Air-Minded: the Big Reveal (Corrected)

Here’s a tweet that caught my eye.

It’s called assignment night, sometimes drop night (because that’s the day new pilot assignments drop), and it’s a party. It was a party in my day too, then as now held at the officers’ club, but the actual assignment notification — the Big Reveal where you learn what a year of hard work has earned you — was handled a little differently. You weren’t called up on stage in front of a crowd. Instead, you and your classmates lined up alphabetically and were called, one by one, into a room with the wing commander. You saluted and stood at attention as he told you your fate. You shook his hand and left the room. Assignments were still public, though, because there was no back exit. You came back out into the big room where everyone was waiting — classmates, instructors, guests — and shouted out the news to cheers and hoots and laughter.

What I find interesting about this video is that it shows only new pilots receiving assignments to fighters and bombers. Did they quit assigning graduates to airlift and tanker aircraft? No, of course not … the USAF has far more airllift and tanker aircraft than it does fighters and bombers.

What happens, I think, is that new airlift and tanker pilots have their own, separate, assignment night. USAF pilot training takes a year. During primary training, every student flies the T-6 Texan II turboprop trainer. At the halfway point, based on performance, students switch to separate tracks for advanced training. Those on the fighter/bomber track finish their training in the supersonic T-38 Talon. Those on the airlift/tanker track fly the T-1 Jayhawk. During advanced training, students on one track probably have little contact with classmates on the other track, which is why I suspect they have separate assignment nights.

Correction: I just finished watching a 50-minute YouTube video of a 2023 assignment night at Laughlin AFB, Texas, one of the USAF’s pilot training bases. It shows members of an entire class receiving their assignments together: fighters, bombers, trainers, tankers, cargo haulers. What I guessed about the two training tracks not receiving assignments together was wrong and I’m happy to correct it. Whoever edited the Twitter video, above, must have only been interested in fighter and bomber assignments.

I’ve shared the story of my own assignment night before. We didn’t have separate training tracks back then. We all trained, flew, and graduated together. I was the 4th-ranked student in a class of 40. Traditionally, the top 10 percent get assigned to their choice of aircraft (if those aircraft are part of the package handed to their graduating class). I wanted a fighter, but only three came down to my class. What I got instead was a total surprise — an assignment as an instructor pilot in the primary trainer of the day, the Cessna T-37 Tweet. The same little jet that, six months earlier, I myself had flown as a student. I’m not sure how I would have handled that surprise up on stage in front of a crowd. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done an end zone dance! But in the room with the wing commander, I had a moment to compose myself before going back out in the big room to face my classmates (and more importantly, my wife, who shared my shock and surprise).

But guess what? That lowly first assignment gave us a shot at three years of relative stability, a rare thing for Air Force families. We quickly grew to love our new life, and I’m not sure we’d have decided to have a second child if I’d been off flying fighters somewhere. I loved training new pilots and my memories of flying Tweets are happy ones. Now that I look back on it, even if there had been four fighter assignments for my class, I think they’d have selected me as a T-37 instructor pilot anyway, and the fourth fighter would have gone to number five. They had me pegged as someone who’d be a good instructor, and they were right about me.

Best of all, that lowly first assignment led directly to my selection, three years later, to fly what was then the newest, hottest fighter in the air, the F-15 Eagle, in which I spent the rest of my 24-year USAF career.

Couple of other things. The crack about fratboys in the embedded Tweet? The easy thing would be to write Simplicius off as an envious outsider, but he has a point. Some aspects of military flying, and flying fighters in particular, are frat-like. And it’s true that Air Force pilots (like our Navy and Marine counterparts, and pilots in general) see themselves as members of a fraternity (to be sure, a co-ed one). A most exclusive fraternity at that. Into which miserable ground-pounding shoe clerks like Simplicius will never be invited.

Most of the commenters on Twitter focus on the two bomber assignments, speculating that those must have gone to slackers who graduated by the skin of their teeth. Not even close. The B-2 assignment is actually the BFD of BFDs, a hot ticket to Air Force leadership. The B-52 assignment could well put its recipient into a B-2 or even a B-21 down the road. Different graduates have different goals, and I’m betting those two guys wanted what they got. Case in point: in 1975, one of my classmates got a B-52 assignment. That’s what he’d been trying for, and he was delighted to get it. Six years later he was flying SR-71s, his secret goal all along (he’d known that with few exceptions, SR-71 pilots were selected from Strategic Air Command’s bomber pilot pool). As for the airlift and tanker assignments not included in the video? A lot of graduates want them, many with future airline careers in mind.

This was a trip down memory lane for me and I thank you for coming along. I hope it was also informative.


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