September 27, 1988 was my last flight in the T-37 jet trainer. The flight represented an inglorious end to my long-time aspiration to become a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. The road began with dreams of flying, as a child. Then came many years of hard work during high school to get the grades I needed to apply to the U.S. Air Force Academy. My initial Academy Physical was a heartbreaker. I was informed that I would not qualify to fly due to my allergies and an eye condition detected during the battery of tests. I fought. After multiple visits to various doctors and optometrists, I was able to reverse the decisions and I entered the Academy as a pilot-qualified cadet, after being accepted in the spring of ’84. The road ahead was long–it took everything I had to make it through the Academy. Along the road, I was again informed, after my Academy Graduation Flight Physical, that I did not meet the standards necessary to fly due to an eye-condition. I fought. Hours of staring at pencil tips, trying to get my eyes to work together, and I finally was able to pass the test that had given me so much trouble. I regained my “PQ” status. When the long battle was through, I finally got my pilot slot. I wanted to get going right away so I signed on for the first class available, giving up half of my graduation leave so that I could start pilot training at Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas, in July. That turned out to be a very bad decision. I had underestimated the burnout factor and how big a toll the Academy had truly taken on me. I had little left to give to an incredibly challenging endeavor like Air Force Pilot Training. Added to this, I was mystified, after showing up, when over half my class already had the volumes of “Warnings, Cautions, and Notes” memorized along with all the Emergency Procedure Boldface. I guess I never got the memo that I was supposed to find a former Instructor Pilot and convince him to Xerox off the Dash-1 for me to study at the Academy and over the summer. My bad. I was never a good memorizer so I reverted to my Academy ways–stay up as late as it takes to get the required information loaded into my brain. I stayed up until midnight each night studying. One problem–at pilot training, our show times were between 3:00am and 3:30am. I showed up in a veritable comatose state. Added to this, my First Assignment Instructor Pilot (FAIP), had signed on for so many additional duties that we never got to see him until it was actually time to fly. I was jealous of the other students who received engaged instruction throughout the 12-hour work days. So, each day, I headed out to fly under the hot Texas sun. 120 Degrees on the ramp and 140 degrees under the closed canopy in the T-37. It is no surprise that I got airsick and had trouble concentrating—exhausted, cooked alive, and air sick. Part of me just wanted it to end. Yet each day I showed up, threw up, but tried to learn a thing or two during the limited time my brain was focusing. My instructor gave up on me. Just as I was starting to overcome my air sickness, it became apparent he was trying a little too hard to give me the “option out”—six air sickness events and it’s an automatic disqualification from flight training. I would not give him the satisfaction. On my 5th flight, he wrote me up for being “passively airsick.” That means that I didn’t throw up but he was convinced that I was “not in the game” due to airsickness. I objected. Knowing that it would be a tough sell to disenroll me for a “passive airsickness event” on my 6th flight, he was courteous enough to ask me, at 10 minute intervals throughout that flight, how I was feeling. He knew that if I, just once, said “a little queasy,” I would be effectively eliminating myself. I politely responded “I’m fine,” at each query. Unfortunately, blood and guts aside, I had fallen too far behind and was eventually eliminated from pilot training for not being able to progress at the required rate. My final mission was on the 27th of September and, with a strange shift in winds, I was seeing the local flying pattern from a direction I had never seen it before. My fate was sealed. It was the worst day of my life. It was the end of my dream of being a fighter pilot. Sitting alone, in the dark, in my flight commander’s office, and waiting for him to arrive so that I might sign my final disenrollment paperwork was a sad and lonely time. But it was also a meaningful and reflective silence. I recalled the real reasons why I joined the Air Force and I knew it was about much more than flying. The reasons were big and transcended any airframe or mission. When my flight commander arrived, he took instant pity upon me, sitting there in the dark, and he urged me to remain seated. I wanted to end this thing right. I popped to attention and fired off my best salute, reporting in as a sharp officer should. A good officer doesn’t stop being a good officer when faced with adversity. No, that’s the time he, or she, becomes an even better officer. Of the many positive and glowing performance reports I have received over the years, I still love to look back upon a report which many would have burned or buried deeply within some folder of useless paperwork. It’s my training report from pilot training. The report is simple and to the point but the final block has meaning for me: “Lt Lange displayed excellent military bearing throughout his training. He always maintained a positive attitude in spite of the difficulties he encountered. Lt Lange is an excellent junior officer and will be an asset to the Air Force.” Over the years, I’ve seen too many people pitch out of the fight when things didn’t go their way. That was never my style. The report, perhaps unintentionally, captured a fundamental quality that continues to drive me. I never enter a fight because I think I can win; I engage because the cause is just and the battle needs to be fought–my ability to “win” is irrelevant.
As I walked out of my flight commander’s office, the next part of my Air Force career began. I knew that if I could overcome this shock, and still keep my motivation to serve our country, that a whole new world of possibilities would span out before me. While my flying didn’t make the cut, my academic average at pilot training, nearly 97% on test scores, more than qualified me for a Navigator School slot. I got lucky. I was actually working in “casual status” at the Outbound Assignments Office at Laughlin AFB when the official message traffic came in that I had been awarded a slot at Nav School. I was overjoyed. Since I was working in Outbound, I actually got to type my own set of orders and had it processed through all the wickets in no time flat. In the dark of an early December morning, with “Ramble On” blasting on my car radio, I left Del Rio for the last time and made my way out to Sacramento, California where I would attend Specialized Undergraduate Navigator Training. It was like getting a second chance and I wasn’t about to blow this one. Nav School and the follow-on Tanker Combat Crew Training School both went very well and I’ve never looked back. With over 3,600 hours of flying time, in all kinds of weather, I never got airsick again.
So, what about failure? Had I completed pilot training, the path I would have been set upon would have taken me away from so many life events that I truly consider to be the most wonderful and significant moments of my life. Everything from completing life goals to finding and marrying my wife and having four wonderful kids. So many things might not have come to pass; things that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. “Failure” is funny like that. Pilot training wasn’t my first bomb. It won’t be my last. But time and maturity have taught me that life works in funny ways. Sometimes, our greatest disasters lead to our greatest victories. I often get a doubtful look when I try to emphasize this point to younger folks or, sometimes, peers. But, it’s true. I think we end up where we are meant to be. A little humility goes a long way. Also, some of the most terrific people I’ve met in this world are those who have faced adversity and come out on the other side—survivors. I used to warn people never to trust the knight in shining armor—the armor retains its luster because it has never seen the scourge of battle. The one to keep your eye on; the one to put your faith in, is the warrior riding tall in the saddle, armor dented and badly worn. I will always believe this. Keep faith and never give up the fight. Failure isn’t always failure.