Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Early Years - From Dropout to Naval Aviator

When people ask me how I became a Naval Aviator, they assume that it must have been my childhood dream and that I worked diligently to achieve that dream.  That may be true of many pilots, it is not my story at all.  I never built models of airplanes or dreamed of flying high performance aircraft when I was young.  Becoming a pilot was fortunate combination of dissatisfaction and timing (and seemed like a good way to pick up chicks.)      

Eventually, everyone rides in one.
Before I was on my own, I lived the life of a "Navy Brat".  This entailed relocating seven times with my three siblings a scraggly cat in our '72 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon.  It had the backward facing rumble seats in the rear, where your only view was the traffic behind you.  The feature was cool, because when  you gave the right combination of hand signals, you could get your Dad in a fist fight with a trucker.  (I digress, and so soon)

Due to the inopportune timing of my father's military orders, I often had to change schools in the middle of the school year.  Some of my earliest memories were of being displayed at the front of the class and introduced by the familiar, "settle down children, we have a new student..."  Yeah, I was that kid four times, and in hindsight it explains a lot.

Many awkward years passed and after a particularly mediocre high school experience, I gave dropping out of college a try.  Within a year I found myself teetering on the brink of the "collegiate abyss" (the point where your GPA is mathematically impossible to salvage).  Needing to make a change, I decided to take a long summer vacation to the hottest place on Earth - Parris Island, SC.  My "travel agent" said that the Marine Corps would pay for the whole thing.  Bonus!

I wasn't convinced that the military lifestyle was for me, so I had decided to test the water first by joining the USMC Reserves.  As it turns out, being a reservist  was a point of contention with my Drill Instructors as was my year of college.  I was known as "Half-Assed College Boy".  (Though Drill Instructors can be some of the funniest people on the planet, they didn't really put a lot of time into my nickname.) 

A familiar sight for me.
Three months of Marine Corps Boot Camp was one of those unique life experiences I am proud to have completed, but I wouldn't do again if they paid me a million dollars.  To keep it short - let's just say that I made it through and learned some valuable life lessons.

Because of my "weekend warrior"status, I was able to return to college in the Fall to give learnin' another try.  With a spiffy new hair cut and a lot more discipline, I was able to make it through my second year of college, finishing with a cumulative GPA of 2.6.  I was numerically feasible again.  Who would have guessed that doing 250,000 pushups and hop & pops, all while getting yelled at by remarkably loud individuals would markedly improve your grades?

My duties on drill weekends primarily entailed cleaning incredible amounts of clay off the bottom of jeeps.  It got worse when they learned I could type.  I continued to attend my "stay at home" college and cut just enough grass to earn beer money.  Thankfully, I was moving forward, but very slowly.  It seemed as if I was stuck in first gear, climbing a hill to an unknown destination.  Like many college students at that stage in their lives, I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself, nothing really interested me.  At some point it occurred do me that:

A.  I should have applied myself more in high school.

B.  I needed purpose in my life. 

I turned out to be correct on both accounts.

Timing is everything in life.  In the mid/late 80s the US Navy wanted to build a "600 Ship Navy", and this armada included a whole bunch of  aircraft carriers.  It just so happens that I had seen "The Final Countdown" and "Top Gun", so I knew a thing or two about Naval Aviation.  I knew that "chicks dig fighter pilots", fighter pilots had cool callsigns, and fighter pilots flew off of those aircraft carriers.  That was ALL I knew, but it was enough. This was my  "Ah-Ha moment", and it would change my life forever.

I wanted to be a fighter pilot!

I had now a goal, I had direction, and a reason to apply myself.  To this day I thank the greatest President of our times, Ronald Reagan, and his vision of a Navy that would dominate the seas.

It just so happened that the Navy was looking for pilots, and a 2.6 GPA was good enough for a guy who may find himself carrying a small tactical nuke over enemy territory with a 40% chance of returning home alive.  They weren't looking for rocket scientists, they needed pilots - and I can tell you from experience that GPA is not a good indicator of a person's flying ability.

In 1987 you only needed 60 credit hours of college to qualify for the Naval Aviation Cadet Program so I put in my application.  After a battery of tests, interviews and a lot of positive reinforcement from my Father, I was accepted into flight school and released from the Marines.  I reported to birthplace of Naval Aviation, Pensacola Florida as Cadet Quinn in May of 1988 at the age of 20.  Not bad for a half-assed college boy.
US Navy Wings of Gold

After a tough start, two years of eating Top Ramen and a lot of late night studying, I received my Commission as an Ensign and orders to fly the F/A-18 Hornet, all on the same day.  Professionally speaking, 25 May 1990 was the best day of my life.  I even got a cool new name - "Mighty".  Sure, I am the only guy with an adjective for a callsign, but it was better than the poor bastard who got "Judy"!

The rest is History and I would probably have to upgrade this free blog to a... not free blog... to tell the stories which accompany a 24 year Navy flying career.  The are filled with colorful characters, stupid flying tricks, port call buffoonery, success, failure, and of course - women and cool callsigns.  I will have to save those stories for another day...     

My initial motivation  (Kelly, not Tom)

Thank you for reading!

Fair Winds and Following Seas, 

Robert "Mighty" Quinn

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