Dreams of Flight
My love for flying began when I was a little boy as my father was a private pilot and owned a Cessna 172 that he flew on occasion for recreation. I knew from the first time that he took me airborne that I wanted to be a pilot. Not only was I going to be a pilot, when I was 16 I decided that I was going to be a Fighter pilot. In case you are wondering, the year was 1986 and that was the year that the movie “Top Gun” hit theaters. After watching the movie about a thousand times, I had grand thoughts of being the Hollywood version of a Fighter pilot. My father and I had been to a few air shows over the years and I had seen the Fighter jets showing off their power and speed — I assumed I had it all figured out. Of course at 16 I had life figured out. All I had to do was go through the motions and all my dreams would be handed to me on a silver platter! Little did I know — although I had experienced some challenging situations up to that point in my life, I was about to receive a rude awakening and a life lesson that would send me into a tailspin that I would almost not recover from.
The year I graduated from high school, I decided that the time was right to contact my local recruiting office and put them on notice that I was going to join the Air Force to become a Fighter pilot. The USA and Canada were swamped that year with people just like me who also had dreams of becoming a Fighter pilot. I am sure that the recruiters appreciated the cocky attitude that I walked in with. I had the swagger and the “lingo” down pat. I think that the recruiters probably had side bets going on whether I would even make it past the first interview with the Officer in charge.
The application process to become a pilot in the Air Force is quite lengthy and before the Air Force wastes one penny on you to see if you have the “right stuff” you have to do an quick interview with a recruiter at your recruiting office before they even give you an application. As I sat in the hallway waiting on my turn to interview, I found myself sitting with a fairly large group of young people who were just like me. I suddenly had the realization that I was not the only person who wanted to become a pilot. I thought to myself, if there are this many people in this office today applying to become a pilot, how many are there in all the other recruiting offices from across the country? How many will be here tomorrow doing the same thing? I know it sounds odd, but I always imagined it was rare for someone to want to be a pilot. It just wasn’t something that the other kids in my hometown talked about doing when they grew up. This was the first time in my life that I experienced a high level of self-doubt. I did not feel empowered.
Finally, I was called in for my interview. As I sat down in the “hot seat”, a big man with a terrifying presence about him, walked in and sat down. I felt my stomach hit the floor and when I went to introduce myself I thought I was going to throw up all over the big mahogany desk that separated me from this military GI Joe character!
All I could do at that point was just be myself. After a brief Q and A on the basics that had to be covered, relating to my high school marks and extracurricular activities, he then asked why I wanted to join the military. I don’t know what came over me, but I recall thinking that this giant of a man does not want to hear the same story that the 35 people before me had told him so I decided that a little humor would be a good idea. I honestly don’t recall my exact answer but it had something to do with how I had Top Gun memorized and I figured that if Maverick and Ice Man could be Fighter pilots than I could as well. My gamble worked, because GI Joe actually broke a smile. From that point on in my interview, I felt more comfortable. After the interview I was given the opportunity to continue with the application process. I walked out that day with a newly found confidence, and my application forms in hand. I was off to the races.
I had to return to the recruiting office for a second, and more formal, interview. At this interview I decided that I would not repeat my gamble of using my “smart-ass” humor. The purpose of this interview was to determine if I deserved a chance to attend the aircrew selection center. Looking back I believe I made a smart decision. I had prepared a very thick presentation binder that had my letters of reference, high school transcripts and a very lengthy essay that I wrote about why I wanted to join the Air Force and become a pilot. I thought that my essay was a literary masterpiece but when the Officer interviewing me started to read my essay she almost laughed. I could tell that she was being kind when she commented about how my essay was “original”, which I assume was her way of saying that I was not about to win a Pulitzer prize for it.
At the time, I thought that it would be a good idea to spell out exactly what it took to be a Fighter pilot and how I already had mastered all of the skills that I listed in my essay. Skills such as: confidence that bordered on arrogance, amazing hand-eye coordination, Superman-like vision, the ability to problem solve, and to overcome any obstacle that I might encounter. Again, at the age of 16 I had life figured out and I KNEW exactly what the Air Force was looking for in their pilots. Even though my essay was a little over the top, I was given the opportunity to attend the aircrew selection center and I was booked in for my testing the following month. I do not recall what that Officer’s name was, but I would very much like to meet with her again and thank her for giving me the chance to become a pilot — because I think she was on the verge of recommending that I choose a different career path that day.
After all of the exams were complete, that I finally got to show the evaluators that I had the “right stuff.” The unfortunate thing was that this particular flight simulator was unlike any other that I had seen before. When I walked into this dark dome of a room, I noticed that the walls of this “Star Wars” sphere had been painted with funny objects. Starting from the front of the little open cockpit plane with stubby wings, similar to the kind of airplane that you would find in a typical mall for a small child to ride on, was a lighthouse tower. Then as the horizon went around the dome I saw other objects like a ship, and a farmhouse that followed along an artificial horizon that was painted on the wall. It would be an understatement to say that the flight simulators of today would make this thing look like a Commodore 64 toy.
I was told to jump in and after a few minutes of basic instruction from the instructor running the simulator, I was given a few minutes to “get a feel for it” by flying around and playing with the different controls. The simulator had three planes of motion, pitch, yaw and roll. The evaluations were broken down into 3 separate tests. The first test consisted of the simulator’s pitch and roll controls staying locked while allowing only the yaw function to work. The crazy thing about this simulator was that I was instructed to not use the yoke to turn the plane from side to side but that I could only use my feet by pressing on the rudders. Normal airplanes, like my father’s Cessna, would generally use the yoke, or control stick, to bank the airplane in order to get it to turn. I had to quickly adapt to this new way of flying so I decided to completely trust in what the instructor was telling me. I proceeded to press on the right rudder to turn to the ship and then center the rudders to stop with the nose of my little toy airplane on the ship. The controls were very sensitive and I am assuming that they were designed that way intentionally. After a few minutes of turning from the lighthouse to the ship and back again, the instructor then unlocked the pitch controls and I was told to do the same drill of turning from the lighthouse to the farmhouse with my feet while keeping the airplane perfectly flat on the horizon with my control yoke. The control yoke was also very sensitive and preventing my nose of the airplane from going nose high and nose low was like riding a bunking bronco at a rodeo. It was all I could do to not let my toy airplane hit the stops of the mechanical locks when the instructor first unlocked the control yoke. This was no toy.
It was after a few moments of complete terror that I managed to get a feel for this little beast of a flight simulator, following which I completed my turns to the lighthouse and ship while keeping my nose relatively flat on the horizon. This led me to the grand finale, taming the skies in my new little pocket rocket. I could see the smirk on the instructor’s face as he explained to me that he was going to unlock the roll controls of the simulator. He now wanted me to keep my little wings perfectly level on the horizon using the control yoke. If the plane started to roll right, I was instructed to turn the control yoke to the left, like a steering wheel in a car, to correct the bank of the airplane back to level. I am sure that the instructor had witnessed a large number of candidates lose control of the airplane at this point of the evaluation because when he looked at me, I could sense that he expected me to fail and let the airplane crash by hitting the control stops.
Honestly, when he first unlocked all three controls I felt like I was balancing a pogo stick on top of a bowling ball. Never mind trying to turn to the damn lighthouse, which by now I just wanted to shoot with my little fake gun. It was all I could do to keep my wings level and my nose on the horizon. After a few tense moments I gathered my composure and gained the confidence to attempt a turn. It only took a few seconds of success before I realized, Hey, I can do this. A huge smile appeared on my face. At that moment I KNEW that I was going to be a pilot. Sometimes in life it only takes a little bit of success to plant the seed for bigger successes. Once I realized that I could control this unruly little bastard of a flight simulator I started to get a little cocky and I started to do my turns to the farmhouse and ship a little faster. By the end of the evaluation I found myself making my stops more aggressive and crisp. Yes, I can proudly say that I did not crash the simulator even once.