Reader voices: Following a dream to become a pilot

By Erik H. Christensen

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Sept. 8 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Since I was 7 years old I wanted to become an Air Force pilot. Pilots were at the top of the cool factor for me, higher than GI Joe, He Man or any other superhuman action figure. I could not figure out, in my little boy mind, why everyone else did not want to become a pilot. The sky seemed to be a place where you could enjoy real freedom.

As I grew up and time passed, the thought had come into my mind multiple times to join the military to become a pilot, but there was always a lot of doubt about really being able to accomplish that lofty goal.

I always remember my father taking me to the local Air Force base, where he worked, where I would see pilots walking around in their flight suits. They seemed superhuman to me. I never told my father at the time, but I always wanted their autograph. That might seem funny, but they were as cool as it gets for a young boy.

As I grew up, I always made it a point to attend the air shows at the local Air Force base. One year, while attending the air show with a friend, I saw a booth that said Air Force Reserve. I approached the recruiter to find some information on some of the requirements to become a pilot. He pretty much said to just call him later and he would talk to me. As always, the thought of becoming a pilot was always in the back of my mind.

Sometime later I met a wonderful young woman named Jalyssa Hill. She encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming an Air Force pilot, I thought it was wonderful of her to do that, but somehow I just didn't think that I could ever reach that high of a pedestal. They seemed so smart, always calm and were just amazing people that I always wanted to be like but never thought that I could.

Then one day I made up my mind to just do it. I wanted to be a pilot more than anyone wanted anything, and I figured "Why not? What have I to lose?"

I went into the Air Force Reserve recruiting office and asked a recruiter what I needed to do to become a pilot. They said that it was not possible. I asked another recruiter and they also implied that it was not possible. Finally, I found someone who would listen. They told me that one of the main things I needed to do was enlist and get to know some of the pilots. So I enlisted and got into a career field that I thought was going to help me get to know some pilots.

After attending basic training in San Antonio, it was on to Wichita Falls, Texas, and back to Utah, where I worked with various munitions on the F-16. I loved working on the flight line and watching the F-16s take off. The sound, the feel and especially the sight of any military aircraft taking off was a breath-taking event for me. My co-workers thought I was crazy because they couldn't figure out why I would just stare at the aircraft taking off. This was a common event for me since I used to watch the F-16s from my front lawn in Kaysville fly out to the Great Salt Lake.

After doing a lot of my own research on the requirements to become an Air Force pilot, I found out that I had to start pilot training by my 30th birthday. I just worked the year after high school and had served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I knew I needed to get my ducks in a row and get to work toward my goal. I found out what obstacles were ahead of me — including getting a private pilot license and a bachelor's degree — and I tackled them head-on.

It was now time to get hired by a unit. Through my research I found out that after getting hired by a unit, it usually takes 12 to 24 months to start pilot training. At the time I was 28, so time was of the essence. I also knew that it was extremely difficult to get hired with a unit the very first time interviewing with them. Usually it takes a few years of interviews with a unit, making the alternate list, before they will hire you. Because I was already in a fighter wing at Hill Air Force Base and had established a good reputation, I decided this is where I would start. I talked with the individual in charge of hiring new pilots, but to my great disappointment I found out that because of an integration project, the unit would not be hiring pilots for at least five years.

I thought that my hard work and dreams were shattered.

Gratefully, I ended up marrying the wonderful woman who encouraged me to follow my dreams in the first place. She was very supportive, and I started looking elsewhere. I started calling other units and submitted the required paperwork to various Air National Guard units throughout the country. From Maine to Georgia to North Dakota to California; I wanted to fly for the Air Force and I was going to go anywhere to do it. I remember sending paperwork to a unit in Nevada on a Tuesday, and I got called that Friday to see if I could interview that weekend.

My wife and I drove the eight hours to Reno, Nev., and I made the interview. I got hired by the unit in Reno to fly C-130s that same day.

I will never forget where I was or what I was doing when they called to tell me that my lifelong dream would really come true. To think that all of the money spent, hard work and determination were finally going to pay off.

Little did I know the hardest part would be the next few years.

Because of logistical issues, I had to give up my job to transfer to the unit in Reno to get the necessary paperwork started for me to attend pilot training. Gratefully, I found a temporary job at Hill Air Force Base that paid the bills. We started the paperwork, which required the most intense physical I have ever had — from looking at my eyesight to figuring out what scars I had. They want to make sure your body will be able to handle the rigors of flying.

Six years after I had enlisted, I got the call that I would be leaving in 10 days to attend the Academy of Military Science at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Knoxville, Tenn.

This is where they take you and make you into an Air Force officer. For me, it was basic training all over again, but with a leadership twist. There were hundreds of push-ups and getting yelled at, but also classes to teach me to become a leader. I was taught to make important decision under a great deal of stress. People's lives may depend on the decisions that you make. It was a difficult six weeks but it was well worth it. I received my commission three months later as a 2nd lieutenant in the United States Air Force.

Next it was off to undergraduate pilot training in Mississippi. We sold our home and drove the four days half way across the country in a U-Haul truck to follow my dreams.

The training was the most intense year of my life. Most of the days were 12-hour days — if I got there at 4 a.m., I left at 3:59 p.m. I trained to fly the T-6 Texan 11, which is a high-performance turbo prop aircraft, and also the T-1 Jayhawk, which is a modified Beachcraft 400.

Finally, graduation day came. After the hardest and most difficult year physically, mentally and even spiritually, I received my wings and became an Air Force pilot.

My boyhood dream had finally come true. That was not the end, though. I went to Florida for my next training assignment to learn water survival techniques and then to Arkansas to train to fly the C-130.

I hope I can do my part to protect my nation and support freedom.

I have been blessed to have been able to follow my lifelong dream. I also know that hard work, a good attitude and a lot of luck gets you almost anywhere you want to go in life.

I love it when someone tells me that I cannot do something. It gives me the determination to prove them wrong.

I am living my dream. I love getting up in the morning just knowing that I have the greatest job in the entire world. I am grateful that I have a wonderful wife who supported me in this adventure, otherwise none of this would have happened. Just remember that dreams really do come true.

Erik Christensen is a Davis High School graduate and served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Fiji Suva Mission.

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