Navy Lt. Bryce Aubuchon returned to the United States last month from a deployment as a U.S. Navy pilot in the Middle East, where he was commander of a P-3 Orion, a large surveillance aircraft with four turbojet engines.
Lt. Aubuchon flew the last mission over Iraq before the U.S. withdrawal. Overall he logged more than 70 hours of flight time there.
He also was aboard the first military aircraft on the scene in Haiti after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit in January 2010.
And prior to that, he was stationed in El Salvador, covering areas of the South Pacific and Caribbean tracking drug runners in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard.
These days, Lt. Aubuchon, a 2000 graduate of St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, is stationed in Pensacola, Fla., where he is serving as a primary flight instructor to newly commissioned naval flight officers.
“It’s very humbling,” Aubuchon told The Missourian. “Six years ago I had just found out I would be a pilot.”
That had been a dream of his from childhood, but one he didn’t think could come true because his grades, though good, weren’t good enough.
But he had plenty of passion and determination, which it turned out, counted for more than his GPA.
From College to Cubicle to OCS
Aubuchon always knew he wanted to be a pilot. As a boy, his favorite toys were toy airplanes, and any time the family flew somewhere on vacation, he loved it.
“It just appealed to me,” Aubuchon recalled.
When he was 14, his parents, Joseph and Elizabeth Aubuchon, Washington, gave him flying lessons as a present and he was “hooked.” Flying over Washington in a single-engine plane felt like heaven.
At SFBRHS, Aubuchon didn’t have the opportunity to take JROTC classes and after he graduated he enrolled in college, Southeast Missouri State University, where in spring 2005 he earned a degree in mass communications with an emphasis in public relations and a minor in English.
Aubuchon’s dream was to fly in the Navy, but he thought he never had a chance.
“It’s so competitive and my grades weren’t the highest,” he said, noting a 3.8 GPA or greater is usually what’s needed to be in contention, and he had a 3.6. He looked into civilian flight schools too, but they were expensive, so he didn’t pursue that.
Aubuchon accepted a job working for Linde Healthcare in St. Louis, recruiting doctors to work for hospitals.
“It was a cubicle job,” Aubuchon said. “I spent all day on the phone. It just didn’t fit me or my personality.”
Still dreaming of serving in the military, Aubuchon decided in November 2005 to talk to an OCS (officer candidate school) recruiter about the Navy pilot program. Applying meant taking a three-hour test and physical fitness test, as well as providing all of his school transcripts and three professional letters of recommendation.
That “package” of information is submitted to a review board, which either recommends or not recommends each applicant to OCS, said Aubuchon.
“Even if you’re recommended, that doesn’t mean you get in,” he noted.
In February 2006, Aubuchon was told he had been recommended and on April 26, on his parents’ anniversary, he got that phone call that he had been accepted into OCS.
“That meant as long as I graduated, I would get to go to flight school,” said Aubuchon.
Officer Candidate School
In July 2006 Aubuchon arrived in Pensacola, Fla., for the Navy’s Officer Candidate School, a 12-week boot camp-like program for college graduates run by Marine Corps drill instructors, which means it was “hard core physical fitness.”
“Wake Up Wednesday” is what they call the first day of drill instruction, said Aubuchon. The entire day is spent working out — running, doing push-ups . . .
“Two people dropped out that day,” Aubuchon noted.
Then comes “Black Friday,” another all-day fitness test.
“We started out running 2 1/2 or three miles in khaki pants and a khaki shirt,” recalled Aubuchon, noting the temperature was in the low- to mid-90s with humidity around 70 or 80 percent.
Next they were soaked with water from a firehose and then told to crawl through a sandpit, still wearing the khaki uniform.
“Then they told us to fill our pockets with sand and carry it into the hallway of this building and empty out our pockets on the floor,” Aubuchon said. “Then we were told to sweep it all up using our bodies.
“It was all these kinds of tasks meant to get us to question whether we really wanted this.”
The intense physical tests went on for four weeks, said Aubuchon. Recruits were up at 5 a.m., didn’t get to bed until 10 p.m. at the earliest and the entire time in between was spent in physical conditioning (a lot of time was spent in sandpits), being yelled at and completing mundane tasks.
After the first four weeks, the program shifts its focus to academics for weeks five through eight, said Aubuchon. Subjects include history of the Navy, how to be an officer, how to deal with failure and problematic situations . . .
The physical conditioning is still part of the daily routine, said Aubuchon. It’s just not as rigorous.
Weeks nine and 10 of the program are focused on preparing for inspection — of your room, locker and person.
Throughout the entire program, recruits drop out for various reasons, said Aubuchon, and this inspection — which is as intense as any of the previous tests, maybe even more so — is the last chance for instructors to test their mettle.
Although an inspection seems like a simple enough test to pass, Aubuchon said the bar is sky high.
“You have to arrange your locker to exact specifications, down to a millimeter,” he said. “You have to fold your shirts a certain way, to exact measurements, to the point where they break out a ruler.
“And while they’re inspecting you, they will ask you questions,” he said.
The inspection has a 100-point scale and if you lose 20 or more points, you fail. And it’s easy to lose points, Aubuchon noted.
“You can lose a point for having a hair on your shirt,” he said. “A loose thread? That’s a hit. A fingerprint? That’s a hit.
“That’s why you spend those two weeks making sure you do everything correctly.”
Recruits aren’t necessarily thrown out for failing the inspection, said Aubuchon. They are held back and made part of the next class.
Those who do pass the inspection spend their last weeks as candidate officers or “Candy O’s.” They are in charge of the incoming class of recruits, which means they organize their paperwork, give them an introduction to military lifestyle, make sure they show up on time, that they have their uniforms squared away, they have all the necessary medical screenings . . .
“Most of these guys go from not knowing a single thing about the military on Day 1 to being in charge of the next class 12 weeks later,” said Aubuchon.
There were 30 members in Aubuchon’s graduating class, which included a few members who had rolled in from previous classes.
He had started OCS with a class of 44.
Two members of his graduating class were women.
After graduating from OCS, Aubuchon went for IFS — introductory flight screening, which is basic flight training in a single-engine aircraft. The goal here is to complete 25 hours of flying.
“The only purpose of this is to make sure a person is physically and mentally capable of flying, to expose them to aviation,” said Aubuchon, noting there are some who do “wash out” at this level.
Aubuchon did so well though that just eight hours into his 25 hours, the instructor told him to go it alone.
After IFS comes Aviation Preflight Indoctrination, a six-week program that focuses first on academics — navigation, physics of how planes fly, how to plan a flight route . . .
The last two weeks, however, are spent on survival training — acting out water rescue scenarios, learning how to build a shelter, how to purify water, how to find food, how to do a parachute landing.
“If you failed any test two times, you were kicked out,” said Aubuchon, noting that less than an 80 percent is failing.
“So you do a lot of studying on the weekends.”
Once he passed API, Aubuchon was sent to Corpus Christi, Texas, for primary flight school where he was assigned to fly the T34, a single-engine turbo plane.
At this level, lessons are very intense and every event is graded, said Aubuchon.
“We go over landing pattern techniques, instrument navigation, aerobatics, cross country navigation, formation flying . . .
“It’s very eye-opening,” Aubuchon commented. “There’s a very steep learning curve.”
Primary flight school is about eight months of training, after which pilots are assigned to an aircraft before they’re sent to advanced flight school to complete another seven months of training. Aubuchon was selected to fly the P-3 Orion, a large multiengine land-based plane, which means it takes off from airfields, rather than aircraft carriers.
This plane carries antisubmarine, antiship missiles, torpedoes, waterborne mines and bombs, said Aubuchon. It has a crew of 11.
Two years after he entered Officer Candidate School, Aubuchon earned his naval aviator wings in July 2008.
He was sent to Jacksonville, Fla., where he was assigned to Patrol Squadron 30, then to Fleet Replacement Squadron and finally was assigned to Fleet Squadron VP-26 in Brunswick, Maine.
Their plane carried three pilots — a 3P (the newest pilot onboard), 2P (copilot) and a PPC, patrol plane commander.
Being upgraded from 3P to 2P and finally to PPC requires more intense training each step of the way, being put through simulator and flight events.
Most pilots complete the progression in about 24 months. Aubuchon did it in just 18 months. He made PPC in January 2011.
“It’s very humbling to look back and think of all the wicked things you had to do to be where you are,” said Aubuchon, remembering friends he made along the way who dropped out of the program at different points.
He feels lucky to have made it.
After he was upgraded to PPC, Aubuchon was selected to be an instructor pilot on the P-3 Orion, which was exciting because it’s not an easy assignment to get, but it also required more training.
“Only one out of six or seven pilots are chosen,” said Aubuchon. “But there’s six months of training to learn how to train the new guys.”
The training it takes to be an instructor pilot is “stressful,” said Aubuchon.
“They put you in situations they are crazy . . . They go out there acting like know-nothing students to teach you how to respond.”
All of the situations are real, documented scenarios that past students did, Aubuchon noted.
He completed his instructor pilot training in October 2011.
“It was the most intense flight training I’ve ever done,” he remarked.
Aubuchon was a 2P on his first deployment was in December 2009. He was sent to Central America on drug interdiction.
The missions were all different, he recalled.
“Some were boring. Others were sexy and intense,” he said.
Being deployed to Haiti following the earthquake was “very humbling,” said Aubuchon.
He was deployed to the Middle East in November 2011, flying combat missions over Iraq, clearing paths of IEDs or ambush for America’s troops on the ground.
Each mission lasted 10 to 12 hours, Aubuchon noted.
He returned from a six-month deployment in the Middle East in May.
Primary Flight Instructor
Back in Pensacola, Fla., Aubuchon is now on his second tour, a “shore tour,” which means he won’t be deployed for three years. As a newlywed — he and wife, Katie, were married in October 2010 — he appreciates that. It gives them time to start a family.
Aubuchon has been assigned to the T-6A Texan II, a faster, sleeker plane than the P-3 Orion. It has two seats and is more powerful, Aubuchon noted.
His job will be teaching students how to fly it. For many, it will be their first exposure to aviation.
As far as he’s come from his own days in primary flight school, Aubuchon says he can still relate to what his students will be going through. He’s still in awe over the trajectory of his own career and how differently everything could have turned out for him if he didn’t follow his dream.
“If I would have let those two-tenths in my GPA dictate what I did, my life would have a very different scenario,” he said.