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Flying: From Dream to Takeoff

BU 2010 ROTC grad becomes a naval aviator

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Denise Miller is soaring.

As the Corpus Christi sun reflects off a sea of T-34 Turbo-Mentor prop planes on the ground below, Ensign Miller dips, flips, circles, cuts the engine, recovers, and executes a series of touch-and-go landings, kissing the pavement at 105 miles per hour and guiding her plane back to 800 feet in less than a minute. After 90 minutes in the air, she brings the plane down and emerges onto the tarmac in a flight suit emblazoned with a patch of BU Terrier mascot Rhett. Miller eases off her helmet, pushes back some renegade strands of hair, and flashes a jubilant smile.

This was her first aerobatic solo flight, and though she pulled it off without a hitch, in the days leading up to it she was pushed to the limit. “They simulate engine and electric failure,” she says. “They task-saturate you and see if you can handle it in the air, and it’s really stressful. You realize that if you do one wrong thing it can escalate into a very bad situation.”

Miller (ENG’10) is on her way to joining the elite ranks of naval aviators. A quick study, confident but unpretentious, she has spent months training to pilot and navigate, flying, or thinking about flying. Like many of her 15 Navy ROTC classmates at BU, Miller, who studied mechanical engineering, has always dreamed of becoming a pilot. Although most succeed, a very small number of fledgling naval officers who share that dream will not make it. Some freeze up their first time in the cockpit. Some flunk the physical exam. Miller had a few advantages: an engineer’s exacting brain, an athlete’s endurance, a taste for adventure, and a family that bleeds Navy, including a sister who’s a 2008 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and a surface warfare officer on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, and parents, her mother a retired senior chief and her father a retired master chief, who met as young naval enlistees stationed in Guam.

Still, Miller’s path to the solo flight has been a marathon test of will. There were days when she had butterflies in her stomach all the way to the airbase, hoping she wouldn’t freeze up when she got in the plane. Although she reviewed emergency procedures to the point of exhaustion, once or twice she couldn’t come up with the right answers in pre-flight briefings, where performance, fliers say, “buys your ticket to the plane.”

There were times when she worried that she might forget something, like pulling up the landing gear after takeoff. Most of the young fliers in her group had done that once or twice, putting the landing gear at risk when they reached top speed.

“I’d get mad at myself,” she says. “But if I flew afterward and the flight went well, I felt redeemed.”

Denise Miller, Boston University Navy ROTC

Miller with her parents, Carolyn and Dennis Miller, and her sister, Lieutenant j.g. Sara Everett. Photo courtesy of Denise Miller

Three months earlier at the Naval Air Station, across the gulf in Pensacola, Fla., Miller advanced from a four-week-long initial training phase, or IFS, to 15 hours of training in a small civilian Cessna to aviation preflight indoctrination. There she tackled a six-week intensive course load in aerodynamics, engine systems, meteorology, navigation, and flight rules. The dry classroom material was offset, she says, by the very wet business of water survival tactics, where she learned how to make a life preserver out of her pants.

After the transfer to Corpus Christi and 80 more hours in the air, Miller will decide (or the Navy will decide for her, depending on her performance and a wartime military’s needs) whether she’ll fly carrier-landing fixed-wing planes including Top Gun Tailhook fighter jets, sturdy Seahawk and Sea Dragon helicopters, used in combat search and rescue, or the 116-foot-long P-3 Orion, a frontline patrol aircraft dating back to the 1960s and still flying over Iraqi and Afghan airspace. Miller, due for a promotion next May from ensign to lieutenant junior grade, is trying to pin down a preference, but insists that things will be fine whatever cockpit she finds herself in. (About 25 percent of trainees don’t get to fly their first choice of aircraft.) On the rare occasions when she allows herself to daydream, she focuses on the moment, date undetermined, when her proud family will look on as her commanding officer presents her with a set of gold wings extending from a shield and a fouled anchor—the insignia of a warfare-ready naval aviator.

The naval aviator program is one of four Navy ROTC programs at BU; the others are surface warfare officer, submarine officer, and Navy SEAL. Students attend summer training cruises, where they tag along with squadrons flying Navy aircraft. It was those stints, one with an F-18 fighter squadron and one with a Prowler squadron, that solidified Miller’s decision to go into naval aviation.

The main job of Navy pilots is to provide attack, defense, and logistical support to the fleet of ships on the water below. They also have a role in antisubmarine warfare, search and rescue, and resupply missions. Unlike the arguably tidier lives of Air Force pilots (“They iron their flight suits,” retired naval aviator Bob Norris writes on a fighter pilot blog), Navy pilots live on ships, fly in terrible weather, and have to learn to land their craft on carriers. The prospect of their first carrier landing looms menacingly over aviator trainees almost from day one—that exhilarating, terrifying image of the “hook down, wheels down” moment when a plane flying 120 miles per hour throttles forward and slams to a full stop as its tailhook catches the deck’s arresting cable. As Miller’s Corpus Christi squadron leader, Lieutenant Ian Rummel, puts it, “Flying onto the back of a boat during a storm is the hardest thing a human can do.”

Miller wants to do it in a jet.

Denise Miller at ROTC commissioning ceremony

At the ROTC commissioning ceremony in May 2010, Miller with BU friends (from left) Matthew Kelly (ENG’10), Michael Lashutka (SMG’10), and Patrick McDowell (ENG’10). Photo courtesy of Denise Miller

Pensacola

After graduation and 10 days of hiking and relaxing by the lake near her family’s home in Clifton, Maine, Miller drove to Pensacola, the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” for her preflight indoctrination. Her new home was commissioned in 1825 by President John Quincy Adams, and Marine Corps and Coast Guard pilots also learn to fly there. The air station is also the home of the Navy’s famed Blue Angels.

Except for a free-standing Starbucks, the station, with its squat brick buildings and sedate quads, seems frozen in the ’40s, when its capacity multiplied tenfold to groom World War II fliers.

At NAS Pensacola, under the umbrella of CNATRA (Chief of Naval Air Training), Miller found herself wading in the swirling current of military acronyms as an SNA (student naval aviator), completing her IFS (introductory flight screening), API (aviation preflight indoctrination), and PFT (physical fitness test), sweating through NAV (navigation) class, and pondering the airborne virtues of fixed-wing C-2s, FA-18s, P-3s, E-2s and EA-18Gs.

From combat-seasoned lieutenants and captains with base names like Flemmie and Swannee, she learned which planes use what fuel, basic stick and rudder training, and how to navigate in a 50-mile-per-hour wind, as well as the physics of flying and weather patterns. She got used to being saluted by enlisted men and women with more years and more experience.

She endured the barrage of technical training, but it was her first, hour-long solo flight, with three takeoffs and landings, in the Cessna 172 that marked Miller’s most satisfying day. “I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I was going to be,” she recalls. “It was actually a lot of fun.” And she came out of it persuaded that she really did have the nerve to be a pilot.

Like most pilots, the five-foot, five-inch Miller is compactly built. Her cherubic features are framed by long light brown hair worn braided and pinned up like a Swiss milkmaid, in the prevailing Navy style.

Miller, whose squadron of 50 was about a quarter female, formed fast friendships with her roommates in the apartment they shared off base. She grappled with, then quickly settled into, the minutiae of base protocol, including the quirky, historic practices that seemed designed mainly to distinguish the Navy from the Marine Corps or Coast Guard. She learned who salutes whom, who in the Navy wears brown shoes (aviators) as opposed to black (surface warfare community), how to decipher enlisted men and women from officers based on insignia sewn onto their blue camis, and who wears their caps scrunched (winged pilots). She soon found herself using a pilot’s vernacular, which ranges from the urgently technical, such as NATOPS (naval air training and operational procedures standardization) to the darkly whimsical—ground troops, for example, are “crunchies.” A submarine pilot is a “bubblehead.”

When it came to physical training, Miller’s strength—she’s a runner and was on her high school swim team—proved to be a major asset in water survival trials, ejection drills, and a mile-long swim in her flight suit. She found that the academic and physical demands of training each served as an antidote to the other during the 10-hour days.

At one afternoon’s NAV class, Miller fell into place with fellow naval officers, enlisted men and women, marines, and flight surgeons. As senior marine on base, instructor Major Chad Swan (Swannee) is the archetypal jarhead, with a linebacker’s build and hair shorn flat as a landing strip. His office décor is three parts Harley Davidson catalogue to one part Guns & Ammo. Swannee kicks off NAV class with deafening Top Gun music and a carpet-bombing video. “Get ya at least awake,” he says as the bombs thunder down. “Does anyone here know what you call that many bombs?” Silence. “A shitload!” Swannee has his fun, but the subject is deadly serious and potentially lifesaving. A Cobra pilot by training, he completed seven operational tours: two in Kosovo, three in Iraq, and two in Operation Enduring Freedom.

“Been there, done that a little bit,” he tells the students. And then he plunges into the workings of the so-called whiz wheel, engine class, and a lecture on the virtues of JP-5 fuel (it’s cheaper), then on to the NAS pool for the survival swim. Miller had already had to swim a mile after a simulated crash, and she is prepping for the mile-long swim in her flight suit. “I don’t want to sound cocky,” she says, “but I thought 80 minutes to swim a mile,” even with the drag of a flight suit, “was pretty easy.” She also learned how to float to conserve energy while waiting for rescue and how to avoid being burned if there’s burning oil on the water (putting your hand on your face, splashing, and swimming in a spiral). “I jumped off a 12-foot tower onto a float and dealt with simulated burning debris on the water,” she says. “That can happen in a plane crash, and it could be two or three days before you’re rescued.”

Several weeks later, it was time to advance to the next level, called primary basic familiarization flying. And soon Miller was on her way to NAS Corpus Christi.

Denise Miller after flying a T-34

Ensign Denise Miller after her first T-34 solo flight in Corpus Christi, June 2011. Photo courtesy of Denise Miller

Corpus Christi

The June temperature in Corpus Christi hovers near 100 degrees, but Miller appears cool and collected in her zip-up green flight suit. She shares an apartment here, on sultry North Padre Island, with two other women aviators, but the bulk of her days is spent on the base’s vast tarmac, with Sikorsky prop planes, helicopters, transport planes, and jets endlessly aligned like troops preening for a review. And helicopters, she says, have become very appealing. They hover, they grab, they swoop in and rescue people in the worst imaginable conditions. Yes, says Miller, helicopters are cool.

For now, though, it’s all Sikorsky all the time. Although the division is arbitrary, Miller’s squadron—the Rangers—is in a good-natured competition with the other primary flight squadron, the Boomers. “The flying’s easy—it’s the takeoff and landing that’s hard,” says Rummel. The plane Miller has been flying, a T-34 single-engine prop, is known as the Volkswagen of aircraft—endlessly reliable and easy to fix.

Flying is always subject to weather, but there isn’t much hurry up and wait at Corpus Christi. It’s six packed months, kicked off by ground school—aircraft systems, emergency procedures—and the budding aviators’ first taste of maneuvers and spins. Like just about everything on the base, time flies, and the daunting aerobatics solo comes up fast. Miller knows the requirements—the aileron roll, the barrel roll, the wingover, the loop de loop—and she’s ready, so ready she can taste it.

When it’s over, and Miller has nailed it, there is precious little time for celebration. She must prepare for her first night flight the following day. That evening, she enjoys a rare relaxed meal at a seafood place on Padre Island. Dressed in civilian shorts and a tank top, her hair hanging loose to below her shoulders, Miller muses about the virtues of helos versus jets, a tough call for someone who still has a few months of training on T-34s, including a cross-country flight from Corpus Christi to Denver.

By the time she is done, at the end of this past summer, a funny thing has happened. Helicopters have lost their luster. Jets no longer soar through her dreams. The machine Miller wants to pilot these days is the famously reliable four-engine turboprop P-3 Orion, a long-range surveillance and reconnaissance workhorse that has served the Navy for 50 years.

“I chose the P-3 for lifestyle,” she says. “I really wanted to work with a crew and be part of a team.” Miller will fly P-3s with a copilot and crews of up to 10 people. “And it’s more secretive. People on the ground in tactical areas will have no idea we’re up there.”

6 Comments
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

6 Comments on Flying: From Dream to Takeoff

  • Ben Lovegrove on 10.11.2011 at 7:17 am

    What an inspiring story! Many pilots, both civilian and military,
    will recognise Denise’s pre flight nerves, wondering what essential
    part of the checks both before and during flight, she might have
    forgotten.

    But military flying is a much stricter discipline. She and her family
    have every reason to be proud.

  • ramya kumar on 10.12.2011 at 8:11 am

    Even as Denise takes her 3rd solo flight, she is smiling that huge grin that tells you that this has been her dream and she’s ecstatic that it’s come true. As another 2010 grad, I am very happy for you and proud of all the hard work you put in to follow your path!

  • Linda Stephenson on 10.20.2011 at 6:53 pm

    Great story, well told. But one serious error — re “As senior marine on base, instructor Lieutenant Chad Swan (Swannee)” — In the video, Swan introduces himself as MAJOR Chad Swan. He’s a Marine (note the initial uppercase). If he were a Marine lieutenant, he certainly wouldn’t be in charge of anything.

    • Susan Seligson on 10.26.2011 at 4:35 pm

      Correction made; thank you!

  • Daniel Vicario on 12.13.2011 at 6:47 pm

    Nice story! I graduated from Navy Flight school in 1999. Two Master degrees later and Navy Flight School was by far the toughest thing I have ever done in my life.

  • Bryan Luciani on 07.24.2012 at 12:38 pm

    Inspiring story. As a retired Navy Warrant Officer and BU Grad student, it fills me with pride to see kids like Denise Miller moving on to a great Navy life after getting the best in education. Great parents raise great kids. Go BU! Go Navy!

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