From C-130 navigator to drone pilot to CFI – my atypical journey

My love for aviation and my pursuit for a career began similarly as many others. I grew up in a small Georgia town and was first introduced by a friend who ended up flying as a missionary in Alaska. Instead of working to buy the big truck with big tires, I worked to pay for flying lessons. My mom wouldn’t let me take flying lessons until I could drive myself to the airport, so I set my goal for that summer. My instructor was a World War II veteran who flew C-47s in North Africa and the Mediterranean and had gone into ministry as a career and was part-time on staff at my church. We began flying in the summer of 1997 and on the budget of a 16-year old, so flying opportunities ended coming along two or three times a month. I can say that I still met the goals I had set: solo while I was 16 and Private checkride complete before high school graduation and my 18th birthday, and even before I had flown as passenger on a commercial airline.

I had settled early on the military as the pathway I would take to build a flying career, but knew that I faced the same challenge as Bob Hoover did when he joined, my uncorrected eyesight. I enrolled at Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach with an Air Force ROTC scholarship. While there, I completed my Instrument, Commercial, and Multi, as a back-up of sorts if I didn’t have a flight doc as generous as Bob’s. I didn’t… and was selected to attended navigator training after graduation in 2003. My thought was that I could apply to pilot training after I was a navigator and after I had the magical laser eye-surgery at government expense. At the time, the surgery would only be valid if it was performed at an Air Force facility.

Navigator on C-130
Being a navigator is close enough to flying to be tempting, but not close enough.

After I completed my training as a C-130 navigator, I began the brutal cycle of deploying: 120 days gone, 120 days home with my wife bearing the brunt of being at a new home for the first time alone. I still maintained my original goal of becoming a military pilot. I was eventually able to work approval for laser eye surgery; I even gave up my spot to navigator instructor school for the surgery, and then applied to the active duty pilot training selection board, which normally took 50 officers per year from active duty.

By the time the board met, I was off to instructor school anyway at Little Rock AFB and was anxiously waiting for the results, feeling my future was in the pilot’s seat of an Air Force airplane – fighters if I had anything to say about. Rarely does the Air Force ask, or listen to individual preferences when making decisions; even with a letter of endorsement from my U.S. Senator, I was left empty handed. After coming out of my fog of disappointment, I called the Personnel Center and found out that they had only selected 35 officers that year and I was number 38. Because I had five years of commissioned service, it was the last board I was eligible.

I searched for options. I knew that the day of the navigator was ending in the C-130. The new –J model does not carry a navigator. I heard that the Air Force was at the time accepting navigators who, as it was, had their FAA Commercial-Instrument to fly drones. (An entire article could be written on the names given to unmanned aircraft) I was due for a move and I told my squadron commander that I was a volunteer. It didn’t take long. I took a non-volunteer slot from a lucky co-pilot, who probably to this day doesn’t know how close he came to being yanked out of manned aviation. I spent the next eight years fighting the war from a metal box in the States. It can be best described as 98% of the time the most boring job you’ll ever do, to the 2% of the most exciting and satisfying job you’ll ever love.

Long, weird hours dominated my life. My wife would say that I was a complete zombie and even worse I was absent from life even if I was physically there. Her challenge was attempting to keep two kids under the age of three quiet when I was working mid-shift. I was flying a complex airplane in some of the world’s most complicated and sensitive airspaces. I became an instructor and evaluator, building a reputation as a polished launch and recovery pilot (takeoff and landing). Not all pilots were qualified. Most flew mission legs after the plane took off. Although I was flying, an instructor, and an evaluator, it still wasn’t the same. I maintained my desire to begin flying manned airplanes in some capacity; I just wasn’t sure how I could make it happen.

After several years on staff at the major command and the unfortunate result of my lieutenant colonel promotion board, I began to look to my future outside of the Air Force. Flying is always at the top of the list. I began using my GI Bill to finish my CFI; I termed it as getting back to flying “real” airplanes. My CFI at the aero club was a navigator just like me and we shared the same passion and goals. After some quick math when we first got together, I figured that it had been eleven years since I had last flown a “real” manned airplane. We worked at the certificate and knocked off the rust, which surprisingly came off pretty easily. The joy of flying returned the desire to go back to where I was at the beginning of my career and ready to take the next step in my life. For most, the CFI certificate is a young pilot’s first chance to have other people pay for their flying as they are now a gatekeeper to the world of aviation. I take that privilege with immense gratitude and humility.

Two pilots in the cockit
From navigating to teaching.

I seized the opportunity to leave active duty service this year and move over to the Air National Guard to go back to flying in real (manned) airplanes – I think that it’s important to maintain the precise distinction from flying versus flying-in airplanes as a crew member. So now, as I finish up my last five years of military service, I excitedly work toward the post military life where I can continue to pursue the dream that I first began some 21 years ago. As a newly minted CFI, I’ve already had the opportunity to introduce flying to guys who now pursue the same goals that so many of us began with years ago or just now. The airlines may not be the path I take, but one thing that I’ve learned over the years is that things rarely work out the way we envision.

Now, I’d like to take a moment to describe my experience conundrum that I’m facing in order to follow my dream and still support my family of five. Out of the gate, I could say that I have 3,500 hours of aviation experience. If you asked me how many hours of PIC I have, I would tell you about 2,600 hours. But if you asked the FAA how much total time I have, it would be a mere 300 plus hours, because they specifically exclude any remote pilot time.

In those 3,500 hours, I have time crossing the North Atlantic, talking on HF radios, flying across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. I can give an oceanic position report like nobody’s business. So to sell myself as an experienced aviator is big task; working as a part-time CFI is a slow go. But, I’m well prepared to build the real time required to become a self-supporting professional pilot. I’m not sure what my future looks like. I am some time away from the ATP and I don’t qualify for any reduction in the 1,500 hours required.

What will my career in aviation look like? I can’t say “some day” now. My time is here to be a pilot, an instructor, and mentor to young pilots-to-be. I want to relish in the journey of life. I look forward to plugging into the aviation community in my new city. I now have the tools to help others while building time for my goals. I think about the different routes I could take: corporate, 135, or I could even be a career instructor. Every path offers different advantages and challenges to making a living as a pilot. The challenges of the pilot shortage that the industry faces is also captured at the micro level as individuals like me look at the unconventional road to become a hirable, professional pilot.

3 Comments

  • I loved your story which parallels my own! I too was a Distinguished ROTC grad who wasn’t allowed to go to pilot training due to poor eyesight and sent to navigator school. I was told that if I graduated at the top of my navigator class, which I did, I would get my first choice of aircraft, which at the time was an F-4. Needless to say, the Air Force had other plans, and sent me to SAC as a KC-135 navigator!!! Determined to still apply for a pilot training slot like you did, I got my private license on my own, but was still denied a pilot slot. So I went the GI bill path to get my Instrument, Commercial, and CFI and taught at various aero clubs until retirement. Since retirement I’ve been fortunate enough to run a flight program at a university, retire from the FAA as an Aviation Safety Inspector, and loving life as a gyroplane flight instructor and gyroplane Sport Pilot Designated Pilot Examiner. Life is good for this “old” former navigator.

    TOM

  • Sounds like my story! I got my PPL before going into the Air Force, got commissioned through OTS, Nav school because of my eyesight, and worked hard to get an F4 (early 80s timeframe). Loved the flying, the job, and the people but wanted to be a pilot. Separated from the service after the first Gulf War to pursue a pilot career. I thought it would be wise to maintain a military affiliation but all the F4 Guard and Reserve units were converting to other aircraft. I also interviewed with C130 and KC135 units but they didn’t need any Navs at the time, so I full-time flight instructed (I had gotten my other ratings while on Active Duty) and flew with a couple of commuter airlines until I got hired by a large cargo airline where I flew DC8, DC9, and B767 with another outfit. While I was flying B1900s with a commuter I got hired to be a C130 Nav as a traditional Guardsman after a 4 year break in military service. The Guard is great for networking and having a place to fall back on with airline furloughs. I’m retired from the military and the airlines now and I am flying corporate. It’s been interesting!

    Rex

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