SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – An airman here is well on his way to fulfilling his dream of flying the same fighter jet he once turned wrenches on.
Air Force 2nd Lt. Kyle Wheeler, a Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program graduate from the 80th Flying Training Wing here, once prepared weapons as an Air Force enlisted air munitions maintenance operator on the F-15C Eagle.
After earning a commission and completing the initial stages of learning to fly, he is now ready to climb into the cockpit and drop the weapons he once loaded.
Wheeler said he always knew he wanted to be a pilot, but the question was when and how.
"I was always really passionate about airplanes as a kid," he said. "Growing up, I enjoyed the airplane ride to Disney World when I was 8 years old more than I really enjoyed Disney World itself. I've always had a fascination with airplanes."
Wheeler comes from a military family, with a cousin in the Air Force and a grandfather who served in the Army, so early on, he said, he knew he was going to be a part of the long blue line. Soon after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Air Force and set out to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to begin his military career.
After graduation as an airman basic, Wheeler's first stop was here to start his technical training before heading out to his first assignment at Kadena Air Base, Japan. There, Wheeler set aside his ambitions to the sky for a new aspiration: to become a part of the honor guard.
"It was an extremely humbling experience," he said. "Definitely rewarding, and it was a lot of work. It was awesome."
Due to the high-profile nature of honor guard service, Wheeler met Air Force Maj. Gen. Brett Williams, who at that time commanded the 18th Wing at Kadena.
"Kyle was an exemplary member of the honor guard and a top performer in the munitions squadron," Williams said. "As I recall, he was the airman of the year during our tour, so his work ethic was obviously outstanding."
Wheeler said he loved his job and his experiences as an enlisted airman, yet he couldn't shake the lure of the skies. He knew he was going to need to keep working hard and making sacrifices to soar in the future, he added, noting that he often worked 50 to 60 hours a week juggling the honor guard and school, feeling as though his weekends were nonexistent.
Family and personal drive helped to encourage Wheeler to keep focused on his goals, he said. "I get my work ethic from my mom, I stay focused because of my wife, and I want to be a role model for my two younger brothers," he explained.
As fate would have it, Wheeler and Williams were stationed at the Pentagon at the same time, and the general began talking to Wheeler about his dreams in the skies.
"We met two or three times, and he always knew exactly what he wanted to do," Williams said.
With mentoring from Williams and his own personal drive, Wheeler said, he knew that if he was going to fly his beloved F-15 in the future, he was going to have to take a great leap of faith with a long road ahead of him.
"There were plenty of times,” he said, “where I thought, 'Holy cow, I have a year and a half left of my degree [and] I'm in a job that I really enjoy. Is this something that I want to completely give up and go and just do this?'"
Wheeler finished his bachelor's degree in May 2012 and earned his officer’s commission in August 2012 through Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Soon after commissioning, he learned he would attend to the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program here.
Through many conversations with the instructors during Wheeler's training, Williams said, his drive and commitment were evident throughout the entire 55-week pilot training program.
"The instructor told me from day one of training he knew Kyle would succeed," the general said. "He knew what he wanted, and he was willing to work as hard as required to get that F-15."
After completing the ENJJPT program, Wheeler finally walked across the stage to receive his long-dreamed-of and hard-earned pilot wings.
To top it off, Williams and Wheeler's paths crossed once more at graduation. The general is currently the director of operations for U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade, Maryland. Williams was able to be the guest speaker at Wheeler's graduation and present Wheeler with a set of shiny new wings.
"It was a huge honor and very humbling for me that Kyle asked me to be part of his graduation and wing pinning," Williams said. "I was very fortunate to have served as one of his mentors, and to see him succeed was very special for me."
Wheeler said he was excited to have one of his mentors there to see him succeed.
"It was surreal. It's hard to put it into words how I felt," he said. "It wasn't until I came back to work the following week, walking around -- I wasn't the same. When you walk around as a student, you go about your business. With wings, you get a certain respect, which was neat to see."
Wheeler will start the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals Course here in August. The course trains pilots in the basics of fighter maneuvers, from air-to-air employment in offensive, defensive and high-aspect flight scenarios to close-air-support capabilities. He said he hopes other pilot-dreamers will make the step to pursue their aspirations as well.
"Hard work, perseverance and the desire will allow you to do anything you want to do in the United States Air Force,” he said. “It's the coolest job ever.”
Once Wheeler finishes training here, he will move on to specialized training in the F-15.