I wish I could write that my love of aviation began at a very early age. Such a tale might begin with, “I had many toys, all of which were abandoned when I got my hands on a little red biplane. From that moment on, my fate was sealed.”
The truth is far from that of a flier’s storybook. No hanging around the airport, sweeping floors for the chance to fly with a grizzled eighty-year-old barnstormer in a Stearman. No yearning to take to the skies every time I heard the throaty sound of a radial coughing to life or marveled at an aerobatic routine dancing against an azure sky above my head. None of that. With the exception of knowing my older brother wanted to be a pilot, aviation played no part in my childhood.
As a high school senior I remained blissfully uncommitted to my professional future until a family friend suggested geology. With no better plan of my own (other than not wanting to sit behind a desk), I enrolled in a college best known for mining engineering. In those days, two years of ROTC participation was mandatory. I signed up with the Army.
Before the end of my freshman year I had decided that oceanography was for me. I can’t offer any better reason today than I could then for choosing to work submerged in water over digging in dirt. When I arrived at my new college to begin my sophomore year, the Army and Navy contingents were full. By default, I became a member of the Air Force ROTC. I never intended to continue past the second year.
Enter my Air Force advisor, who skillfully pointed out that the last two years of ROTC paid real money. Eager to reduce the strain on my parents’ finances, I signed up. The advisor also encouraged me to consider applying for pilot training. By the end of my sophomore year he had convinced me.
On the first class day of my junior year, I suffered a major crisis (word play intended). The calculus, physics, and chemistry required for a degree in oceanography had become so repulsive that I raced to my course advisor with a frantic question. “Can I declare any other major and still graduate in a total of four years?”
With an exasperated sigh, she retrieved a folder from a filing cabinet and proceeded to examine my record. After a moment, she peered at me over a pair of reading glasses perched on her nose. “Psychology. Your elective choices have already fulfilled many of the requirements. But it will take a heavy course load and a summer session.” We made the change, and my goals at that moment became clear: get my degree, accept a commission as a USAF 2nd lieutenant, go to pilot training and serve four years (the minimum active duty commitment at the time). Then I’d be better able to choose what I wanted to do for a “real” job. And in naive fashion typical of youth, I figured that would be the last really important decision of my life. The rest would be a piece of cake. Right.
Please visit again soon for Part 2 of Beginnings.