Article Display

Winning battles on the ground to fight in the sky

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Jensen
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Much like the Greek titan, Atlas, this pilot carried the weight of the heavens early on in his career. Many perceive Air Force fighter pilots as being some of the best aviators the military has to offer, or that they single-handedly carry the legacy of generations of military lineage.

So, what happens to the want-to-be aviators who are not the valedictorian, have no true aspirations, and are lost on the path of life? For some all it takes is one inspirational human to look up to for guidance. In this case an average 19-year-old Atlas found a mentor in a family friend, Lt. Col. Stephen Letcher, an Army officer who would change the path of Atlas’ life.

Atlas suggested enlisting in the Army, but Letcher saw more potential. When asked what he was interested in career wise, Atlas considered how much he enjoyed playing aviation video games and ran with that idea. Atlas decided on becoming a pilot, so his supportive mentor projected the best path needed to accomplish that goal. After graduating high school, Atlas enlisted in the Air Force Reserves as an aircraft mechanic, while also attending Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the University of South Florida.

“To put it simply, I found a mentor when I was in a time of need for guidance who laid out a solid plan and I did what I was told,” said Atlas.

Little did Atlas know that during his time in flight training, he would be hit with life altering news, a word no one wants to hear; cancer.

Soon after Atlas started training on the T-38s, he could tell something was physically wrong. He felt extreme fatigue and would sleep 12 hours a night, still feeling tired the next day. Mentally, he struggled to focus and almost lost the desire to continue in the program at all. Despite all the warning signs, “It wasn’t until I felt physical pain in one of my testicles that I decided to have the doctor check it out. After a physical exam, I knew for sure something was up when she told me we should get an ultrasound right now.”

After several exams from different specialists, Atlas was informed he had testicular cancer. He opted to begin treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, to be closer to family, in the event of a worst-case scenario. Staying with his cousin, a nurse practitioner, who offered to care for him during this lengthy process, provided Atlas peace of mind and security that a trained medical professional would be there to help him during his most crucial time of need.

After meeting with several different doctors, Atlas came across a prior Air Force doctor who took keen interest in Atlas. He assured him that although this type of cancer was rare it possessed a 90% survival rate and Atlas was confident this was the doctor he wanted on his case.

“Going into Moffitt Cancer Center where there are people who very likely wouldn’t be on this planet much longer puts things into perspective. Especially after being told I had nothing to worry about,” said Atlas.

Two intense, possibly life changing surgeries, and a rough recovery later, Atlas was declared to be in remission, September of 2018.

However, cancer was only the first of many battles this young pilot would have to face. For the next two years, Atlas would fight an exception to policy, medical boards, and a push for him to change his career field. He had come too far and now with a deep passion for flying, he refused to stop fighting.

After 2.5 years of being grounded, Atlas won the battle and was permitted to return to flight status.

“Flying an F-16 is the most difficult yet coolest thing I’ve ever done,” stated Atlas. “It’s mentally and physically rigorous and there’s always something to learn or improve upon every flight. It’s honoring to be given the opportunity to even set foot inside the cockpit, let alone be taken on a massive flag exercise like Checkered Flag or Red Flag.”

Checkered Flag is an air-to-air combat exercise hosted at Tyndall Air Force Base biannually, where fighter squadrons from across the Department of Defense participate to sharpen their lethal air and ground skills. Atlas recently flew his F-16 during the exercise which he says, “…was enthralling, to say the least. Flying over the beach and fighting in a modern, near-peer fight was both challenging and enlightening.”

While participating in Checkered Flag, Atlas was honored to receive his official call sign which came with a sigh of relief knowing all his determination and life challenges got him to this point.

“There’s a sense of respect about a call sign that equalizes everyone and usually addresses something you’ve done in the past, good or bad,” explained Atlas. “It’s a recognition that we are all fighter pilots here, and regardless of rank, we hold each other accountable for the things we do as professional aviators.”

While being the best or the brightest might sound appealing; dedication, hard work, and defying all odds not only projects superiority, it is personally gratifying.  When a lost teenager reached out for guidance, he found his beacon to guide him through the fog, and when the odds were stacked against him, Atlas personified endurance, much like the Greek Titan, he never gave up.

“Make up for what you lack in skill or ability through hard work and things will work themselves out,” stated Atlas. “Even if not though, that’s okay. You can’t control what’s external to you… but you can control your responses and reactions to events both internal or external.  Develop the mental fortitude you need in life by understanding that principle and you can face anything.”