The trip down Highway 45 to Columbus, Miss., was a kinetoscope of pine trees, boxy buildings and snowbanks against hillsides. Country receded into suburb. We passed a large flagpole bearing the Stars-and-Bars. The Californian inside of Taylor Giffen ’09 winced.
“They’ve got a lot those flags down here,” he said matter-of-factly.
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He paused. Then he added, “Personally, it sickens me.”
Giffen grew up in San Diego, and he reminisced about the 70-degree weather, sunny beaches and surfing. But, Giffen is used to being far away from his hometown. Columbus is not that bad, he said, even after his father’s friend told him about a gunfight that broke out in the local Walmart.
We drove through the outer skirts of Columbus, where strip malls popped up like the ones in any suburb. There were motels and all-you-can-eat buffets and grocery stores and signs on giant poles for this-and-that.
Suburb receded into town. We passed the marble factory with its morbid display of gravestones, passed the warehouses with painted roofs, passed the train-tracks where no train ran, passed the cemetery of town founders and Confederate dead, passed the oak-lined streets where Tennessee Williams once played. The white antebellum mansions popped up as if a Faulkner novel had been laid open on its spine. The town is old, much like New Haven, with its Winchester plant, the train tracks and the Grove Street Cemetery.
Columbus has its own university as well. Mississippi University for Women, now co-ed, is at the heart of the town, though less imposing than Yale’s Old Campus abutting the New Haven Green.
“Columbus is about as big as if you took Yale out of New Haven,” Giffen said.
Columbus, Lowndes County, Mississippi. Population 23,798. For Giffen and fellow cadet Benji Hulburt ’08, this is their new home.
* * *
In 1960, one out of five Yale undergraduates joined the military after graduation, as popular a career option as business and finance for today’s undergraduates. In 2008, less than one percent of Yalies graduating decided to join the armed forces. Hulburt and Giffen are among that minority.
Yale’s ban of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program has received plenty of media attention, but there has been little coverage of Yale cadets’ careers after graduation.
Neither Giffen nor Hulburt come from military families, but they share the boyhood dream of becoming pilots. The Air Force is the best way to learn how to fly, Giffen said. His face lit up every time the subject of T-38 fighter jets came up.
Giffen was raised around air planes. His father fixed corporate jets in San Diego and sometimes took him to work. Not only was Giffen able to inspect the inside of the planes with his father, but he also went on test rides, sitting right in the cockpit.
“If you get to fly around in jets when you are four years old,” he said, “nothing is really cooler.”
All through high school, Giffen was determined to attend the Air Force Academy. He was accepted in the September of his senior year. Applying to Yale was almost an afterthought — Giffen did not even bother to check his online acceptance decision weeks after it was released.
But a stay at Yale with the football team (the coach had been trying to recruit him earlier) changed that. Or perhaps it was the Air Force ROTC scholarship he had received that covered his tuition and offered a large stipend to pay for a significant portion of his room and board. At the last minute, Giffen backed out of the Air Force Academy and sent in his decision to Yale on the day of the deadline. While at Yale, Giffen played varsity football his freshman year and later picked up rugby.
The road to the Air Force was tougher for Hulburt. He first developed his passion for flying as a child growing up in Florida. He was so fascinated with airplanes his father would drop him off at the airport, where he would spend hours watching planes take off and land. (Airport security was lax back then.) But poor eyesight almost ended Hulburt’s dream of becoming a pilot until his senior year of high school, when he was approached by a recruiter who recommended that he correct his vision through laser eye surgery. The operation was a success and Hulburt enrolled at Yale with a ROTC scholarship the following fall.
Accepting an ROTC scholarship is a big commitment, but not always a lifetime one. A student can forgo the scholarship after his first year of training with no consequences, but if he quits after that, he must pay it all back.
Then there are the requirements that come after college. As future pilots, Giffen and Hulburt are required to serve in the Air Force for 10 years from the day they graduate from pilot training.
Ten years could be anywhere, depending upon the needs of the Air Force, whether it’s flying cargo planes in Hawaii or flying fighter jets in the Middle East. For Giffen, who sees a long-term career in the Air Force, 10 years might as well turn into 20. After serving that long in the Air Force, a pilot can retire and collect his pensions and benefits.
“I can’t think of anything else I want to do,” he said. “I do know that when I get out I want to do something other than flying commercial jets.”
Many Air Force pilots, including Hulburt, want to work for commercial airlines after leaving the military. (Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who safely landed Flight 1549 in the Hudson River last year, is a graduate of the Columbus Air Force Base.) Unlike Hulburt, who called himself a “chill dude,” Giffen wants to pursue a second career in business or finance, putting his Yale economics degree to good use.
“I gotta try something eventually,” he said with a grin. “But while I’m young, I’ve got to go fast.”
* * *
“BLAZE. It’s a calling more than your personal feelings,” Columbus Air Force Base spokesman Rick “Sonic” Johnson said as he pointed to the BLAZE emblem with a large flying, italicized “Z.” BLAZE pops up everywhere you go, on buildings, on posters and in the biweekly base newspaper Silver Wings.
“It stands for building leaders, advancing integrity, service before self and excellence in all we do,” Johnson said.
Giffen smiled to affirm. Johnson said BLAZE, a part of Air Force leadership training, helps young pilots from across the country to think the same way. This is the type of life philosophy that enables you to fly in formation, 10 feet away from another plane; personal feelings are probably the least of your worries when you are 7,000 feet up in the air doing barrel rolls.
In some ways, the competitiveness of pilot training reminded Hulburt of Yale, he said. Just as students at Yale work hard to become successful in their prospective career paths, the Air Force lieutenants strive to be at the top of their class to ensure they are assigned the track they want. After the second phase of pilot training (flying the basic T-6 planes), the lieutenants are ranked according to their performances and separated into the tanker/transport, fighter jet, Navy turboprop or helicopter tracks. Those who want to become fighter pilots must perform exceptionally well because there are a limited number of slots.
“The No. 1 person gets their No. 1 choice,” Hulburt explained. “The second person — they get their pick. If you’re last in the class, you get what’s left over.”
Where was our Yalie?
“I’m in the middle — the upper middle?” he said hesitantly. “It’s really hard to tell. You won’t really know till your track’s up.”
But pilot training is hardly dog-eat-dog; it’s rather like Yale, Hulburt said. The lieutenants throw parties and play video games together in their free time. Your competitors are your pals at the end of the day. Like clubs at Yale, the Air Force has initiation rituals: Whenever a pilot completes his first solo flight, his friends grab him and dunk him in a water tank. Hulburt had it lucky. He got dunked back in the fall before the water in the tank turned into ice.
“It’s a weird concept because you are competing against each other, but you want to make sure everyone graduates from pilot training,” Hulburt said. “So everyone’s helping each one out.”
Nevertheless, Hulburt claimed that pilot training is like one whole year of midterms. The first phase of pilot training, the academic portion, is a grueling course in everything related to flight: the system of the airplane, physiology of flying, meteorology and navigating air space. While Yale and even his degree in physics did not fully prepare him for this, he is grateful for the academic rigor of his college experience.
“One way Yale might have prepared me better is the study habits,” he said. “Here I have to study constantly.”
The learning does not stop with the classroom. A bombardment of information comes with formal briefs, flight instructor mission briefs, sorties (the actual flights) and mission debriefs. During early weeks, his days started at 5 a.m., before sunrise. During late weeks, his days begin at 9 or 10 a.m.
“At least I have to get eight hours of sleep before every flight,” he added jokingly.
* * *
On Saturday before sunrise, the sky was forebodingly white. The air outside hovered in the 20s, worse with wind chill.
This could have been the 50th floor of some New York firm: the immaculate cubicles with Post-It notes and ballpoint pens, the long table with its array of folders and papers, the boxes of coffee and bagels. The young men filed into the room, chatting about this and that, unfolding their notes, arranging their chairs for the upcoming presentation. But instead of suits and ties, they wore olive-colored flight suits with patches on their arms that read ROCK SUPT, in the same font as the Rock Band video game logo.
At his computer in the Mustang Flight Room, Hulburt was finishing up a PowerPoint presentation for the formal brief, filling in the latest weather data from the Internet. Radar shot? All clear. Precipitation? A chance of light snow. Risk of birds? Low. After finishing, he went up to the podium in the front of the room, checking his notes.
“You guys remember the chant?” he asked the room. “It is —?”
A few puzzled looks.
“It is Saturday!” Hulburt shouted sarcastically. It sounded like an improvised joke Hulburt would have told at Yale when he was a member of the Purple Crayon.
A few laughs. The joke passes. Now it was all business at 0659 hours.
The presentation flashed by. Charts and topological maps. Radar shots and data that would baffle a layman meteorologist. Hulburt’s unit absorbed the information attentively.
At the end of the formal brief, all 13 pilots shouted in unison: “It is Saturday!”
Fifteen minutes later, Hulburt and another student pilot named Kyle Gauthier attended their mission brief with their instructors, Capt. Rob Diaz and Maj. George Mouce. Mounce, more energetic than Hulburt and Gauthier, demonstrated maneuvers with tiny plastic models of their planes on sticks. Today’s mission: improving their barrel rolls and learning the cloverleaf. (The barrel roll actually combines a loop and a roll, aptly named because the airplane’s wheels look as if it where running along the inside edge of a barrel. To complete a cloverleaf, the pilot starts off with a barrel roll and pulls into a basic loop.) The maneuvers looked fine and easy with Mounce’s models and sticks, but everything changes when you are up in the sky where the torque could pull your airplane 300 feet in one second, Mounce said. Plus there’s the extreme G-force, Hulburt added.
As Hulburt, the physicist, explained, G-force is the force of gravity on your body as you are accelerating relative to free-fall. If you’re pulling two Gs, then you are experiencing two times the normal gravity on earth, so everything would feel twice as heavy.
Hulburt’s airplane can pull up to seven Gs. Without proper training or physical exercise, pulling that much G-force could be dangerous. To prevent tunnel vision and blackouts, you must strain all the muscle in your lower body and abdomen to prevent blood rushing out of your head. Modern pilots like Hulburt have it a bit easier because they wear G-suits that tighten their muscles.
Despite all the tricky maneuvers, pulling Gs and the possibility of getting airsick, flying is something of an ethereal experience, Hulburt said. From the cockpit, he can see sky all around him, as if he is one with the clouds.
“The view, especially when I was first flying, was so cool,” he said. “You see everything, you’re above everything. When you go really fast, you can hear the noise of the wind.”
* * *
“Look, there is no controversy,” Giffen insisted in a bar at Tampico Bay, the local Mexican joint.
In their T-shirts, Hulburt and Giffen could pass for two college students out on a Saturday night. They don’t look like the poster boys for returning ROTC to Yale or the subjects of politicized news articles. While they are the only Yalies at Columbus Air Force Base, both Giffen and Hulburt said they do not feel any different, besides being the occasional targets of those why-aren’t-you-so-smart jokes.
For example, during his first solo flight, Hulburt mistakenly thought a plane was coming straight at him and “broke out” of the traffic pattern to avoid collision.
“Everyone laughed at me about it because I broke out for no reason,” he said, laughing a little himself.
Sure, Giffen and Hulburt would like to see ROTC come back to Yale but both appeared pretty pessimistic about it. According to Hulburt, the problem is not just allowing training at Yale but whether there would be enough students signing up for it. If ROTC were to come back to Yale, the University must be more aggressive about recruiting prospective students at feeder high schools with Junior ROTC programs, he said.
“I think one of the main things is that the Air Force isn’t going to invest in two or eight or even 16 people,” he said. “For the Air Force, it’s cheaper to send them to UConn.”
Yale’s ROTC adviser, Jerry Hill, agreed with Giffen and Hulburt, saying that there could be more advertisements to get prospective students interested in the program. He admits he is only a “one-man operation” and does not have the time or resources to do so. Hill added that high school college counselors are really the ones that are effective in promoting ROTC and should tell their students about the financial benefits of the program.
Hulburt added that many colleges and universities in Connecticut, such as Wesleyan University, cannot afford to have ROTC on campus, so they send their students to the University of Connecticut for training. Hulburt and Giffen were allowed to use a rental car with gas paid by Yale. Some of their fellow cadets had to pay out of pocket just to make the weekly trip to UConn’s campus in Storrs.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a year-long review of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the first step towards the lifting of this ban prohibiting openly gay troops from serving in the military. In an interview with the News in November, University Secretary Linda Lorimer said ROTC might return to Yale if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were revoked.
Hill is optimistic and thought that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” might be struck down by the end of this year. If ROTC comes back to Yale, Hill said the first initiative Yale must take is to give cadets course credits for their training. Currently, ROTC cadets do not receive any academic credits for their training.
“I think it will work if both sides want to make it work,” he said.
Grateful for his ROTC experience, Giffen said he thinks more Yalies would sign up for the program if they found out about the financial benefits. ROTC was something of a dream come true for him: He essentially received a free Ivy League education and a much desired job right out of college. “For God, For Country, For Yale” goes hand-in-hand with his personal ambition of becoming a pilot.
“Sure, you can fly in the civilian world,” Giffen said. “But I think people have — I don’t know if obligation is the right word — people should do something to make the world a better place.”