Midshipmen Soar before They Fly

The U.S. Naval Academy’s summer soaring program uses aircraft and gliders at an airfield in Fairfield, Pa., near Gettysburg, to learn basic flight skills. (Photo by Cmdr. Brian H. Randall)

By Cmdr. Brian H. Randall, USN

Before you walk, you have to learn to crawl. And before some U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen take to the skies as naval aviators, they’re collaborating together to soar.

The Naval Academy initiated a new summer soaring program in 2009 that initially provided basic flight training to 150 midshipmen. The Naval Academy Training Squadron (VTNA) is the academy’s only midshipmen-led professional development aviation extracurricular activity.

“I started the club in August of 2008 as a way to set up a foundation for helping midshipmen get an exposure to flying,” said Ens. Sean Noronha, a student pilot with VT-28. “After earning my flight instructor certification in the summer of 2008, finding an officer who would become our club rep, and finding several midshipmen, things just started rolling to put a club together.”

According to Noronha, the Naval Academy disestablished the previous soaring club in 2004, citing concerns over funding and liability. In 2008, however, the academy began funding VT-NA as a summer student-run club, while the midshipmen would pick up the tab for any flights made during the academic year.

Since then, more than 600 midshipmen have relished taking to the sky in ultra-light sailplanes.

“Nowhere else at the academy can you find a program where midshipmen and ensigns are given so much latitude to train, lead, and learn,” said Noronha. “The experience gave me a stepping stone to also become a better flight instructor, showing me the many ways in which students learn and deal with situations.”

The Naval Academy is the Navy and Marine Corps’ largest aviation accession source, with more than 40 percent of each graduating class selecting aviation. The academy, however, does not provide any formal flight programs for midshipmen prior to service selection.

According to statistics from the Air Force Academy’s cadetrun “soar for all” program, sailplane training is the safest and most relevant and cost-effective initial flight training method available. Because of sailplanes’ inherent simplicity, glider flight training operating costs are usually less than one-third that of powered aircraft. The long, efficient wings of sailplanes allow for very low stall speeds and benign handling qualities, as well as being particularly sensitive to adverse yaw. A sailplane pilot must quickly learn to precede any lateral stick movements with appropriate pedal inputs. This combination of qualities renders sailplanes the most appropriate platforms for new students to learn the fundamental “stick and rudder” skills required for safe, coordinated flight.

VT-NA’s goal is to screen aviation-motivated 3/C and 2/C midshipmen prior to service selection through the academic year and summer soaring programs. Successful screeners are able to advance to powered flight, where they gain further exposure to the complexities of the airspace environment.

“When you train to the standards which we set in the soaring club, it only gives the students an edge when they prepare for their career as a naval aviator,” said Ens. Josh Mann, operations and logistics manager for VT-NA. “That’s what our goal here is: to put out a better quality applicant for flight school and to train better pilots for the Navy.”

Armed with the favorable exit surveys from the first 150 participating midshipmen, VT-NA approached Rear Adm. Mathew Klunder, a former commandant of midshipmen, with a proposal to increase the scope of the soaring program. A new contract was signed with the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association (MASA) to provide aircraft and use of its Fairfield, Pa., glider port for the exclusive purpose of training midshipmen and staff members during weekdays over the summer months.

Along with MASA, the Skyline Soaring Club provided voluntary flight instructors and tow pilots to augment VTNA’s flight staff. These Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified flight instructors helped VT-NA qualify additional tow pilots and flight instructors from among the ranks of military-winged aviators and midshipmen.

“Most tow planes are Piper Pawnees, which were once used for agricultural work but are now almost solely dedicated to soaring operations,” said Noronha. “The single-seat Pawnee is quite the workhorse and is quickly able to tow the glider up to whatever altitude the pilot desires.”

From inception through completion, the program is led by midshipmen. They run the daily flight schedules and are in charge of the logistics, billeting, and transportation issues. Midshipmen coordinate with academy staff and volunteers to maintain the watch bills required for safe glider port operations, tow piloting, and flight and ground instruction.

After successfully completing the program, qualified participants earn a logbook endorsement to take their FAA private pilot written exam. A sheet reflecting their exam scores and flight performance is entered into their midshipman aviation service selection board packet for future consideration.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see midshipmen successfully complete a program that is only two years old,” said soaring club member Midshipman 1/C George Meszaros. “In those two years, we’ve completed hundreds of glider flights safely, all while providing aviation-relevant training to future naval aviators.”