An experience of a lifetime – Living, working on an aircraft carrier simulator

Pia Gorme with her “diploma” outside the National Flight Academy.

Special to Atmore News

From June 4 to June 9, I, along with 35 students from the Alabama School of Math and Science (ASMS) and B.C. Rain High School joined 171 other students aboard the National Flight Academy’s (NFA) simulated aircraft carrier, Ambition (CVT-11) at NAS Pensacola. The two schools are part of a program called the Brookley STEM Initiative. As part of this program, the selected 36 students were sponsored to attend the six-day deployment by Continental Motors, Airbus, VT MAE, Alabama Power, Signature Flight Support, Carlisle Interconnect Technologies, MAAS Aviation, and Mobile Airport Authority. Along with the 6-day deployment to the NFA, the 36 of us will also receive an opportunity to tour the facilities of the sponsors at the Brookley Aeroplex and will participate in job shadowing next school year.

My journey with the Brookley STEM Initiative was originally non-existent. With my mind set on pursuing a career in the medical field, I did not even consider applying to this program. However, with an open mind, I decided to learn more about the program by talking with ASMS public relations coordinator Amber Day. I relayed my thoughts on not applying simply because the program was geared towards careers in aerospace and engineering rather than in the medical field. She informed me that this could be an opportunity for me to explore new careers, and thankfully, I listened. After completing my application and interview, I was selected to be a part of the Brookley STEM Initiative along with 17 other sophomores and juniors from ASMS. We had an opportunity to meet with our sponsors and the B.C. Rain students during a celebration brunch held at Brookley Field this past May.

The NFA enabled me to experience what it is like to live on an aircraft carrier. I lived in a statemate with three other people, slept in a bunk, and I got so used to the environment that I even started to use the word “head” instead of “restroom.” Every day was the same routine. In the mornings was “wake-up” at 06:30, we made our beds, breakfast in the mess hall, and participated in an off-ship activity. After lunch, we flew missions, had a break for dinner, continued missions until 2130 (9:30), and lights were out at 2230 (10:30). We participated in interesting off-ships activities including visiting a Navy A-school on base, the National Aviation Museum, and the Hangar Bay One Museum.

There were a total of 6 CAGs (Carrier Aircraft Group) on board Ambition with three squadrons in each group. Every CAG and squadron is based off real squadrons in the Navy. Each squadron had its own chief, and some like mine, had an A.M. and P.M. chief. It was the chiefs’ job to take us to wherever we needed to be at a certain time, make sure we were following the rules, but also to do fun activities with us during squadron time. All students were referred to as AXPs (Ambition eXperimental Pilot) and given a callsign (nickname) by graduation. There are different ways to get a call sign and no matter what, there is always a story behind a callsign. My callsign is “Pageant,” simply because I have the namesake of Miss Philippines 2015 and Miss Universe 2015, Pia Alonzo-Wurtzbach. Others get their callsigns because of something they did during the week, and our squadron would agree on a callsign. One AXP in our squadron earned his callsign “Burner,” because during a mission, he turned on the burner as his flight partner perfectly landed on Ambition, resulting in their aircraft landing in the water.

I was part of CAG 4 and in the Chargers Squadron. The three squadrons in CAG 4: the Lancers, the Salty Dogs, and the Chargers worked together to accomplish various missions. We each had a flight partner within our squadrons and rotated between four different rooms: the Joint Intelligence Center (JIC), the Join Operations Center (JOC), the Ready Room (RR), and the Hangar Bay (HB). The JIC was where we planned all our missions and calculated our distances, heading, speed, and fuel to fly from Ambition, accomplish our mission, and back to land at Ambition. While one squadron was in the JIC planning their mission, the other two squadrons met in the RR where they are briefed on the mission they planned in the JIC. After briefing, one squadron was in the HB flying the X-12B Triad in the simulators and the other in the JOC as air traffic controllers of a pair of pilots in the HB.

In the simulator, there are two seats: one for the pilot and one for the co-pilot and each had their own headphones to communicate with each other and the air traffic controllers in the JOC. There were also two touch screen monitors just below eye-level containing various options to start or shut off the engine of the aircraft, pull out the landing gear and tailhook, and various other instruments to fly the aircraft and accomplish the missions. Three computer monitors slightly above eye-level showed our view outside of the aircraft and the middle monitor indicated the heading, speed, and altitude of the aircraft. The pilot’s job was to fly the aircraft and listen to their co-pilot’s instructions, while the co-pilot did all of the communication between the air traffic controllers and assisted the pilot in starting and shutting off the engines, making sure the pilot was headed in the right direction at the correct speed and altitude, and helping the pilot land. We did various types of missions, including dropping off buoys and weather balloons for hurricane preparedness, search and rescue missions, and even planning and flying our own Pensacola Beach Air Show.

Throughout the week, I learned many things regarding aviation, the military, and STEM-related fields. Most importantly, I learned the value of teamwork. It was amazing to be a part of a group of 12 strangers with different backgrounds. My squadron included students from Memphis, Nashville, Jacksonville, Tampa, Mobile, and Ft. Rucker. We set aside our differences and found value in each other’s strengths and weaknesses to accomplish our missions. I can honestly say that I have made meaningful friendships, memorable moments, and plenty of inside jokes with my squadron to last a lifetime.

In conclusion, I am blessed and thankful to have experienced this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am mostly thankful to God for all the blessings he has showered upon me, my family for their never-ending love and support, the companies at Brookley Aeroplex, and lastly to Mrs. Day, who gave me the confidence and encouragement to apply to this amazing program. Because of the Brookley STEM Initiative, I have memories and lessons from the National Flight Academy to look back on and look forward to the opportunity of exploring more career fields next year.

Photo by Ditto Gorme