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Keys to the jet: Journey toward becoming aircraft commander

Team Fairchild flying crew chiefs perform a post flight check at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Sept. 17, 2019. To become a pilot, students must understand the basics to theory of flight, air navigation, meteorology, flying directives, aircraft operating procedures and mission tactics. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jesenia Landaverde)

Team Fairchild flying crew chiefs perform a post flight check at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Sept. 17, 2019. To become a pilot, students must understand the basics to theory of flight, air navigation, meteorology, flying directives, aircraft operating procedures and mission tactics. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jesenia Landaverde)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eli Young, 92nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief, and Capt. Ryan Turner, 93rd Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, open the nose landing gear door for a preflight inspection at Royal Australian Air Force Base Amberley, Australia, Sept. 15, 2019. Turner is in the final stages of completing his aircraft commander upgrade program and prepares for final evaluation as he leads mission planning during a temporary deployment.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jesenia Landaverde)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eli Young, 92nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief, and Capt. Ryan Turner, 93rd Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, open the nose landing gear door for a preflight inspection at Royal Australian Air Force Base Amberley, Australia, Sept. 15, 2019. Turner is in the final stages of completing his aircraft commander upgrade program and prepares for final evaluation as he leads mission planning during a temporary deployment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jesenia Landaverde)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Ryan Turner, 93rd Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, and Capt. Ntungwe Sobe, 384th ARS KC-135 aircraft commander, prepare to take off at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 30, 2019. The responsibility of an aircraft commander is earned through several hours of flying and training, and can take two to three years from when pilots first gain their wings. To become a pilot, students must understand the basics to theory of flight, air navigation, meteorology, aircraft operating procedures and mission tactics. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jesenia Landaverde)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Ryan Turner, 93rd Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, and Capt. Ntungwe Sobe, 384th ARS KC-135 aircraft commander, prepare to take off at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 30, 2019. The responsibility of an aircraft commander is earned through several hours of flying and training, and can take two to three years from when pilots first gain their wings. To become a pilot, students must understand the basics to theory of flight, air navigation, meteorology, aircraft operating procedures and mission tactics. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jesenia Landaverde)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- A driver’s license can be a rite of passage, a reflection of higher responsibility and a symbol of freedom to independently operate and command a vehicle. To military aviators, the achievement of a flight license isn’t the ultimate achievement—being certified as an aircraft commander is the next distinction that can take the responsibility of a licensed driver to a whole new level.

“Becoming an aircraft commander is probably the most important milestone of an aviator’s career,” said Capt. Ntungwe Sobe, 384th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft commander and instructor pilot. “The Air Force gives you the keys to the jet and at this point you’re no longer just flying the jet—you’re managing a mission and taking care of a crew.”

Pilots have to earn the aircraft commander responsibility through several hours of flying and training, and it can take two to three years from when pilots first earn their wings to be granted the distinction.

Airmen first go through immense training and must master the basics of flight theory, air navigation, meteorology, aircraft operating procedures and mission tactics to become pilots.

“From day one, the instructors tell you they’re training you to become an aircraft commander,” said Capt. Ryan Turner, 93rd ARS KC-135 pilot. “No one can say that the step from initial pilot training to aircraft commander training wasn’t tough. It’s a super dynamic training program and job.”

Turner is in the final stages of completing his aircraft commander upgrade training and is preparing for the final evaluation. He received valuable on-the-job training on a recent TDY that he and Sobe, along with 11 additional Airmen, supported the first Airborne Warning and Control System World Tour over the Pacific Air Force region by providing air refueling to an E-3 Sentry.

“Initially I handled a lot of AC duties during this TDY, but Turner started gaining the confidence to lead; it was a crawl, walk, run, but now he’s leading a mission,” Sobe said.

“Everything about the tour was unpredictable,” Turner said. “I wish everyone in training could experience a TDY like the world tour to gain all the experience an aircraft commander in-training can get.”

The aircrew overcame aircraft part failures, avoided volcanic ash and a typhoon, and had to gain diplomatic clearance to enter an allied country.

“Letting an aircraft commander in-training make mistakes in a controlled environment is the best way for them to learn,” Sobe said. “We can look over their shoulder and ensure they’re going in the right direction to make good decisions before they perform their [operation mission evaluation].”

A flight instructor will evaluate a pilot’s ability to confidently lead a military aircraft and crew during a TDY to complete a mission safely and timely during an OME, the final test before a pilot is a certified as an aircraft commander.

“Becoming an AC is definitely a mental shift from just flying the jet,” Sobe said. “It can be difficult to gain the confidence to make those important decisions. If the wrong person becomes an aircraft commander it can lead to bad morale, damaging the aircraft, violating rules and putting lives at stake.”

The U.S. Air Force trains and equips aircraft commanders to take the weight of air superiority in their hands one mission at a time, making it the most lethal and advance Air Force around the globe.