Aviation Preflight Indoctrination

API is generally broken down into two phases: academics and "fun." I am done with the academics, so here's a report on that, plus a little about what's still to come in the next two weeks. Also, advice for students getting ready to start API.

Academic Phase

The academic phase consists of six subjects, each with a written exam, and is completed in 4 weeks. The subjects are Aerodynamics I & II, Weather, Engines & Systems, Navigation, and Flight Rules & Regulations. During these 4 weeks, there are also several swim events. While every day is an evaluation, the key events are a one mile swim in flight suit, an "abandon ship" exercise (jumping from a 12' platform and swimming 25 yards submerged) in flight suit and boots, and both a strokes test and a tread/float in flight suit, boots, vest, gloves, and helmet.

I have just completed the academic phase, yesterday being "Flight Suit Friday" for Class 13-26 (the 26th class of 2013). My company CO at TBS, Major Dowd, referred to API as "academic hazing," and I would have to agree with him. It took a lot of work, but it was possible. I finished 6th of 17 Marines in the class, but we didn't receive any information on how we compared to the 20-something Navy students. I earned a raw score of 96 and a Navy Standard Score (NSS) of 56.

At the end of the academic phase, students are permitted to start wearing a flight suit as the uniform of the day. Until that point, Marines wear the Service B or C uniform, according to the season.

Part of my study group on our first day in flight suits.
(click to enlarge)

The Navy Standard Score

The NSS is how the Navy compares students to each other by normalizing our scores along a bell curve. The highest theoretical NSS is 70. People often want to know how well they must do on the exams in order to get a passing NSS, and there is no real answer. The reason is that two students can go through API one month apart, receive exactly the same exam scores and yet have different NSSes at completion. My score is based on the last so-many days worth of students ahead of me (how exactly it is calculated is kept secret). If they all get really high exam scores, they raise the average exam scores, and I now have to have even better results to be on top of the bell curve. But if the classes ahead of me performed poorly, than my scores will look higher by comparison, yielding a higher NSS for me.

While people often enjoy making fun of Marines for being dumb, the average of all the Marines' exam scores was higher than the Navy's on every exam. This is usually the case in API since we have such higher standards. For example, the Navy has a 3-strikes rule: if you fail three exams, you will be redesignated to another MOS or possibly decommissioned. The Marines only get 2 strikes. If we fail an exam, we do not get to re-test as the Navy does; instead, we are rolled back to a class behind, reattend the lectures, take the exam again with that class, and remain with that class. Furthermore, the Marines must complete flight school (API, Primary, and all the way through getting their wings) with an NSS of 35. Recently a Marine graduate of flight school finished his final check ride, earned his wings, and then learned his NSS was below 35; he gets to keep wearing his wings because he earned them, but he was redesignated to another MOS. For the Navy, they only need a 30 NSS.

Advice for You in the Academic Phase

If you're not a prospective API student, you can click here to skip past my advice.

Read ahead, but not too far.
You can download the actual pubs for API from the Naval Aviation Schools Command (NASC) website—click here. If you want to start reading these before you get to Pensacola, or maybe during your wait before starting API, that's fine. Some guys had flash cards already made beforehand (one was actually studying them during The War back at TBS!), and that's a HUGE advantage since you don't have to take the time to make them when you're already spending all your time studying. Once you start API, read the chapters for your next class in advance, but don't worry about reading further than that. That is, you should definitely be one day ahead in your reading, but more than that isn't necessary—helpful, maybe, but not necessary.

Form a study group.
This cannot be stressed enough. Inevitably, you'll pick up some things faster than others will and other things slower than others. Studying in a group helps keep you all together. As Marines, we understand the importance of helping each other all get through something difficult, and this becomes evident in API when you see Marines staying late to help one another long after the Navy students have gone home. However, you should form a study group that is a mix of services; coming from different backgrounds can provide different ways of understanding things, and that may be just the thing to push you from a 88 to a 96 on an exam.

Study every day.
During in-processing for API, they told our class to study 4 hours every weekday outside of class and 8 hours every weekend-day. They aren't kidding: you need to study that much, that hard. The way my study group did this was to stay after hours every day in the API building to study in a group setting. During the early days of a new subject, we would review the things we have learned so far. As the exam got closer, we would start to use the questions in the book to ask each other questions. If anybody didn't understand something, we would not move on until it was understood. Every test question comes from the Enabling Objectives listed at the beginning of each chapter, so focus on those.

Shoot the closest wolf to the sled.
Kill the closest gator to the boat. Spray the closest fire to the house. Watch the closest pedophile to the playground. There are a bunch of metaphors tossed around, but the point is that on any given day, one exam is closer than any other, and that's the most dangerous one on said given day. The exams are staggered, so while one subject just had its first class yesterday, the next exam is tomorrow. Pay attention in every class and keep up with what you were expected to learn that day, but you have to really nail down and polish that stuff for the upcoming exam.

Take breaks.
You can't go 100% all day, every day, for four solid weeks. You can probably do it for a full week at a time, though. I recommend taking Friday night as your night to do nothing, just decompress (after your 4 hours, that is). Sleep in on Saturday, then do some self-study for a couple hours before meeting up with your study group. On any given day, try not to go more than an hour at a time without taking a quick break. Walk around the house, get a snack or drink, or even just carry on some side discussion with your study group. Simply switching subjects can make a good break, too. Whatever you do, be sure you pace yourself; we had a few Marines roll back into our class from ahead of us, and they attested to the fact that they tried to go full bore the whole time, and simply burned out by the time the 5th exam arrived.

Use the gouge… carefully.
Live by the gouge; die by the gouge. There is great gouge out there, and you can get it from somebody in the class ahead of you. They are going to be changing over from the T-34 to the T-6 as the instructional aircraft in the pubs very soon, so it is probably better if you just get the latest, greatest gouge when you are about to start API than to get it from me, so I won't make it available to you. (And don't ask me.) Here's the key part: only use the gouge when you are in your group sessions, and only after you have studied the book itself thoroughly. The reason is that, while the gouge has a lot of great tips for knowing what to expect on the exams, there are things in the gouge that are simply wrong. The only way to catch those wrong items is to use the gouge after studying the book first. Use it in your study group as a way to pose more questions to each other, that way at least one of you will realize, "Hey, that's not right. It should be this instead." And then go find the correct answer in the book. Live by the gouge; die by the gouge.

Do your best, not just good enough.
You must absolutely avoid the attitude that leads you to try to find out how good you need to do in order to get X. You need to do the best you can at every stage. Put max effort into everything—and you'll get the best NSS you can. If you slack off and take it easy, you'll still get the NSS you deserve, and it won't be as high. Don't be that slacker that smirks after the exam results and says, "I got an 88, and I didn't even try." Everybody looks down at that guy. Sure, it worked for you in college—it worked for a lot of us in college. But this isn't college any more. This is training to be professional military aviators, holding lives in our hands. It is our duty to be absolutely the best we can be, or take your lackadaisical attitude back to the civilian world.

The Fun Stuff

There is a week and a half left in API. I only have a few rough ideas about what happens during that time.

Some water survival events remain. Things I have heard are a part of it include exercises in escaping from a parachute apparatus while being dragged by it through the water and also escaping from a helicopter simulator that is submerged—the "helodunker"—and rolled upside down while we are in full gear but forced to wear blackout goggles.

There will also be some land survival classes. And, I know that we will do some sort of high-altitude training, wherein we are put into a decompression chamber and given some sort of tasks to complete: this helps us understand how difficult simple tasks become while deprived of oxygen.

Here are a few videos I found online that may help give an idea of the sort of events I have left. These are just a few, but you can look at the related videos that YouTube shows for each, too. But, note that some of these are a few years old; training procedures change over time, especially when we are amid serious budgetary limitations (as we now are).

The Altitude Chamber

The Helodunker

Highlights of Fun Phase Events


I will graduate API on Wednesday of next week, 22 May 2013, then I'll check in to Primary on Thursday. My understanding is that I will have a little over a week until I class up, so perhaps I can to update you on these last days of API at that point. But first, in my next post, I want to give you an idea of the training pipeline after API.


  1. Captain Jones12 June, 2013 16:23

    Caleb-I appreciate what you're doing but I must advise you that you need to change the name of your blog. As a Marine Corps Aviator (EA-6B pilot) I think it's a bit misleading to call yourself a pilot. As you know Naval Flight Officers are not pilots. Just like it's not right for someone to call themselves a Marine without earning the title it is not right for an NFO to call themselves a pilot. You are just getting started in your Marine Corps career and this advice will serve you well. Own your MOS. If you want to be a pilot then lat move when the opportunity presents itself.

  2. Concur. Call it "my Life as a Marine Aviator"

  3. I disagree with "Captain Jones". NFO's do almost all of the training events that aviators do. NFO's must be skilled pilots, otherwise they wouldn't be required to fly during their training. In other words, an NFO can't be a good NFO unless they are also a good pilot. They specialize in instruments, but that doesn't make them any less skilled pilots during training. Nonetheless, the title should be changed. You're not an NFO or a Marine pilot yet. I would change it to something like "my life as an aviation pipeline student".

  4. Thank you all for your remarks regarding the site's title. Please refer to my latest post, New Name for the Site.

  5. As someone who was just selected for OCS and has an aviation contract, this was an incredibly useful post! Thanks for sharing. If you have any more experiences you feel like posting about, I would love to read them.


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