Middleton inspires Vance's newest pilots, takes last official flight

  • Published
  • By Terri Schaefer
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – Col. Thad Middleton visited Vance Air Force Base Dec. 2, 2022, to be the guest speaker for the Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 23-03 graduation.

With a career that began with pilot training here and spanned four airframes and over 25 years, Middleton came “home” to Vance Air Force Base to inspire the next generation of Air Force aviators.

When speaking to the graduates, Middleton emphasized the importance of family and support systems. He also touched on a time when he wasn’t sure he was going to finish pilot training and wondered if he even wanted to be a pilot anymore. 

“I reached out to my father-in-law who was a backseater in Vietnam with six Distinguished Flying Crosses, and that talk made me realize something I’ll never forget. Failure is giving up what you really want, for what you want right now.”

Middleton completed the first phase of pilot training at Vance in 1998 before diverging from the traditional training track by heading to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, to train in the T-44 aircraft with the Navy in pursuit of an assignment flying C-130 cargo aircraft.

His short time at Vance was eventful. He proposed to his wife Katie shortly after beginning training. Due to the demanding pilot training schedule, they tied the knot at the Vance Chapel over the long Fourth of July weekend, the only time Middleton could get more than a few days off.

The following weekend, their first being married, he left on a cross-country flight, an event that set the pace for many days and months away from home over the next 24 and a half years.

Middleton’s career after departing Vance spanned markedly different aircraft, from the C-130 to the KC-10, KC-135 and the new KC-46. He spent five years at the Pentagon where he completed his time as the aide-de-camp to the 22nd Secretary of the Air Force.

During his joint assignment to United States Transportation Command supporting the United States Africa Command in Germany he was able to use his KC-10 experience to help synchronize tanker support for B-2 bomber strikes that destroyed a terrorist camp in Libya.

Looking back at his career to date, Middleton is clear that support systems were what helped him make it this far. 

“Balancing your work and where you want to go professionally along with your spouse and your kids, as you want to watch them grow, can be a challenge. I hope every Airmen learns that they can find this balance, that it’s okay to not send that last email, and instead leave to catch their kid’s baseball game.”

The same concept applies when it comes to what he’s seen change in the last 25 years. “I think senior leaders all the way up the chain understand work-life balance better than they did when I was a lieutenant. When I joined, we weren’t at war, and I think we’ve learned a lot when it comes to how to best support our people while still getting the mission done,” he said.

Middleton’s advice to graduates continued that theme.

“Be worthy. Be an officer first, then become a pilot. Don’t forget to do those things that you need to do to ensure that you’re a strong officer. Take care of your Airmen, take care of your team,” he said.

Following his remarks to the graduating class he flew his final flight in an Air Force aircraft, also known as a “fini flight.”

“This visit back has been amazing,” said Middleton. “The T-6 flight, my last in the Air Force, really circled back to where it all began, and I can’t be more grateful for the opportunity to finish my flying career here.”