Marine Super Cobra Pilot Captain Derek Garden talks about his career.
What do you do for a living?
I fly AH-1W Super Cobras. It’s the Marines’ attack helicopter.
How would you describe what you do?
My primary job is to fly my helicopter and provide CAS (Close Air Support) to the Marines on the ground. Basically to keep them safe by way of protecting their transport helicopters, medevac aircraft, or destroying nearby threats with our various rockets, missiles, and gun. My secondary job is as an operation officer, which involves writing the flight schedule that my squadron operates on daily. Every Marine pilot in a helo squadron has a ground job of some sort that is involved in helping the squadron run on a day to day basis.
What does your work entail?
My primary job when we aren’t deployed is to fly my aircraft and train so that when I’m deployed I have all the necessary skills. That means training on NVGs (night vision goggles), practicing weapons delivery, practicing emergency procedures, studying my aircraft to know the systems and how to get the most out of them, a ton of different things. We also participate in mock combat scenarios with the ground troops that we will be supporting on deployment to get everyone used to seamlessly integrating on the battlefield. My second job is a bit tedious. It involves writing the schedule, the “big picture” if you will, for the squadron’s daily operations. It means making sure the proper people are assigned to the right events, making sure aircrew have the time they need to prepare for missions, and talking to other units to ensure we are all on the same page across the battlefield. There are many different ground jobs to do when you aren’t flying, some are better than others.
What’s a typical work week like?
Here in the U.S. it is a 10-12 hour day, starting at 0700 depending on what is going on, 5 days a week. You may fly a couple times a week for a few hours, you may plan for several hours for an upcoming training mission, you may just do your ground job, it all depends. Every day is a bit different. Occasionally you may have a short day, and sometimes you may have to pull a few hours on the weekend but that’s rare. It is always different. Once deployed it is a guarantee that you will pull 12 hour days, 7 days a week. You may be on the flight schedule 4-5 times a week. If you are, that means you have assigned missions, or are on TIC alert (Troops In Contact) for the entirety of your 12 hour day. Every day is different. Some days you may have 1 escort mission, some days you may have 4 missions, and sometimes you are on TIC alert all day. Whatever is needed.
How did you get started?
I applied to Officer Candidate School and indicated that I wanted to be an air contract. This requires you to take additional tests to determine if you qualify. Once you have completed your college degree you will go to Officer Candidate School for the allotted time (10 weeks) to get your commission as a Marine officer. From there you follow various phases of training both on the ground and in the air, and it takes about 3 years. There are tests, mountains of books, lots of training flights, lots of studying. The upside is you get some down time to hang out with your fellow flight students. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some insane flight school stories of causing mayhem wherever they did their training.
What do you like about what you do?
I love being a Cobra pilot in general. Every time I take off it’s an awesome feeling. I like knowing that we make a difference on the battlefield. I also like knowing that I have marketable skills, and that I’ve accomplished something worthwhile.
What do you dislike?
Time away from family is always difficult, whether it is a training cycle for 3 weeks, or a deployment for 6-7 months. Sometimes the 12 hour days get tough and you want more time to spend with your family, but it all evens out in the end. That, and depending on what phase of training you’re in, the pressure to perform can get overwhelming if you don’t manage it properly.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
We are on the same fixed income scale as any other Marine officer. All that stuff is online, the difference is we make an additional couple hundred a month in the form of Aviation Career Incentive Pay.
How much money do Marine Helo/Cobra Pilots make?
I’m a captain with 5-6 years in and a family so I probably net around $70,000 +. It’s a sliding scale that has to do with how many years you have in, your rank, family dependants, and where you live.
How much money did/do you make starting out as a Marine Helo/Cobra Pilot?
Again, it all depends. Starting off as a Marine 2ndLt, you still make upwards of $50,000 a year as you enter flight school in Pensacola, FL.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
We are put through an initial “weeding out” process that involves 3 weeks of intense academics and water survival. From there you go through various 6 month phases of flight training involving a continuous cycle of studying, briefing what you studied to an instructor, flying a training flight, debriefing what you need to work on, and doing it again 4-5 times a week. Each phase brings you closer to your designated aircraft depending on what is available at the time. First you start off in a basic trainer, then you get to select between multi-engine, tilt-rotor, helos or jets. You fly a trainer aircraft of that type and assuming you did well enough, you pick a specific model of that type. For instance, I was a helo trainee, so I could chose between CH-46s, UH-1Ys, AH-1Ws, ect. Then you do another phase to learn that aircraft. Then you go to an actual deployable squadron to learn to fight using that aircraft. So on, so forth.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Flight school was one of the tougher things I’ve done in my life. Beyond that, training to meet the necessary qualifications of a combat rated pilot was also very mentally demanding. Beyond the constant pressure to be on you’re A-game, the toughest thing is probably flying at night on moonless nights. It’s very dangerous even with night vision.
What is most rewarding?
Getting to deploy and use your training to protect grunts when the enemy comes after them. I’ve been told multiple times by Marines on the ground that just the sound of our aircraft approaching is sometimes enough to get the enemy to run because they know what we are capable of when we pull the trigger. Coming back from a mission and knowing that you directly contributed to everyone else coming home is an amazing feeling.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
If you want it, get educated about it, and go for it. Check your willpower too, you’ll need it. It’s not that any of it is impossibly hard, or incredibly complex, it’s just that there is a LOT to learn.
How much time off do you get/take?
I get just as much as any other Marine officer. You earn 2.5 days of paid leave per month. Usually you will take these in chunks of time during the holidays or pre/post deployment.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
When I was growing up I thought you just went to the Air Force to fly, and that pilots are amazing and full of themselves and it’s awesome. What most don’t realize is that we are Marines first, pilots second. The grunts on the ground come first. As Marines, we have an idea of what their situation is because of the training we go through. Because of this, we come to realize that it isn’t about us as pilots, it is all about protecting our Marines, and we will do whatever we have to do, whether it means flying in circles overhead to maintain a threatening presence to the enemy, or using our various weapons to destroy a threat.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I want to deploy again and get back to the front lines and do my job protecting grunts on the ground. Once my time is up in another couple years I want to use my skills flying on the civilian side and enjoy the time I’ve missed with my family.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
It is physically and mentally demanding to be good at this job. You have to have a thick skin, and a lot of willpower, but it is absolutely worth it.