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F-22 pilot holds to Texas roots

Lt. Col. Randall Cason, 301st Fighter Squadron commander, stands in front of an F-22 Raptor May 18 on the flightline at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. In 2006, Cason became the first Air Force Reserve pilot to fly the F-22. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sergio A. Gamboa)

Lt. Col. Randall Cason, 301st Fighter Squadron commander, stands in front of an F-22 Raptor May 18 on the flightline at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. In 2006, Cason became the first Air Force Reserve pilot to fly the F-22. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sergio A. Gamboa)

NAVAL AIR STATION FORT WORTH JOINT RESERVE BASE, Texas -- "You can take a man out of Texas, but you can't take Texas out of the man," some people say. This is certainly the case with Lt. Col. Randall "Tractor" Cason, F-22 pilot and commander of the 301st Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., a detachment of the 301st Fighter Wing here.

"I'm a Texas guy, I'm a truck guy, I'm an F-150 guy and I'm an F-22 pilot," Cason said with a slight Texas twang in his voice.

Cason happens to be the first Air Force Reserve pilot to fly the F-22 Raptor, the world's 5th generation stealth fighter jet. Cason said he was encouraged to apply when the Air Force Reserve advertised for a pilot while he was stationed here in 2006, but he didn't think he would be selected.

Cason said he didn't even mention his application to his wife when he proposed to her.

"I ended up getting engaged one night and told my fiancé that we would be in Fort Worth for the next decade, and it was going to be great. The very next afternoon I get a phone call, 'Hey Maj. Cason, remember that whole F-22 thing down in Florida? Are you still interested in doing that?' And my response was, 'Uh... Yes, but I got engaged last night and I need to speak to my fiancé.'"

According to Cason, she said, "Sounds awesome, let's go," and the rest is history.

Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Cason grew up listening to the jets from the 301 FW flying, which inspired him to become a pilot, he said.

In 1995, Cason went from cowboy to combat pilot when he accepted an officer's commission to fly F-16s.

Cason has ultimately garnered more than 2,200 hours in the F-16 and F-22 combined. He flew combat missions over Iraq in support of operations Southern Watch and Northern Watch, enforcing no-fly zones put in place to limit Iraq's aggressive aerial maneuvers.

On top of being a pilot, Cason has also been an instructor, evaluator and commander over the course of his career. Each role can be challenging, but Cason ended up wearing all four hats when he accepted the Tyndall AFB F-22 pilot position.

While he was learning to fly the F-22, Cason was responsible for hiring qualified Airmen to fill positions within the new detachment. Then, after he became qualified on the F-22, he immediately turned around and began teaching other pilots how to fly the aircraft.

"I participated in the writing and development of the syllabus for instruction, ended up putting the first couple classes of lieutenants through the training, and got them going to fly the Raptor. So that was pretty cool," the colonel said.

According to Cason, instructing new pilots can be incredibly rewarding and challenging. The instructor has to predict mistakes, assist with problems without the ability to see what the new pilot sees and offer corrections.

In spite of the challenges, Cason successfully commanded, instructed and evaluated new F-22 pilots for four years.

Yet, in Cason's life, flying is just the tip of the Texas panhandle. There is an undisguised pride that Cason takes in the heritage of the 301 FS, which began as one of four African-American fighter squadrons activated at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala.

"We wear the patches of the Tuskegee Airmen from WWII," Cason said. "And the Tuskegee story is a great story about progress; it's a great story about challenges; it's a great story about Airmen being Airmen because, at its core, what do Airmen want to do? They want to get the mission done and they want to get it done well."

The 301 FS Tuskegee Airmen deployed in 1944 to the Mediterranean Theater for combat operations that ranged from escorting bombers to patrolling. All of their aircraft bore the signature painted red tails that distinguished them as part of the African-American war-fighting unit.

As some Texans say, "Go big or go home." The Tuskegee Airmen became renowned for their courage in theater and earned numerous high honors for their feats in air-to-air combat.

Within the squadron, the walls are lined with photographs and memorabilia of the Tuskegee Airmen, according to Cason. There is even a heritage room, referred to as the Red Tail Room, or RTR, full of memorabilia. The colonel stated that they are all reminders of who they are and what they do.

Cason feels fortunate to be a part of the 301 FS and its heritage.

"I think it's great that I've had the opportunity to be a pilot and I think it's definitely made me who I am," he said.

Cason is more than just a pilot in the Air Force Reserve. Col. Brian D. Neal, 44th Fighter Group commander and Cason's boss, described him as a loving husband and caring father on the other side of his intimidating fighter pilot exterior.

Nonetheless, Neal expressed that it is Cason's drive to achieve which has led to his accomplishments.

"I'm not sure when he sleeps because his work day consists of nothing less than 24 hours. He is high speed and lethal to whatever problem lies ahead. As the 301 FS commander and F-22 pilot, Lt. Col. Cason continues to forge the future for the Air Force Reserve Command's partnership in 5th generation combat airpower," Neal said.

The 301 FW certainly benefits from Cason's dedication and experience. Colonel Robert O. Buchanan, 301 FW vice commander, is a fellow pilot and has known Cason for more than a few years.

"Lt. Col. Cason brings a level of experience to the 301 FW that is rare in the Air Force Reserve. He was the first AFRC pilot to fly the F-22 Raptor 10 years ago and has worked directly for the AFRC commander. Now he is passing his knowledge on to other pilots. With him on our team the 301st is guaranteed to deploy combat-ready Airmen," Buchanan said.