More than two dozen hopeful pilots who were caught cheating on a written test in September 2022 while attending the Army’s flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, received a second chance and passed a retest on Thursday, according to command officials and an internal investigation.
Army Times obtained a 212-page internal investigation by an Army Aviation Center of Excellence officer detailing the cheating ring among officers and warrant officers attending the service’s initial entry rotary wing training course. They used an “altered” version of an official publication — which Army Times also obtained — that contained the answers to an open-book doctrine exam.
Aviation Center of Excellence spokesperson Lt. Col. Andy Thaggard confirmed the violations in a statement emailed to Army Times on Thursday in response to questions about the investigation. The spokesperson stressed that “all flight school students, regardless of if they are from the U.S. Army or one of our Allies and Partners, are briefed multiple times during orientation about...standards and expectations — including the Honor Code.”
Thaggard added that the center’s top general, Maj. Gen. Michael McCurry, met individually with the implicated students and decided to give “each Soldier...an opportunity to successfully complete flight school.”
None of the students faced court-martial for the cheating, nor did they receive any administrative punishments that would “have a lasting effect on their career,” Thaggard added in a phone interview.
After passing a rewritten, closed-book version of the same test on Thursday, Thaggard noted, “they have completed all requirements to graduate flight school, and they will all be moving on to the next assignment.”
How the cheaters were caught
Instructors learned of the cheating during the course’s “Aviation Doctrine Week” — the final classroom hurdle that students face after months of flight instruction before their capstone flight simulator exercise and graduation — in mid-September 2022. The week culminates in a major test, during which students are allowed to use official Army publications as reference materials.
Students who reach doctrine week represent a significant training and financial investment.
On Sept. 15, the day before the final doctrine exam, a student approached cadre members before the test to inform them that a “cheat sheet” was circulating among his peers and he was “not comfortable taking the exam,” according to the investigation. The document in question was a doctored version of an aviation tactics techniques publication that contained answers to the upcoming exam.
The cheat sheet was passed between students’ issued study iPads using their “AirDrop” feature, according to witness statements. The feature, unique to Apple devices, allows for instantaneous wireless file sharing that bypasses the need to attach a document to an email or another form of message.
But instead of confronting the students that the whistleblower, whose name was redacted in the investigation, accused of preparing to cheat, the instructors waited until the test walked around the classroom taking notes on who they observed using the cheat sheet. They spotted 10 soldiers using the document.
Then the instructors checked students’ exam answers against errors in the cheat sheet to identify another 17 students suspected of using the document.
During the subsequent investigation, some students expressed frustration that they were under scrutiny for the exam, because they felt that their instructors had given them the impression that it wasn’t to be taken seriously.
“The day prior to the open publication test, the cadre came in for a ‘review’ and read every single question and answer in order,” one student explained. A second student described the same review session and said instructors “made the test seem like a ‘check the block’ event.”
Others interviewed, including the whistleblower, claimed that the document had been in circulation among previous flight school students. Army Times analyzed the cheat sheet’s metadata, which indicated that it was most recently edited in March 2022 — six months prior to the test in question. The metadata did not indicate who had inserted the answers.
Asked about the instructors’ actions and attitudes, the center’s spokesperson noted that the command “continually seek[s] ways to improve how we train Army Aviation Soldiers.” In this case, it sparked a reassessment of the exam’s purpose and format — and it’s now a closed-book test.
As an “outgrowth of this incident,” added Thaggard, center commander McCurry “directed retraining of cadre, reinforcement and strengthening of our examination and evaluations procedures [and] handling of suspected honor code violations, and a deep dive to validate training objectives for the Aviation Leader Exercise” following doctrine week.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.