Former F-15 crew chief to fly the Eagle

  • Published
  • By David Poe
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. – Dear Tommy... When you grow up, do not forget to keep working hard to be a fighter pilot... signed, Tommy.

Nineteen years ago, a five-year-old Tom Fitzgerald wrote that note to himself as part of a class assignment at Shalimar Elementary School in Shalimar, Florida.

Two decades later, now 2nd Lt. Tom Fitzgerald, is a member of the California Air National Guard and a graduate of Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 16-08 at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

He was one of four graduates selected for follow-on training in a fighter aircraft. Fitzgerald, a former enlisted crew chief, will now fly the aircraft he used to maintain – the F-15C Eagle.

Five-year-old Tommy would be proud.

Fitzgerald arrived at Vance in March 2015 and spent more than a year flying the T-6 Texan II and the T-38 Talon. He made the grade and returned to his Guard unit for upgrade training in the F-15C.

Fitzgerald’s journey didn’t go straight from his elementary school class to the cockpit of the F-15C, yet it seemed as if he was always pointed in that direction. It started with a goal and a role model who he still admires today – his father.

“I remember living under the flight path at Eglin Air Force Base, (Florida),” he said, “and playing ball with my dad and enjoying seeing the planes. I wanted to be up there.”

At one time, his dad, Robert Fitzgerald, wanted to be “up there” as well. A former enlisted Airman, Robert commissioned and brought his young family to suburban Phoenix and the now-defunct Williams Air Force Base for pilot training in the early 1990s.

Fitzgerald said his father has helped his sons strive toward their goals, no matter what they may have been. “Thinking back, if I had wanted to do something else my father would have said, ‘OK, how are we going to go about that? How are we going to manage our time in order to practice more?’”

With discipline a large part of his upbringing, Fitzgerald said being his father’s son wasn’t always easy, but Robert did a good job as both a no-nonsense pilot and an understanding parent.

“I’d say he was definitely able to be a pilot and a dad – he was good at it,” Fitzgerald said. “He helped raise two doctors and a potential fighter pilot.”

“He was very thoughtful in helping and guiding us toward our goals.” Fitzgerald’s oldest brother is a dentist in Virginia and his older brother just graduated from the University of Florida’s school of dentistry.

Fitzgerald took an untraditional path to becoming a military aviator. Instead of an ROTC program, he enlisted in the Florida Air National Guard, which, although he may not have fully realized it at the time, primed him for what he feels now is more effective leadership capabilities and more distinct “officership” awareness.

“There are a lot of people who get to lead after going through ROTC or graduating the (U.S. Air Force) Academy. But having been in the shoes of your enlisted personnel helps you understand what they're going through,” he said.

Fitzgerald added that every time he puts on his flight suit, he remembers how much he looked to the pilots of his units as examples of professionalism.

“A first sergeant I worked for would always be shaking his head when he saw pilots out of (uniform) regulations, Fitzgerald said. “He’d say, ‘how is he supposed to discipline and keep order with his enlisted crew?’

“Knowing that I’m where a lot of people want to be, especially from the crew chief corps and the (aircraft) maintenance side, is a responsibility not to be taken lightly,” he said.

While attached to the Florida Air National Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing at Jacksonville International Airport, Fitzgerald had private pilot time, training as an F-15 crew chief and a deployment with the 125th FW in support of Operation Cope Tiger in the South Pacific.

Although he called them “brief and inconsistent,” Fitzgerald’s years at the University of Florida were busy. He took a semester off to go to Air Force basic military training and crew chief technical training, and another semester to deploy for Cope Tiger. He also started his own non-profit to benefit collegiate veterans and support the Wounded Warrior Project.

On the hunt for undergraduate pilot training slots, right after graduating college, he transferred from the 125th FW to the California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno. He continued working as a crew chief until he was sent to Officer Training School.

He came to Vance one week after commissioning as a second lieutenant.

He said one thing that helped him get through pilot training at Vance was remembering how tough his father must have had it as he handled student life as the senior-ranking officer of his class and being a husband and father of three young kids.

“I've been looking at the struggles that I've been through over this past year and I couldn't imagine going through it with a wife who was pregnant,” he said. “Dad is definitely the type to bite off more than he can chew. But because he's a hard worker and definitely a hard charger, he's always been able to handle it.”

Robert flew C-130s for Air Force Special Operations Command, and now retired, flies commercially for Federal Express.

Fitzgerald said pilot training at Vance taught him the value of being humble – that a bad day shouldn’t disappoint the five-year-old who dreamed of flying like his dad.

“I realize that just because something didn't go well today, it doesn't mean it's the end of the world,” he said. “I have to start thinking about the big picture. Everyone is going to have a bad flight or a bad day, but it's how you respond to it that matters.”

Nineteen years ago, a pilot’s son wanted to become a pilot. He’s dreamed big and he’s worked for it – and now it is happening. “After I accomplish this next phase of training, my first focus when I get to my unit is to become the best wingman I can be,” he said.

“The F-15 is one of the older aircraft still being used by the Air Force,” he said. That means he may be flying something else down the road. Maybe somewhere else too. He may even fly over Shalimar Elementary School where he once wrote himself a reminder to never forget his dreams.