By: Ryan Close
When I was asked to write this article, I was extremely humbled to be a part of the RTAG magazine. At first, I struggled to decide what to write about, but decided that I wanted to portray the path I have taken in my career to get where I am today. It starts with the understanding that nothing happens without hard work, dedication, perseverance, a vision, and most importantly, humility.
Most of the military pilots I talk with these days seem to have had a lifelong passion for flight or becoming part of the “family trade” of military service. For me, this was definitely not the case. As a young kid, I never wanted anything to do with the military. My father proudly served in the US Air Force for 20 years, and I always hated when he was gone from home. As an Air Force "brat," I always enjoyed going to Air Shows, but for me, it wasn't something that “sparked a fire” in me as a kid. Fast forward to my senior year in high school. I was, by no means, the smartest kid in school. I distinctly remember my mother asking me what I was going to do with my life. At the time, I didn't have an answer. So I took some time to think about what I wanted out of this world. Being a lazy high school student, I decided on following the path of the family business myself. I attempted to enlist in the US Air Force and was swiftly denied entrance for medical reasons. This was a giant motivation killer for a 17-year-old with little motivation or passion for anything already. With a bit of encouragement from my parents, I quickly changed my direction. I attended Southern Utah University (SUU) in the fall of 2007. Just like any 18-year old, I wanted to get out of my parents' house. I entered college with no cares in the world, no money management skills, no life skills or direction. I don’t recall much about my first semester, but do know that there was a significant amount of partying, lots of video games, and very little homework completed. That Christmas, I distinctly remember having a “come to Jesus" moment in life.
I looked at the loan paperwork for my first semester and my dismal 2.1 GPA. I had racked up $15k of debt in one semester of terrible performance. How could I afford to do this for another 7 semesters, and how would I fix my horrible grades?
I saw that SUU had an Army ROTC program and decided I could try to get a scholarship. When I went to talk with the detachment recruiter, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The only thing I knew was I couldn't afford school at that price anymore. Waiting in the lobby for the recruiter, I noticed a picture of the AH-64D Apache Longbow on the wall. What struck me was how fierce the machine looked in the photo. As I waited, I pondered what it would be like to fly one. I pulled up a YouTube video on my phone and watched one conducting gunnery to the tune of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”. I was instantly hooked. When the recruiter called me to talk, I immediately asked him what it took to fly the Apache. He calmly asked me what my GPA was, and proudly I exclaimed 2.1! Instantly the first words out of his mouth were, "you will never be a pilot." This moment in time slowed down like in the movie A Christmas Story when Ralph’s parents tell him he will shoot his eye out with a BB gun. I tuned out the rest of the conversation and just kept thinking to myself, who is this guy to tell me I can't do something? That instantly sparked a fire in me. The mind is a powerful tool, and with desire, the human mind can accomplish great things. A few years later in May 2012 after enlisting in the Utah Army National Guard, I was commissioned as a 2LT in the 1-211th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion as a future attack pilot. I ended up graduating with a 3.64 GPA. I called that recruiter years later to tell him he was the reason I became a pilot. To this day, he probably believes he was an exceptional motivator…
I attended Army Flight School at Ft. Rucker, Alabama, and was trained as a lethal attack pilot, graduating as a distinguished honor graduate in April 2014. Full of motivation and ready to do great things, I returned to my unit in Utah. This is where I learned the first humbling lesson of my life. I met my warrant officers, who quickly brought me back down to earth. A brand new platoon leader, I was filled with grandiose ideas that were actually just dumb and not very practical. I was lucky enough to have some great mentors that I still seek advice from to this day. After 4 years and a deployment as a staff officer, I transferred to the Arizona Army National Guard for an Active Guard Reserve position. I had landed my dream job-flying Apaches as a full-time soldier in the National Guard. Well, the big Army had other plans for Arizona called the “Aviation Restructuring Initiative.” This essentially was a budget-saving move that required all AH-64's to be removed from the National Guard. In the end, it pulled over half the AH-64’s from the National Guard, and Arizona was one of those states affected. I was involuntarily transitioned to
the UH-60A/L. With some excellent leadership at the time, we transitioned our unit at a record-setting pace, but as an attack pilot, it felt like being neutered.
While flying UH-60's, I enjoyed the mission but not flying guns left a hole in my heart. In 2018, I decided to consider a transition to the Air Force. I called the Helicopter Human Resource Officer and was functionally selected to fly Helicopters in the Air Force, but unfortunately, they still didn’t have guns. During this time, my wife and father-in-law convinced me to take the Air Force officer exams and apply for fighter/bomber units. With my aviation background, the tests were relatively easy, except for the long division. At 28 years old, math without a calculator was a challenge. When I started to apply to Guard/Reserve units, I quickly found that fighter units wanted nothing to do with giving age waivers to applicants. Fighter units had enough people applying and they didn't need to deal with the waiver process. I was given a shot by the B-1B reserve unit in Abilene, Texas. I approached my command in the Arizona Army National Guard about getting a conditional release. That exceptional leadership I talked about was very supportive and agreed to let me go if I gave them one more year during our transition from AH-64's to UH-60s.
Fast forward to December 2019, I reported to pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base with an 8-month pregnant wife and 2 year old. I was the "old" guy by far at pilot training. I did my best to help mentor the new pilots while they helped me learn the "Air Force Basics”. It was quite humbling as a mid-grade captain. During the T-38 phase of pilot training, I was approached by the Air Force Reserves to see if I would like to switch to the F-16 from the B-1B. My initial thought was, "Hell Yes!" However, I had been hired by a unit that took a chance on me at my age, so I didn't want to burn any bridges. After speaking with my unit, they were supportive of me taking the slot. So during pilot training, I interviewed with the unit I desired in Ft. Worth, Texas. Once again, I was lucky enough to be picked up.
The one thing that stuck out to me was in my interview, the commander asked me, "You have a lot of leadership and prior experience. However, I am going to ask you to stock a fridge, take out the trash, be here early and stay late; how do you feel about that?" This reminded me that no matter what you think about yourself, there are always bigger fish and to be humble no matter what you do or the experience you have. This does not preclude having confidence in your abilities, but be
prideful of the job assigned to you regardless of the task.
At the end of this long journey, and time of this writing, I am currently training to be an F-16 pilot at Luke AFB with two toddlers and a newborn. Never let anyone tell you that you can't accomplish something. Strive for excellence in your daily activities. Most importantly, take time to appreciate those in your life that matter most. I wouldn't be where I am today without the support of my loving wife, kids, and family who helped me to stay humble, and never accept “no”.