in-the-making then heads to Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio—a quick primer, smoothing the transition to warfighting aircraft.
Some of these students track to the F-15 and travel to Kingsley Field to test themselves against the 173rd Fighter Wing B-Course and learn to fly the Eagle, the venerated fighter aircraft boasting an undefeated combat record and bearing the moniker WGASF—world’s greatest air superiority fighter.
None of this is easy, but once a student steps into the ranks of Eagle drivers it’s time to relax, having arrived at their goal … right?
“No. Never,” says Capt. Andrew Marshall, an F-15 pilot with the 550th Fighter Squadron, with a laugh.
Marshall has navigated this path over the last seven years, since graduating from the University of Colorado ROTC program, and is now making his way into the ranks of F-15C instructor pilots at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
“I’m hoping to get it done within six months, that’s my personal goal,” he said. “But there’s a lot of other factors—TDYs, weather—all those different things can get in the way of keeping the momentum going. It definitely is a period where you’re just working, working, working…you’re studying all the time.”
He says there are 11 thresholds to cross to become a rated instructor pilot beginning with close-range dogfighting and progressing to a very broad scenario involving many aircraft performing defensive counter-air and everything in between, and a couple of “top-off” events following that.
“I’ve made it through the first two events so far, and it took me seven flights to do it,” adding that the syllabus somewhat mirrors that of his first years at Kadena Air Base, getting his flight lead ratings cumulating with a mission commander upgrade where he controlled 20 fighter aircraft, two tankers and an AWACS.
“It was intense, probably the most stressful experience of my Air Force career,” he said.
He’ll do it again and the difference this time will be one of fine-tuning.
“Now you’re doing it at a higher level,” he explains. “It’s much more refinement in how you go through the instructor upgrade; now you have to be able to not only understand and do it yourself but you have to convey that knowledge and execute it in a way that shows credibility as an instructor.”
It’s a new process for him, but many have gone before him over nearly four decades of service from the Eagle. He and one other pilot are likely the last.
The Air Force at-large has divested itself of nearly all F-15 Eagle aircraft, most recently deactivating squadrons at Kadena Air Base and transferring those aircraft to the Air National Guard, rendering the future need for instructor pilots minimal. But as with any program there are always the final students.
Marshall says this career trajectory suits him very well and he feels it positions him well for a likely airframe conversion to the F-35 Lightning II, which is slated to arrive at Kingsley Field in 2026 .
He sums up his career choice saying, “It’s one of the best jobs in the world and you have some of the best camaraderie with your pilots and your fellow servicemembers.”