JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —
For a pilot, upgrading from co-pilot to aircraft commander is more than switching from the right seat to the left seat of the cockpit. Aircraft commanders have to learn new skills and take on more responsibilities.
Capt. Ana Ekhaus, a C-17 Globemaster III pilot assigned to the 15th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, explained the difference between the two positions.
“An aircraft commander is the one in charge and when a decision needs to be made, the aircraft commander has the final say,” she said. “So it’s a big stepping stone to go from a co-pilot to aircraft commander.”
“For me the jump from co-pilot to aircraft commander is a big deal,” she added. “It’s definitely a bigger jump than other upgrades within the C-17 community. It’s two pieces: one, you’re being asked to do much more complicated flying like the assaults and air refueling; and two, the crew management is a lot more responsibility than a co-pilot is used to.”
To become an aircraft commander, Ekhaus will go to Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, for a month-long course. She detailed the curriculum of the school house.
“One of the main focuses of the course is learning how to fly assault landings,” she said. “Besides assaults, air refueling is the big focus of that school. Learning crew management is a big part of the upgrade as well because when we go on the road, you have to set up where we’re going to stay, where we’re going to get food [and make] sure everyone is on time so the mission is continuing along and not getting stopped anywhere.”
She said she looks forward to the simplicity of a training environment and building relationships with new and old colleagues.
“I like going back for formal training,” she said. “You’re very focused. It’s your one job to learn these new things. It’s also a little reunion. You get to see a lot of people from the other C-17 bases. I’m pretty excited.”
The excitement for the upcoming training helped Ekhaus stay motivated during the days of preparation needed to get ready for the task ahead.
“I feel well prepared,” she said. “The squadron won’t send you if you aren’t ready, and there’s a lot of prerequisites to make sure you really are ready. Once you’re close to going, you do a lot of flights very much focused on what you’ll be doing at the school house to give you more confidence and get those reps up.”
One way Ekhaus got her “reps up” was flying a local pattern-only flight on June 24, 2020, over South Carolina, and she explained the areas she focused on during that flight.
“We were practicing a lot of tactical approaches,” she said. “That was simulating going into a higher threat environment, whereas when we were at Myrtle Beach, we were doing instrument approaches and that’s more standard on a mission without a threat.”
Not only did she conduct different approaches, but she also varied her types of landings.
“A GOAT, [go around after touchdown], is just a way to practice assaults over and over when the runway isn’t long enough to do a touch and go,” she said. “We did the touch-and-go’s at Myrtle Beach. We were actually landing the plane, rolling down the runway and taking off again, whereas with the GOATS, you never leave that 500-foot box and as soon as you feel the gears touch, you’re just immediately taking back off.”
In addition to formal training, virtual simulators, and practice, a big part of learning in the pilot community is mentorship.
“You can go in simulation and fiddle around and learn how to fly a plane, but without someone offering that 'well, there I was with this mission or that mission,’ or how they learned this or that, you can learn, but you’d be missing a big chunk of that know-how,” she explained.
While she knows mentors can vary, the knowledge they have to share is vital for newer pilots who are growing to potentially take the place as mentors and leaders in the C-17 community.
“They’re invaluable. The instructors and aircraft commanders are the ones passing on what they’ve learned,” she continued. “That’s what you’ve seen since pilot training, that’s how you learn from people more experienced than you passing on what they know.”
With the mentorship, practice and training fueling her growth, Ekhaus will not only upgrade to a new job title, but also she will upgrade with the variety of missions she will be qualified to complete.
“Whether it’s distance or a difficult location, being able to air refuel or do assault landings opens the door for whatever comes down the line as far as the mission goes,” she said. “There isn’t going to be anything you aren’t qualified for.”
She said Mobility Air Forces must be ready to deter, compete and win in order for other military branches to be able to complete their missions.
“I think we’re maybe the less shiny pennies,” said Ekhaus. “We aren’t the super cool, out-in-front, but we’re how the army sets up a new base, we’re the ones who bring them in, or the Marines. If something happens in a new place around the world, we’re the ones who get them there.”