“Well, you have astigmatism in both eyes,” the optometrist told me. “The good news is that we can get you a pair of glasses to help.”
I was 16 years old at the time and working toward an appointment to the Air Force Academy. I had the grades, the test scores, and had been in touch with a Louisiana U.S. Senator who was prepared to help me with the appointment.
“But what about flying?” I asked the optometrist, sitting in the exam room as my mind raced through the options. “I want to be a fighter pilot.”
She frowned. “Honey, you’ll be lucky to fly at all, much less professionally. And you’ll definitely never be a fighter pilot,
she said flatly.
You’ll never be a fighter pilot…
I was crushed. It seemed to confirm everything I had always heard: You have to be perfect in every way to be a fighter pilot. Only perfect grades, perfect vision, perfect everything would cut it. As much as I wanted it, it just wasn’t in the cards. I was anything but perfect. My dad called the senator’s office and respectfully declined the help. If I couldn’t be a pilot, I didn’t want to be in the Air Force. I would just go do something else.
I gave up on the dream and I started school at LSU-Eunice, a local two-year college. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Pre-Med looked appealing, but so did business. I flipped back and forth between majors several times. Then, late one night, I was out driving in my sports car across some backroads. I was upset about a girl and — like a dumb teenager — felt the need for speed as I tried to clear my head. I pushed too hard, going too fast into a sharp corner and, well… ended up in a ditch.
I was embarrassed and felt foolish. I was working part-time at a hospital and decided to take flying lessons. I needed to do something to better myself and I finally had the funds and ability to take a stab at doing more than just flying Microsoft Flight Simulator.
My first lesson was on February 2, 2002. I soloed on February 15 and from that point on, I was hooked. I didn’t care what the optometrist said. I wanted to be a fighter pilot.
As my dad always told me, “You don’t know unless you try.”
I would make them tell me no.
My dad served 24 years in the Army National Guard, so he naturally suggested the Air National Guard. I did a ton of research online and found you didn’t have to go to the Academy to become a fighter pilot: there were many other avenues to try, including ROTC and the Guard/Reserve.
After two years at LSU-Eunice, I transferred to Tulane on a scholarship. I visited the Air Force and Navy ROTC. The AFROTC commander liked me and invited me to join the Civil Air Patrol, but he was honest: my odds of getting a pilot slot were low as a transfer student. It would be an uphill battle, and they didn’t get many slots. If I wanted a sure thing, the only way to get it was through the Air Guard or Reserve.
I cold-called both units. The squadron commander of the F-15 Guard unit invited me out. He sat me down and laid out my path: If I wanted to be a pilot in the unit, I’d have to be a crew chief first, because, at the time, they only hired from within. I thanked him for his time but decided it wasn’t for me. I had a full ride to Tulane and didn’t think I would have time to enlist.
I found the number of the Director of Operations (DO) for the local A-10 Air Force Reserve Command squadron online. I called him one weekday that summer as I was settling into my new apartment in New Orleans.
“Hello, sir, I am calling because I want to be a fighter pilot in your unit one day,” I said, my enthusiasm as a dumb 20-year-old getting the better of me.
The man on the other end laughed. “You do? Well, who are you?”
“I’m going to be a junior at Tulane, sir. I’ve read about joining reserve units and would love to apply, sir,” I said, trying to throw in as many “sirs” as I could because that’s what the military did. When in Rome.
“Well it’s a little early, but I’ll tell you what, give me a call next month and you can come out and visit,” he said.
“Thank you, sir!” I replied.
I called weekly after that, not knowing that the DO had gone TDY. I never left a message because I was too scared. I took the Air Force Officer Qualification Test (AFOQT) through the ROTC anyway. My scores were abysmal, barely average. My hopes were slowly withering away, but I figured I could keep asking anyway. I met a lawyer in Houma who had an L-39 and flew with him to an airshow in Midland, TX one weekend. With every demo, I was more convinced that I wanted to be a military pilot, regardless of aircraft. I just wanted to get my foot in the door and go from there.
I talked to the pilots who had a C-5 static display. The Chief Pilot gave me his card and told me to send in my application. A few weeks after emailing, I got the reply. “Sorry, but your scores just aren’t high enough to be competitive. It’s not likely that you’ll do well in pilot training. Recommend you retake the test and reapply next year.”
I was working in the university gym one evening when the Air Force Captain, who helped run the ROTC, stopped by my attendant desk.
“Hey, do you know the DO of the 706th Fighter Squadron?” he asked.
“The A-10 squadron? Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Well, he wants you to call him.”
“Really?” My heart was racing. Could this be my break?
“Yeah, he wants to offer you a job,” he replied.
“Huh?” I was dumbfounded. Everything I had read online said that units like that had hiring boards and required scores much higher than mine. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, we were over there doing a simulator tour and he asked about you by name. Told me to ask you to call him. It’s some kind of civilian job, I think,” he said.
I called the DO the next day.
“Hey, you never called me back,” he said as he recognized me.
“Sorry sir, your voicemail said you were out of town,” I replied.
After explaining that he had been TDY, he made good on his commitment and invited me over to the unit. I interviewed in his office and one of the other pilots took me to the A-10 sim, where I promptly crashed after trying to do a barrel roll after takeoff, just like in Top Gun.
“Here’s the deal,” he said as I returned, “I can offer you a GS-3 student-hire position. It’s temporary, so if you don’t do well, we can fire you. If we like you, we’ll send you to pilot training. If not, you just have civil service time under your belt. The pay is $10/hr. Do you accept?”
“Hell yes!” I said.
So I worked two jobs in college while taking 20 credit hours per semester. Working in a fighter squadron as a college kid was the best job I ever had. My official job title was “stock clerk,” but I did so much more, from helping to create briefing software to running the simulator. I was incredibly lucky.
They held a board for me shortly before I graduated from college. I was the only applicant. The Base Realignment And Closure Commission results had come out, and the squadron was scheduled to close in 2009. They liked me and decided to hire me. I could get A-10 time and would be able to transfer to another unit when the BRAC would finally happen.
They started the paperwork to get me hired. I went to MEPS in New Orleans for my entrance physical. I failed. I couldn’t get through the depth perception — although I had never actually worn the glasses that my optometrist had given me years earlier, so the vision problem was rearing its ugly head again.
One of the pilots helped me get through it. The depth perception circles just sucked. He took me to base medical and a tech let me try again. I passed this time and was cleared to go to Brooks for my Flying Class I medical.
I got through the first day thinking I was good to go. I passed the vision tests with flying colors, I even got a 20/12 in one eye. At the beginning of day two, however, they needed to speak to me.
“The retinal topography came back,” the doctor said. “You have excessive astigmatism well outside normal limits in both eyes. You’ll need a waiver.”
“But what are my chances?” I asked, once again seeing my hopes vanish before me.
“Not good,” he replied. “The unit will need to request the waiver. If you were active duty, there’d be no way.”
I went home dejected and scared. I had given up Pre-Med and gone into Business Management just to get the quickest degree so I could become a fighter pilot. I really had no plan beyond flying.
Eight agonizing weeks and a few phone calls from the unit later and my waiver came back approved. I had dodged a bullet and I was cleared to start my journey to Undergraduate Pilot Training, or UPT.
Two weeks later, however, Hurricane Katrina rolled through. The BRAC that was supposed to happen in 2009 was accelerated to 2005. The Wing Commander stated plainly that he had no intention of ever bringing A-10s back to New Orleans. He would push to have the jets moved early. I was qualified but jobless. I went to Officer Training School sponsored by a unit that had no jets. When I returned to my squadron with butter bars on my collar, the finance people told me point blank that if I didn’t find a squadron to sponsor me, my pilot training slot and orders would be canceled.
I made phonecall after phonecall until finally the F-16 unit in Homestead invited me out to interview. They hired me. I had dodged yet another bullet. I went to pilot training with a fighter slot in hand. I helped my buddies and practiced the “cooperate to graduate” routine. Despite what the C-5 unit predicted, I graduated #1 in both T-6s and T-38s. It was proof that test scores don’t trump a good attitude and willingness to learn and listen.
Once in the Viper, I logged 1,000 hours and had a deployment to Iraq. During the B-Course, my vision waiver became permanent. I thought that my medical issues were behind me, so it was going to be nothing but blue skies and tailwinds from then on, fulfilling my childhood dream of being a fighter pilot. In 2012, I transferred to the Navy Reserve and qualified in the F/A-18 Hornet. I had been fortunate enough to move closer to home while staying in fighters.
And then seven months ago, I ran into another obstacle.
I was flying a BFM sortie late in the afternoon. After landing, I noticed that my upper back was hurting a little near my kidneys. I chalked it up to the long day and ignored it.
But that weekend as the pain progressed, I knew something was wrong. Perhaps kidney stones? I went to the base clinic. Nope. “Bloodwork is good. Kidney function is normal.”
The pain grew worse. The docs thought it was muscular. They prescribed muscle relaxers and sent me home, but scheduled a CT scan just to rule out anything major. The next Tuesday, on my way to work and to tell the flight surgeon that I felt fine and could go back to flying, I received a phone call from him.
“You need to come straight to the clinic,” he said ominously.
I went into his office and could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong.
“Ok, we found something that may be significant,” he said as he handed me the CT results. “You have 21 cysts in your left kidney, 18 in your right, and 12 in your liver.”
“Cysts?” I asked. “Cancer?”
“No,” he replied. “But they’re fluid-filled cysts that could indicate Cystic Kidney and Liver disease — especially at your age.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. “I feel fine now, can I go back to flying?”
The doc shook his head. “I’m afraid not. You’re going to need a waiver. You’ll need to see a nephrologist to confirm.”
“What are my odds of a waiver?” I asked frantically.
“I’ve never seen this before, so I don’t know,” the doc replied. “Not great.”
I went to the nephrologist. As she was confirming the diagnosis I was seeing my career’s lamp dimming before my eyes. I had always been on borrowed time, and now it had come time to collect. The nephrologist wasn’t thrilled about me flying fighters, and the fact that my mom had died of an aneurysm made her even more nervous. She ordered a magnetic resonance angiogram of my brain to look for possible aneurysms.
The next few weeks were agonizing. If the MRA came back positive, I would never fly at all — period. No fighter, no airline, no Cessna. In fact, I would probably need surgery and could be facing a fate much worse than just being grounded from flying.
Fortunately, the exam came back negative. No signs of aneurysm. I had passed the first hurdle. The nephrologist cleared me and we submitted the waiver paperwork.
Shortly before Christmas, it was denied. The Naval Aviation Medicine folks wanted the Navy Reserve to determine if I could even stay in the Navy first before they’d rule. So I had to submit paperwork to the big Navy.
At this point, the outlook was bleak. Several doctors — in message boards and in-person — told me that the odds were against me. I would probably never fly again. My flying career is over, I thought.
It took six months for the Medical Retention Review paperwork to come back approved. I was surprised but grateful. We resubmitted my paperwork. I hoped to fly fighters again, but I knew there was a chance they could say “no fighters, but you can fly heavies” or still “no flying at all.” I was prepared to drive to Pensacola to plead my case in the event that they denied the waiver. I felt fine. I was asymptomatic. I could still be useful in the cockpit.
Two weeks ago, I got a phone call from my flight surgeon. “Waiver approved. No restrictions.” The biggest weight was lifted off my chest. It didn’t feel real.
And then on Friday, March 18th, nearly seven months since my last flight, I strapped into a Hornet again. It was almost surreal. As the Fallon controller cleared me for takeoff, I could do nothing but smile. The afterburner kicked me back in the seat and seconds later I was airborne.
Seven long months of agony and worry were finally over. I was a fighter pilot again.
And from that point on, I know that every flight is on borrowed time. I proved that the myth of the perfect fighter pilot is just that — a myth. That added perspective and clarity: Never take anything for granted, because you never know when you’ll strap into the cockpit for the last time. Nothing is ever guaranteed. One day you can be on top of the world, complaining about the most ridiculous things, and the next you can be fighting for your career.
I was inspired to tell this story after seeing a few “Ask a fighter pilot” questions about how to become a pilot. People are constantly telling me, “I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but….”
I’m not special. I’m not an exceptional pilot destined to be the next Chuck Yeager. I’m just a normal guy who didn’t quit. That’s really all it takes. Don’t disqualify yourself before you even start. Be persistent and let the people in charge make the ultimate decision. You’ll be surprised at the results.
As my dad always said, “You don’t know until you try.”
Make them tell you no.
Editor’s note: This article was written by C.W. Lemoine, a former F-16 & F/A-18 pilot. It was originally published in 2017.