At the age of 17, I began my application for the United States Naval Academy. The admissions process for Annapolis is grueling and includes several written portions, a number of physicals, extensive physical fitness testing, and a congressional nomination. After completing all of those steps, the Service Academies will look for well-rounded young leaders that have the required mental, emotional and spiritual toughness to make it through the rigors of the Academy experience. In the end, only about 1,200 applicants are accepted out of a pool of 15,000 nationwide.
In April of 1994, I received word that I was accepted, and on July 1st, I reported to Annapolis. I had never been east of the Mississippi before I showed up to Annapolis on what’s called Induction Day. They bring you in, shave your head, put you in a uniform and start loading your laundry bag with new stuff and your mind with new ideas.
My plebe year was one of the hardest times in my life, but Annapolis soon became more tolerable, though it was still tough. The courses were difficult, and we were enrolled in at least 15 credits every semester. Even summers were challenging at the Academy. Between academic years, we were required to go on “cruises” in the fleet. The highlight of my three summer cruises was getting my first ride in an F/A-18 during the summer of 1997.
During my last semester at Annapolis, I had the opportunity to attend Georgetown University for a master’s degree in National Security Studies. The program normally lasts two years, but the Navy required that I finished in one. So on the 22nd of May 1998, I graduated from Annapolis near the top of my class. My dream had finally come true, and throwing that cap in the air after four brutal years was an amazing feeling. Then in December of that same year, I completed my Master’s program and graduated from Georgetown. The next month, I reported to Pensacola for flight training.
From 1999 until 2009, I had the privilege of wearing steel-tipped boots and a helmet to work every day serving my country as a Naval Aviator. My journey as a military combat pilot began with flight school in January of 1999. The two years of training were as difficult and intense as expected, but flight school was an amazing experience and a very rewarding period of my life. I enjoyed the exhilarating experience of flying every day, but also woke up every morning with the reality that it may be my last day alive on this beautiful planet.
There were effectively 3 phases to flight school: Primary Training, Intermediate Training and Advanced Jet Training.
1. Primary training
I started in a T-34C, a turboprop 2-seat aircraft that would do about 250 mph. This one-year phase was focused on teaching the basics of flying, navigating, and communicating, along with survival skills. I graduated #1 in my class.
2. Intermediate Training
This phase moved from the T-34 to the T-2C twin jet equipped with an ejection seat, an oxygen mask and lots of power. This phase taught us a variety of combat tactics, gunnery, flying in formation, and flying low and fast. I graduated #1 in my class from this phase as well.
3. Advanced Jet Training
This was my favorite phase of training. In this phase we learned what it really meant to be a wingman in Naval Aviation. Most flights (small units) were comprised of 2-4 aircraft and we did everything as a team and in formation. The level of discipline and precision required was unparalleled. I graduated first in my class and set a record for having a perfect GPA.
The whole purpose of advanced jet training was to weed out the students who couldn’t “land on a boat” (land on an aircraft carrier). In late 2000, I finally had my opportunity aboard the USS Eisenhower. The night before my first day flying to the boat, I didn’t sleep. It was that evening when I realized what a real fear of death felt like. During the sleepless evening I prayed a few times and I threw up twice. At 5:00 am I decided to get out of bed, eat a power bar and head into the base. It was time to meet the beast.
After a short brief, we headed east out of Jacksonville towards the Eisenhower. After 15 minutes of flying over the deep blue Atlantic Ocean, I saw what looked like a postage stamp on the horizon. That postage stamp was my runway, and it was pitching up and down with a violent churn of wake behind her. It was a surreal moment, but my brain stem power took over, and I did what I was trained to do. I flew the hell out of that jet until I hit the deck of the boat and my tail hook grabbed one of the 4 precious wires. The deceleration of going from 140 mph to 0 mph in just 2 seconds was as violent as you would imagine. My entire body was shoved into the dashboard like a head-on car crash. But this was a textbook landing and I had just become a Naval Aviator! It was an absolutely unbelievable experience, and I was officially addicted to flying on and off of aircraft carriers!
The week before graduating from Advanced Jet Training, my skipper called me into his office and asked, “So what do you want to fly?” I quickly said, “Tomcats, sir.” The F-14 Tomcat was the star of the 1986 movie TOPGUN, and it had been my dream to fly that famous plane since I was 8 years old. Instead he said, “Well son, there’s a brand-new fighter coming out that you’re eligible for now called the F/A-18E Super Hornet, and you’d be based in California.” I immediately responded, “Count me in sir!”
So, on 23 February 2001 I earned my Wings of Gold, packed up my bags and headed back to my home state of California. I checked into my new squadron and was ready to take on the world. Little did I know how much the world would change later that year…