Watching an aerial performance by the US Navy Blue Angels, eight-year-old Chandler Hasemeyer knew he wanted to become a Navy pilot. At the Knoxville Tennessee airshow, young Chandler met two aviator legends Bob Hoover and Patty Wagstaff. They signed autographs and encouraged him to never give up on his dreams. “Years later, their advice stuck with me through all sorts of trials on my way to becoming a Naval Aviator,” says Lieutenant Hasemeyer; trials that include intensive academic study, water survival, simulated aircraft malfunctions, among many other challenges. The roadmap to becoming a Navy pilot may start as a college freshman with Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), which was the first step for Ensign Amanda Braden, a University of Florida graduate who recently completed her solo flight with her on-wing partner, Hasemeyer. Both are pilots in Training Squadron VT-35 but different are the paths they journeyed to get to this point of success. Braden was accepted into the Naval Aviator program, Hasemeyer was not; he was selected to become a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) instead. His job was ‘in the tube,’ or the rear of the plane, operating weapon navigation systems – not in the cockpit as a pilot. This career path took him on two overseas deployments. He never gave up on his dream of becoming a Navy pilot. In May of 2014, he applied for and was authorized to transition from NFO to pilot training. “So bottom line, from that day at the airshow in Tennessee when I was eight years old, the only job I have ever truly wanted was to be a military pilot. It is my ultimate dream job and I’m truly blessed to see it come to fruition,” says Hasemeyer.
Ensign Eve Schnell, 25, of Panama City, Florida, also dreamt of being a pilot. Schnell worked part time on a Navy Base during summers and listened to her father talk about his love of flying. Medically unable to fly with the Air Force, her father flew a civilian plane. Schnell went on to graduate with a degree in retail merchandizing and sports management at Florida State and worked at a job she did not like. But the dream was always in the back of her mind. “It’s never going to happen. It’s really competitive.” However, one day she thought, “If you don’t like your job, you should really attempt the pipe dream, and I was floored to get accepted for an aviation spot. I’m so glad I didn’t like my job and took the leap of faith,” Schnell says.
THE PATH TO WINGS
Those entering aviation programs must receive a commissioning through The Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) or Officer Training School in Newport, Rhode Island or the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. However, before student aviators ever leave the ground, they undergo water survival training during Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API), a six-week course at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. The Helicopter-Dunker is a particularly memorable challenge. Strapped in and blindfolded, the student must find his/her way out of the cabin of an upside-down, submerged helicopter. Water survival skills also include swimming with 70 pounds of gear, putting on a life vest and survival floating. Next, prospective pilots attend Primary Flight Training locally at NASCC or at the Naval Air Station Whiting Field, where they learn to fly the T-6, a single-engine aircraft. Intermediate Training, or Ground School, follows with intensive study of the aircraft systems, navigation training, and weather and federal aviation flight rules. The final phase is Advanced Training where students receive several months of flight training in aircrafts similar to those they will fly in the fleet. Students submit a “dream sheet” requesting one of four pipelines: jet, helicopter, tilt – rotor (for Marine Corps students) or multi-engine aircraft. NASCC’s Training Air Wing Four trains students in multi-engine aircraft.
It is near the end of Advanced Training where student pilots must complete a solo flight before earning their wings. Flight partners, Schnell, and North Carolina resident, Lieutenant (junior grade) Kevin Knaup, 24, of Training Squadron 31 (VT-31) received over 120 hours of instructor flight training in the multi-engine aircraft T-44 Pegasus. “We wanted big wings, more engine and a crew,” explains Schnell when describing the much larger T-44.“The training is better than I expected, harder than I expected, and more rewarding; the best of all scenarios,” says Knaup. Now, at the end of their weighty syllabus with over 30 events or missions under their belt, they are ready for their solo flight. Their destination is Austin. They will rely on each other and the months of in-flight instructor training and knowledge from intense academic study. However, this day for their solo flight, there is no instructor. Confidence exceeds nerves and these two are eager to succeed. “The standard here is always an ‘A,’ not only for your physical abilities but also the knowledge of the plane. You have to have an A+ across-the-board. The instructors care about your learning. By the end, they send you out and you’re ready. You’ve worked every single day to get here,” explains Knaup. On a previous flight Schnell and Knaup were tested with two hours of emergency simulations. “They will give you everything from “your wings are on fire at 20,000 feet,” or “you’re coming in to land and you’re 300 feet above the ground and you’ve lost both engines”, explains Knaup. Schnell compliments her flight partner: “He did great. He lost both engines and put that plane down. We get to this point where our confidence is built and we’ve handled every emergency you can imagine, and now we feel like we can together safely take a plane out,” says Schnell. Their flight instructor, Lieutenant Bryan Begin boasts about his students. “When you think about all the wickets you have to go through and all the challenges you have to overcome to succeed, it is a tremendous accomplishment.”
Dressed in green flight suits covered with pockets from head to toe, Schnell and Knaup start their pre-flight routine. Schnell usually carries a pb&j sandwich in one pocket. Today is an exception, as their solo flight includes a taco lunch in Austin. Other pockets are filled with earplugs, water bottles, a baggy or puke bag, pen and pencil, and large clips to hold the pages of the aircraft manual. First stop, the maintenance room, where the pilots check ‘The Book’ for their assigned aircraft. Schnell reviews page after page of maintenance records revealing oxygen level quantity, repair of an inoperative light, GPS update, daily engine rinse, and other inspections. The pilots step out into the sun-drenched clear blue sky and begin removing covers, untying the wings, and opening compartments on the aircraft. The checklist includes 150 items. Kevin checks emergency batteries, brake fluid, and oil levels. They both walk around the airplane looking for leaks or damage. Knaup climbs into the cabin, hops into the pilot’s seat, stretches his hand out the window and holds up three fingers to Schnell who stands in front of the aircraft and gives thumbs up that the lights are working. Once they are comfortable with the condition of the plane, they are ready for take off. Kevin takes a moment to realize how far he has come; “You pass everything, but it doesn’t sink in, not until I’m wearing wings of gold on my chest.”
“These cross-country flight opportunities are great because they get to go outside of the local training environment and fly into busy airports,” explains instructor Lieutenant Begin. Schnell and Knaup’s flight went off without a hitch and the pilots landed safely back at the base later that day. Co-pilots, Braden and Hasemeyer’s solo flight back from Laredo was altered due to by bad weather, causing the young pilots to land at Corpus Christi International Airport. Learning about weather is essential in aviator training. “I’m an engineer, so I thought flying planes was all about systems. I never knew I would have essentially a minor in weather and aviation survival. I’ve learned so much more about everything that I would never relate to aviation,” says Knaup. “In a way, we’ve got a doctorate in aviation; we’ve spent the same years and time,” adds Schnell.
THE NEXT ACHIEVEMENT
Now that they are Professional Military Aviators and no longer students, where do they go from here? Knaup’s background is with the Coast Guard, and after receiving his wings he will be stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Barbers Point, Hawaii. In two short months he could be on a search and rescue case. “Some of my classmates that are aviators ahead of me went out for their first time in the Coast Guard aircraft to go save a life,” said Knaup. Schnell will check in at the Naval training squadron in Jacksonville, Florida, and then onto Maine for two weeks of survival training in the woods. Here, she will learn how to evade capture and participate in Prisoner of War training. Her return to Jacksonville will find her studying a new aircraft manual for flight training on the P-8 Poseidon, whose mission is anti submarine warfare. She and other classmates selected the P-8 aircraft over the older model P-3. The pilots preferred choice of which aircraft they will next learn to fly is based on the Navy’s needs, students’ grades and performance, and lastly, their preference. Schnell’s choice of the newer P-8 is natural, but “I chose it because it has a bathroom and that’s a pretty big deal. The P-3 had a funnel,” she laughs.
Orange and white striped planes marked NAVY or MARINE line the airfield at Training Air Wing Four at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. Four squadrons under the command of the Commodore, Captain John Kelsey, graduate 350-400 naval aviators each year. In 1944, NASCC was the largest Naval aviation training facility in the world. Today, NASCC is the Navy’s only multi-engine training base. Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviators earn their wings flying Truax Field, outlying military and civilian airfields, and cross-country flights. NASCC is an ideal training facility because there is relatively little air traffic and unlimited air space.
Several famous pilots earned their wings at NASCC. In 1943, at the age of 18, President George H. Bush was in the third winging class and the youngest pilot ever to get his wings. Commodore Kelsey earned his wings at NASCC in 1993. He describes the moment of being pinned with the wings of gold as “the culmination of a dream.”
This is a day like no other day. Hailed as one of the most special moments in their life, aviators count it among the top best, up there with their wedding day, and the birth of their children. Winging Day begins with a breakfast for families and friends who have traveled from all over to attend this auspicious event. Family members try their hand at the flight simulators, usually ending in a crash. Also included in the day’s activities is the tradition of the soft patch ceremony of a pre-winging. Commander Samuel Gage of Training Squadron 31 talks to the students, saying: “Be Humble, Be Ready, Be Worthy.” He explains what a great day this is but that they will go on to other achievements, so ‘Be Humble’. He warns them not to wish they had studied more, so ‘Be Ready.’ He reminds them that many people went before them to make this opportunity possible so, ‘Be Worthy.’ Also, prior to the actual Winging, family and friends attend The Aviator’s Blessing at the Base Chapel where a Navy Chaplain blesses the golden wings and prays for protection. Afterward, everyone gathers at the All-Hands Club, called the Catalina Club. Navy and Coast Guard students dressed in their whites, and Marine Corp students in their dress blues, sit upright in their chairs waiting their moment. Father John Vidal opens the ceremony with a prayer. Commander Arthur Hodge of Training Squadron 35 describes the graduates as “impressive,” and having “such incredible character traits and values. We may have taught them to fly, but it was you who taught them how to be successful,” Hodge says to the parents. A Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce board member congratulates the aviators and presents them with a citizenship certificate and the Flyers Creed. Captain Kelsey thanks the Chamber for purchasing the wings of gold for Naval aviators since the 1950s. “The relationship between us and the Corpus Christi community is integral,” says Captain Kelsey. “We are proud of the program we run here,” and he attributes the success to the relationship with the community. The Commodore compliments the aviators, “They are bound by honor, courage and commitment.” He speaks of the tremendous competitiveness and hard work it took to arrive at this day. “These are the nation’s best of the best,” said Captain Kelsey.
Fifteen graduates are awarded their wings. Knaup’s wife, Stephanie, who arrived from her post with the Coast Guard in Pensacola, Florida, pins her husband’s wings on as her mother, who traveled from California, watches. Schnell’s parents come up when her name is called and her father pins on her golden wings. As Hasemeyer is presented with his golden wings, Anna Claire, his young daughter, calls out from the audience, “Daddy” and runs up to stand next to him as her mother, Michelle, pins the golden wings on her husband’s chest. Cheering erupts from the family and friends present in support of Hasemeyer. Legacy wings are pinned on Ensign John North by his father, also John North, of Jacksonville, Florida. These golden wings, with slightly tarnished ends, were pinned on the elder John North in 1973. He flew the A-4 Skyhawk in the US Marine Corps. “I’m very proud,” says North of his son. “He is continuing the chain of pilots in the family.” The ceremony concludes with a light-hearted Spouses’ Award Presentation. Spouses are invited up to the front and presented with a certificate of appreciation for “serving as the neglected spouse of a student aboard Training Wing Four.” Against a backdrop of flags, family and friends gather with the graduate as the photographer captures pictures. “Very proud” is heard from parents and spouses whose eyes well up with joyful tears. The moment elicits hugs and big smiles for the newly designated Naval Aviators and the culmination of their dream.