Driving home on a dark and hushed night following the standard 14-hour workday, he reaches into the console of his car scrounging for the last can of Copenhagen he knew he bought last weekend. Unable to initially locate its recognizable shape, and growing more irritable by the second, he nonetheless continues to multitask down the two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere America. Why he spends years of his life out in the sparsely populated patches of the world leaves his friends and family back home dumbfounded. It’s not for the great local pizza joint out the back gate of the base, or even the neighboring good-ole-boy bar down the road where everyone knows his name. It’s not because the taxes are low, or the cost of living is cheap. No, he’s not a farmer or a fisherman either. He’s a Fighter Pilot. Here is where his heart is. Here is where the world achieves the most clarity. Here he can be exactly who he was meant to be.
Years of school have taught him the intricacies of higher-level math, history, complex science and even a vocation or two. Sure he learned how to fly at the ripe age of 16, but all of this knowledge combined does not surmount his calling in life. What he needs to know, what sets him apart, what makes him vastly superior to any other Joe on the block is his ability to strap into a $50 million piece of machinery alone and unafraid. He can make this beast submit to his every will, and he does this precisely every time. This mechanism of aviation roars to all who watch while thunderously shaking the earth only for him to notice the trees, which are now whizzing by his canopy at 500 knots. The pure silence that surrounds his environment gets interrupted only with the occasional radio call to air traffic control, or to deliver position and intentions to his wingman. He glares at the horizon knowing everything in his world is perfect; everything is in sync. The ground slowly fades away only to be replaced by clear blue sky overlaid by the occasional white puffy cloud reminding him that now he is rubbing shoulders with God. As elegant and peaceful as this moment may be, it alone is not why he lives so far away from home.
The fighter pilot dreams of flying high, unimpeded and fearless. Those who believe that achieving this experience would be the pinnacle of their lives are not fighter pilots. Those who fly only for the thrill, or solely for themselves are not fighter pilots either. Only the man who can employ his lethal machine in an offensive and unrelenting manner may earn the right to call himself a Fighter Pilot. Circling over-head a friendly ground convoy, containing and eliminating enemy patrol boats or defending another aircraft in the contested skies of his adversary are just a few of the qualities representing the title. A true fighter pilot must be able to keep himself alive and in the air while denying his enemies the same luxury. Whatever the source for the state of mind he possesses, he must unequivocally know that he is the most lethal man on the battlefield. He can eliminate human existence from the earth with the single push of a button. Being tactically knowledgeable and proficient is more than just a requirement – it is a lifestyle. Learned behavior alone is not enough to fully embody the calling. It is something that is etched into DNA at birth. In his world, ‘fighter pilot’ is both a noun and a verb.
As if the day was not long enough, the ride home triggers the memories of times gone wrong, the friends he has lost, and the armchair quarterbacking from people less qualified and incapable of doing what he does. He silently learns the lesson that there are those less equal who will climb on the shoulders of his victories, or ride the coattails of his squadron’s successes. At this very moment in his life he grasps the secret recipe of his capability and potential. The leadership and decision-making faculty earned thus far through the blood of himself and others makes him prized and respected. Only others that fly on his wing will ever fully comprehend his promise, or the daunting task still lying await. Harnessing that recipe will prove most vital in the years to come, not just for himself, but for those who will soon follow him. It is not the stick and rudder skills of aircraft handling that make him formidable. Any monkey can do it. The worthy opponent will fear his ability to manufacture all of these elements together into one devastating and ending weapon while protecting his brothers both on the ground and in the air. No civilian career could ever quantify his skill set with money. The most precious life to him is the uniform serving by his side. This is the life of a Fighter Pilot! This is the life he earned. This is the calling.