Looking to the Skies while Flying a Desk

Damn I miss flying! Maybe it’s the brutal week of 0100 wake-ups for virtual conferences in Europe and eyes glazing over the hours of writing and editing capability program plans while riding the pines on staff. Maybe it’s the nostalgia and passion bubbling to the surface after immersing myself in Top Gun II on the big screen. Or maybe it’s the sound of engines roaring, props turning, and aircraft flying overhead as I trudge to and from my cubicle cloud nine. I look to the skies and imagine surfing the clouds among a burgeoning cumulus obstacle course, soaring on a sunny day with the best office with a view, or even being the one to guide the plane through the rough, sometimes shearing rides in wind and rain. Damn I miss flying!

1,073 days have passed since I was last in the seat (but who’s counting), breaking the surly bonds with an incredible crew that I had flown so many missions with before. It was heartbreaking, knowing it would be my last flight as my time in command ended, and flying prospects ahead were uncertain at best. Graced by a few puffs of cloud and with a clear path to touch a few final runways and go on to drop down for a low pass over the Grand Canyon before turning around and heading home. I remember coming in for that final landing, the emotion finally hitting me to the point where I couldn’t choke out the final radio call, making my final landing with one last kiss of the runway, smoothly rolling it out but not wanting to proceed to parking. Blessed to taxi in to a crowd of crew members, leaders, and friends, I sat for just a few more minutes after engine shutdown, relishing the old, stale smell of the plane, the cool desert air hitting me through the window of the open and warming cockpit, and sound of the silence of the mission complete. It was the end of my command tour, and with it, likely the end of my Air Force flying career (and on to the paper-cutting surface to finger missiles or the air-to-air lazing threats of screen saturation). That last flight was a day to celebrate with my squadron and group mates, even if my family couldn’t join in, but it was a significant day of mourning the end of a childhood dream. The earth kept spinning, and life moved on, but damn, I miss flying.

In the meantime, nearly 3 years removed, Big Blue sends you away to continue development for higher calls of school and staff. While I hated the year away from my wife and kids while joining a journey towards Grand Strategy study, I came to love what I was learning and the group I was blessed to bond with. Their backgrounds and stories, the incredible intellect and deep debates…and for the aviators on the team, hearing of their exploits and where they were off to next, back in the air to fly and fight, lead and command. While envious of the environment they were called back to, I am also proud to know they made it back to the skies above. Not only for their love of flight, but in admiring their ability to lead and command. It heightened the joy I had in guiding and mentoring those under my command, in trying to push the boundaries and challenge the quo. To dare to develop new ways of thinking about what could be done instead of what had been done, and in the respite of relationships with those I had served with, hearing of all they were and are building on those experiences now. It is with envy that I wish I was the one in the seat and the sky, but also with pride watching others achieve so much through mutual their love of flight. May they not soon face having to miss flying!

Even in the churn of staff life, where we clock hours in front of a computer or in meetings instead of logging flight hours from a sortie, we can at least look out the window and cheer for our brothers and sisters who escaped to the skies above. Perhaps the combat hours are in fighting through the political bureaucracy to move a program forward; the instrument hours logged through the haze of processes and procedures; the instructor hours for those willing to execute the contingency plan; and the sim hours for the meetings to prep for the meeting about the meeting. Still important in its own way, at its own level; but oh to be the one to keep the engine humming and remain aloft, to be executing what we plan, and being part of that grand strategy we are trying to execute. I hope those that are up there now can stay on orbit as long as they can. It is enough to know that I have been up there, but never enough to quell the urge to return to those skies again. Damn I miss flying.

I’ll be honest, I was brought back to the screen to share these thoughts by the impressive array of vision and visualization within a love story to aviation, Top Gun II found its need for speed and brought back a story that inspired a generation to want to fly. The first elevated my dream of flight into the drive to serve as a pilot. This second journey reignited the desire to return to the air, test those boundaries and push the limits. Not only in flight, but to be the one in the seat, the one executing the mission. It may have its critics, but at its core, the second movie linked the nostalgia from the first with a passion for flight that I hope will inspire the next generation of aviators. I long again to be the man in the arena, the pilot in command of a mission to defend the values we hold dear. But there is a point where that dream ends for one, yet continues through the light of those to follow. To dare, to strive, and to open the opportunity for them to excel. May they embrace the passion of flight as I had, and that I long to do again. But may they do so with full understanding of the fleeting moments of flight, knowing that someday they too will look up and realize how much they miss flying…

Finally, I would be remiss not to speak of so many who danced the skies but lost their partners; who soared and swung among the clouds yet never returned home. With Memorial Day weekend upon us, let us offer a moment to remember the many who fell from the skies above, as well as the many they tried to protect. The great sacrifice offered by so many to protect the freedoms remembered by seemingly so few. Ponder their memories as a reminder of the joy of life, the passion of flight, the call to serve, and the honor in giving for a greater cause. Think of those who rose from nothing to take to the skies; those who broke barriers and pushed boundaries; those who shattered ceilings and challenged the way we think; and those who empowered the rest of us to live the lives we claim today. Embrace that which embodies the freedom offered. Capture that which fills the heart. Honor the fallen by living with the passion in which they gave their lives. May we look to the great spaces of the sky, contemplate what we may be missing, yet embrace what we have because, damn, I know they miss flying. To them, to their memories…Here’s a toast…

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