Perspectives: Justin Riddle, USAF
Written by Justin Riddle   

After visiting this site, I quickly learned that there are numerous different pathways that lead to an aviation career. In short, there is no singular “right way” to get a job. This article is about how I got my job flying the mighty C-17A Globemaster for the USAF.

Growing up, I always dreamed of flying. After a long application process, I was accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. In 1997, I graduated and began working on my private pilots license. Later that year, I started Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) at Columbus AFB, MS. The first 6 months of SUPT are spent in the T-37 (the T-37 is currently being phased out and replaced by the much more modern T-6). After 6 months, students are rank-ordered and offered various tracks: fighter/bomber, tanker/transport, helicopter, or C-130. I had always wanted to fly big airplanes, so I selected the tanker/transport track and flew the T-1A Jayhawk, which is a twin engine business jet. After 6 more months of rigorous training, I graduated and finally earned my wings.

At graduation, students are once again rank ordered. I was lucky enough to get my first choice of assignments: a C-17 to Charleston AFB, SC.The C-17 is the best airplane in the Air Force inventory! It’s a large (585,000 lbs) four-engine transport airplane. The airplane is still in production and there’s nothing quite like flying a brand new airplane with 10 hours on it! The C-17 is highly automated: fly-by-wire flight controls, Pilot and Copilot Heads Up Displays (HUDs), autopilot, autothrottles, thrust reversers, and just about every other bell and whistle known to mankind. Our mission includes airdrop, air refueling, low levels, Night Vision Goggle (NVG) operations, assault landings, tactical descents (about 15,000 to 20,000 feet per minute) and various ground operations such as aircraft backing and combat offloads. This airplane is simply amazing! We routinely fly into small and austere airfields as short as 3,500 feet long and 90 feet wide (1/2 our wingspan).

 

C-17 takeoff from Bagram, Afghanistan. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor runway construction stops the wartime flow of cargo
C-17 in Bagram.  Notice the other C-17 taking off into some of the world’s most extreme terrain.  These pictures are extremely rare in that most combat operations occur at night on NVGs.
The highly automated “glass cockpit” found in all C-17s
Air refueling behind a KC-135

Initial and upgrade training for the C-17 is at Altus AFB, OK. After about 3 months, I graduated as a C-17 copilot and started flying out of Charleston. My first few missions were right into Bosnia! Ask any military pilot and they’ll agree—you will fly combat missions, even as a brand new copilot. Within two years, I completed my airdrop upgrade (not every C-17 pilot is qualified in airdrop and formation).

I also completed my Aircraft Commander upgrade. I was a 26 year old Captain in command of a heavy, 4-engine, $300 million dollar airplane flying international routes! Within 4 years of graduating pilot training, I completed my Instructor Pilot, Formation Lead, and Flight Examiner upgrades. The civilian aviation world does not offer that kind of responsibility at such a young age. But the civilian world also doesn’t ask you to fly into combat. My 2nd mission in command was into Kandahar Afghanistan. It was quite a night – my jet was loaded with cargo and I landed between 2 bomb craters on a 3,500 foot long section of the runway. My landing distance (I’ll never forget this number) was 3,380 feet… a whole 120 feet to spare! I also had the privilege of flying in the first ever use of the C-17 for high altitude humanitarian airdrop in Afghanistan. I’ve flown hundreds of hours on NVGs flying real-world assault landings in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Benefits of flying the C-17A Globemaster:

- Rapid upgrade to Aircraft Commander, Instructor Pilot and maybe even Evaluator
- Multiengine time, including a lot of PIC time
- International flying
- Fun! Air Refueling, NVG landings, assault landings, low levels, airdrop, etc.
- A lot of flying time- after September 11, 2001, I flew up to 170 hours/month.
- Combat flying. You will make a difference in the world! Anything ranging from an urgent MEDEVAC mission to humanitarian airdrop missions. Your flying impacts world politics!
- Job security. You have a guaranteed job for at least 10 years.
- Camaraderie. C-17 crews get pretty close. As a C-17 pilot, I was frequently gone from home. The C-17 community does an outstanding job looking out for each other. I’ve had neighbors cut my grass, help my wife take care of the car, and do a lot of things that are unheard of in the civilian world.

Disadvantages:
- Away from home a lot (anywhere from 180-250 days/year)
- Long crew duty days. My record is about 30 hours, but 24-26 hour duty days are the standard. The C-17 does have a crew bunk, so you can take a few short naps. And there’s nothing quite like making fresh cinnamon rolls after a long combat sortie!
- Combat flying. The C-17 has impressive tactical capabilities that involve flying into hostile areas. It is not uncommon for C-17 pilots to deal with AAA, shoulder fired surface to air missiles, and small arms fire (AK-47, RPGs, mortars, etc.).
- In general, it is rare for an active duty military pilot to have more than 3,500 to 5,000 hours. After promotion to the rank of Major (about 10 years total service), you will be expected to take on more leadership and less flying jobs.
- After completion of SUPT, you generally incur an 8-10 year commitment to serve in Active status in the USAF.If you have any questions, about the Air Force, C-17, or the USAF Academy, don't hesitate to ask!

Justin Riddle
c17riddle@comcast.net