U.S. Navy pilot brings experience to exchange with Spanish air force
Stars and Stripes August 5, 2009
Navy Lt. Abram Stroot has ditched his life of flying F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets off of flat tops temporarily to brush up on a foreign language and share his piloting skills with the Spanish air force.
Stroot, 32, of Belleville, Ill., has been participating in the Navy’s Personnel Exchange Program with the Spanish air force for almost three years. He works as an instructor pilot with the Spanish service’s Air Wing 15, Squadron 153 at Zaragoza air base in Spain.
His stint with the Spaniards ends within the next few months, when he will move on to fly the more advanced F/A-18E Super Hornet with the VFA-147 "Argonauts" at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.
He is one of 363 U.S. servicemembers in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force who are participating in an exchange program with another country’s military. Almost a third of those servicemembers are serving with the United Kingdom’s military. U.S. Army participation figures were not available.
The Navy has 170 servicemembers participating in PEP alone, said Navy Cmdr. Bill Reynolds, section head for international officer and exchange programs. The Navy does exchanges with 18 countries, and it is done on a one-to-one swapping basis, meaning if the Navy sends a pilot to a country for the program, that country sends one of its pilots to the Navy, Reynolds said.
"It is great. It allows us, from the pilot’s standpoint, to see how another country executes a similar mission utilizing their tactics and their equipment," Stroot said.
Stroot trains Spanish pilots in an upgraded version of the F/A-18A and B that they call the EF-18M, in which the E stands for España.
Stroot said he was drawn to PEP because the idea of flying for another country fascinated him. His other choices for the program included flying Hornets with the Australians or Canadians.
"I jumped on the opportunity here in Spain and the opportunity of picking up another language," Stroot said.
"It’s a great program. It allows us to see how things are done outside the U.S. It opens your mind up," he said. "There are great techniques here in Spain that I can bring back to the fleet."
But even though Stroot took four years of Spanish in high school and spent six months at the Defense Language Institute in Washington, D.C., the language barrier was still an obstacle, he said.
"Within six months to a year of arriving in country, you pick it up. I am pretty comfortable with it," Stroot said.
PEP participants have to pass the Defense Language Aptitude Battery test to show that he or she can learn another language, Reynolds said. Some languages, such as Arabic and Korean, take 16 months to learn, he said.
Reynolds, who participated in the program with Canada’s submarine operations in British Columbia, said PEP also gives participants an inside look into some of the things smaller militaries can do that the United States military can’t. He said he was amazed to see how the Canadians could fly its servicemembers’ families to Australia and elsewhere to meet up with them when they got leave during deployments.
Not every PEP participant’s experiences, however, are as exciting as the one Stroot had on a December day in 2007.
He was in the back seat of a Hornet that day when a shoddy pin on an external fuel tank pylon caused the pylon and the tank to swing inward and block the left landing gear from going down. The plane spun out of control before Stroot said he was able to take the controls from the Spanish trainee and corral the wayward fighter.
He tried unsuccessfully to jettison the tank, before he attempted to land by snagging an emergency cable that was stretched across the runway, like an arrester cable on a carrier. The external tank blocked the left landing gear from going down, and, when he missed the cable, he had to go around for another landing attempt.
Stroot joked that missing the cable is something that would give his Navy peers a good laugh. When he failed to snag it on the first attempt, the miss knocked the tank out of the way so he could touch down with all of his landing gear.
"I never thought in my wildest dreams this tank would be moved out of the way. There was a little luck," Stroot said.
Stroot earned the Spanish air force’s Safety of Flight Trophy and the Aeronautical Medal with white distinction recently for his actions. He is the first foreign pilot to win the Safety of Flight Trophy.
"I was pretty proud to receive it for myself and the U.S. Navy," Stroot said. "I think it shows the professionalism of the U.S. Navy pilots. I’m a carbon copy of the (pilots) that the U.S. Navy produces."