My friend Glen (Navy SEAL/CIA, KIA in Benghazi, Libya in 2012) and I departed from Peoria, Illinois and started to pick up ice climbing through 4,000 feet just after losing communications with departure control. Fun meter pegged.

I had purchased my first airplane in 2003, a little 1980 Cessna 172 and had this great idea to fly it back to California from Illinois in February.

As we climbed through the gook, we lost all communications. “No problem,” I thought. “We’ll just fly our filed plan.” However, to make things worse, as we were about to break out between layers, ice started to form on the wing struts. We knew we were about to break out in a thousand feet, so we decided to push on rather than descend into a low ceiling and risk picking up more ice. I remember Glen saying something like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…” It turned out to be the right call and this was one of those flying experiences that either makes you a better pilot – or a dead one. After the long trip to San Diego, we learned it was an antennae grounding issue. On the tarmac, the radios worked fine. In the air, we were unable to transmit.

I’ve always wanted to fly planes as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t a very good student. Plus, I had a weird school record, growing up most of my teenage years on a sailboat with hippie parents. I left home at 16 (home was floating in the South Pacific at the time), finished school on my own, and joined the Navy at 17 to become a SEAL. After a stint in the aircrew program as a search and rescue swimmer in the back of SH60s, I finally was accepted and graduated with SEAL Class 215. There were 220 when we started and 23 originals at the finish. I would later deploy to Afghanistan after 9/11, and come back to my first son who was born as I was chasing bad guys around the mountains of the Hindu Kush. I accepted duty as a sniper instructor and would eventually be promoted early, twice. I took over as sniper course manager as a young 28-year-old Chief Petty Officer. The full story is in my memoir, “The Red Circle,” for those interested.

I finally decided to learn to fly at 29 while attached to the SEAL sniper program at the Naval Special Warfare Center. My boss was Ryan Zinke, who would go on to serve in Congress and as Secretary of the Interior.

From Navy SEAL to warbird pilot, flying across America in the Epsilon

Aviation has always been my passion since my earliest memory of looking skyward. After getting my instrument rating, I got into flying warbirds through a chance meeting. Since then, most of my time has been spent in military metal and I think it’s some of the greatest flying you can do with your clothes on. The only thing I’ve found that comes close is flying floats.

Through mutual friends, I got introduced to the warbird community after meeting Dee “Bones” Conger one fateful morning at the Coffee Cup in La Jolla, California. Bones is one of the smartest and most capable people I know. He can think it, build it himself in his shop, and then go fly it. I’ve seen grown men come close to tears in their eyes, who’ve spent years trying to finish a home build, only to watch in awe as Bones offloads a plane from an overseas crate to have it flying a few weeks later. This is no exaggeration.