EASTON — Piper Archers have been circling in landing patterns at Easton Airport since June 3, barely producing an audible purr as they grace the landing strip.
Nearly 150 midshipmen second-class (juniors) from the U.S. Naval Academy will undergo the Powered Flight Program in 12 weeks this summer.
“This is the start of their journey,” said Commander Colin Bernard, officer in charge of the Powered Flight Program. “The community should be proud to say they contribute to this.”
Within three to four years, graduates of this program and Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., could be taking off from aircraft carriers in China, Syria or wherever the fight is, Bernard said.
“Not many people know we’re training future naval aviators here,” said Micah Risher, Easton Airport manager. He said the naval training at the airport offers midshipmen great exposure to Talbot County, with some cadets taking a liking to the area and coming back to visit later on.
Cadets complete a one- to two-week Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) academic course before embarking on the flight program at Easton Airport. The FAA course discusses weather, aerodynamics, air space, definitions and rules of the road, similar to a drivers ed class.
The Powered Flight Program (PFP) began at Easton Airport in 2014 and contracts with Trident Aircraft at Easton Airport to manage the program. The 15-event syllabus involves ground and flying events and culminates with a student first-solo around the area. The program runs in three blocks; one group of midshipmen completes the program in four weeks.
“The primary objective of the USNA Powered Flight Program is to provide USNA midshipmen a professional training opportunity that closely mimics the rigors of Naval Primary Flight Training in order to familiarize midshipmen with the flight training environment and to aid midshipmen and the senior aviator in aviation service assignment and career development,” according to the USNA.
Bernard said the success rate, or percentage of cadets completing the entire program, generally falls between 85% to 90%. Failure to complete the program can be attributed to an assortment of reasons, like timing or medical complications.
Incompletion or attrition does not disqualify the midshipman from service selecting naval aviation.
The program has seen a drop in cadets over the years due to expenses. In 2016, there were 245 cadets, and in 2017 the program saw 246 cadets. There were 160 cadets in 2018 with 145 taking on the program this summer.
While costs do climb in paying for civilian instructors, aircrafts, fuel and maintenance, Bernard said the Powered Flight Program is “very cheap compared to the Navy.” The students who complete their first solo as part of PFP will validate Initial Flight Screening (IFS) if selected for aviation, and will not have to complete IFS again when beginning the Aviation Training pipeline.
Scott Stiefel, Easton Newnam Field Airport air traffic manager, said PA-28s are used because they are easier to fly due to aerodynamics. It is a low-wing aircraft and is more stable at low altitudes. PA-28s also have a larger cockpit compared to a Cessna, for example. Stiefel said 200 aircrafts of all kinds are at Easton Airport.
He also said there is a collective 170 years experience among those operating the Easton Airport air traffic control tower.
PFP ground events involve learning how to properly walk around an airplane, judge its flyability and inspect aircrafts’ surface for any issues. Flying procedures involve knowledge of air speed limitations, emergency procedures, cockpit flows, making corrections in the air; the basics, Bernard said.
In the first four events in the flying phase, cadets perform high work at 2500 feet by executing stalls and recovering the aircraft. Landing phases then entail flying students around landing patterns five times with repeated landings.
For the solo trip, cadets make three round trips around the landing pattern before coming to a full stop.
Aside from Easton Airport, Bernard said instructors take students to Cambridge and the Bay Bridge to focus on flying and practice touch and go’s, an aircraft maneuver which touches the ground in landing and immediately takes flight again.