JOINT-BASE SAN ANTONIO-Randolph, Texas – When 1st Lt. Mike Lane, Air National Guard member, arrived at Sheppard Air Force Base in May 2017 for undergraduate pilot training, he was beyond excited about his future and the chance to achieve his childhood dream of flying the F-16.
"Being a Viper (F-16) pilot is what I've always wanted to do," he said.
He had good reason to be excited, having overcame a host of challenges to get to that time and place, but unanticipated barriers ahead would test his resilience and determination. How would the young lieutenant respond to a complete vector change?
The native of India, born in 1988, was adopted as an infant by a U.S. Coast Guard family. Growing up in a military family whose history of service stretched back several generations, Lane and his little sister (also adopted from India) learned early about service, resolve, discipline and integrity.
"I decided I wanted to join at, I don't know, maybe 4," the lieutenant said with a grin. In spite of his early resolve, personal decisions derailed his dream and delayed his Air Force career goal.
"I joined late - had some personal growing to do and was dealing with living in a post 9/11 world, coming from a white family, being called a terrorist in middle school," he explained.
That delay, however, had a silver lining that would change his world. Since he had time on his hands, his dad invited him to join him on a mission trip to India.
"When my dad retired (from the Coast Guard) he set up a non-profit that helps kids like me and my sister get into a better place," Lane said. "It was eye-opening; an experience I've never forgotten."
Not only did the trip bring clarity to his life - that was so miraculously changed when his mom and dad adopted him – but it also introduced him to his soul mate, his wife Stephanie. Reminded of his desire to serve his country and fly the F-16, when he returned to the States, he focused on those goals.
After college, he tested the workforce waters, but couldn't shake the conviction that he belonged in the Air Force. Recruiters said he was too old for regular service, and although he was eligible for Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, his vision was an issue, causing recruiters to reject him for flying opportunities.
"I was discouraged," Lane admitted. "But Dad's office mate was a Strike driver (F-15E pilot) and he was like, "So, fly with glasses.' Simple."
After three years of completing applications, doing interviews, earning a private pilot's license and working as a real estate representative and a special needs teacher and advocate, he was offered an F-16 pilot position with the Air National Guard. It was a struggle to remain positive, and he credits Stephanie for enabling him to hold fast to his dream.
At long last, the lieutenant, Stephanie and pup Penny arrived at Sheppard, ready for the year-long undergrad program that led Lane to the F-16 cockpit. It was busy and crazy, but Stephanie, who had zero experience with the military, took it like a champ.
"This lady truly deserves my wings more than I do - we don’t give military families enough credit," said Lane. Stephanie's encouragement would be even more critical for Lane, whose challenges were far from over. Stephanie wouldn't be his only ally.
Drawn to his positive outlook and determination, 97th Flying Training Squadron Reserve instructor pilots took Lane under their wing.
"The biggest thing that drew me to Mike was his positive attitude," said Maj. Sherwood Willis. "He admitted that he wasn’t the strongest swimmer in this rigorous program, but he never once gave up (grit). I would see him chair fly with his peers, watch briefs and debriefs, and work on his off time in the sim (simulator). I admired his tenacity to never give up his dream to be an Air Force Pilot."
Willis and fellow squadron instructor Lt. Col. Jeremy Downs worked with Lane on formation flying, which involves flying very close to one another. Honing that skill can be stressful, so Downs flew with him as much as possible.
"He knew he needed help and he asked us for that help. He's a great kid, he tried hard and had a great attitude. He took instruction and correction well because he really wanted to learn," Downs explained. "If we have the time to do it, we'll help anybody who needs it."
Willis agreed. "As a Devil Cat, we never pass up an opportunity to instruct, and I enjoyed every minute with Mike."
One Devil Cat, Lt. Col. Cary Herndon, believes that asking for help set Lane apart from others.
"Maybe they're uncomfortable asking for help, but it's just not common for most students to come to us the way Mike did," said the veteran instructor. After four years at Sheppard as a regular Air Force instructor pilot followed by an instructor pilot tour at Columbus Air Force Base, and the past six years as an IP with the 97th, he's seen the gamut of personalities.
"Mike was humble, recognized that he needed help, and was eager to learn. He went the extra mile to learn, so we went the extra mile to help him," Herndon said. "We are always available for anyone who needs help – this is what we're here for."
Reserve instructor pilots at the 97th and five other bases augment the regular Air Force to produce pilots. Because most are prior active duty, they're savvy about active and Reserve issues and are invaluable in helping RegAF leaders and teammates understand the Reserve component, including Air National Guard.
Their support and knowledge would become vital. Preparing to enter the third phase of training – specialized UPT – during which Lane would learn to fly the T-38 Talon, he learned the list of aircraft he was eligible to fly did not include the F-16.
Because he couldn't fly fighters, Lane had to work with the Guard to identify options. With a significant portion of pilot training behind him, he was an asset and needed to be vectored to a new airframe. But what? Cargo, transport, refueler, bomber?
"For me, the real process of maturing started at that moment. Disappointment doesn't begin to describe it. But the 97th team – especially Jimbo (Lt. Col. Jim Harrison) helped me work through that struggle, and reminded me that there are much more important things ahead."
Although he spent a month on casual status at Sheppard, Lane wouldn't be able to stay. He would have to complete UPT in the T-1 Jayhawk and the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Training Program at Sheppard AFB doesn't use the T-1.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, the lieutenant got a call from Lt. Col. William Pope, 96th FTS operations director, Laughlin AFB, Texas. At the time, Pope was the Reserve liaison officer and the student squadron director of operations (a total force position).
"Hey man, tell me your story," Pope said.
Just like that, another door opened offering Lane a chance to reach for a new dream.
Switching to the T-1 track required Lane to literally pack his bags overnight and move to Laughlin. Even for single members, that could be pretty stressful. For Lane, married with all the ties belongings that comes with family life, the change could be detrimental. Pope didn’t want to see that happen.
"I reached out because I heard about his situation and wanted first to make sure that this is really what he wanted. If Mike was still set on fighters, I wanted to try to help him find a way to get there," explained Pope, former active duty and former Guard member, and previous B-52 bomber aviator.
Pope and the 96th FTS team also helped Lane with his permanent change of station move, making it as smooth a transition as possible, and got him into the next scheduled class. Although Lane was still a Guard asset, Pope unofficially adopted him and intentionally ‘flight followed’ him through the transition process.
"One day Mike showed up in my office and displayed impeccable attitude harnessed with passion to thrive at UPT," Pope said. "He was still tied to the Guard, and they weren't sure what to do with him. Still, he pressed forward, focused on becoming a good pilot."
For the lieutenant, working with Pope seemed eerily familiar. The concept of being intrinsically whole and valuable - regardless of what you do for a living - that started with 'Jimbo' at 97th FTS, was reinforced and exemplified in the living example that Pope set for him every day.
"He became a critical part of my career and life," the lieutenant said of Pope. "He reminded me that who I am isn't what I fly, and there will come a day when what I fly won't matter, but who I am will."
Finally, Lane was back on track, doing well, but fate wasn't finished with him yet.
Scheduled for his "dollar ride" in the T-1, a medical issue disrupted his plans, resulting in eight months of duty not including flying, or DNIF. Returning to training after eight months DNIF is almost unheard of, and it would require some serious persuasion to get approval.
Fortunately for Lane, his flight surgeon happened to be a specialist in his medical condition, and happened to be married to his mentor.
Dr. (Lt. Col.) Necia Pope fought to get him a waiver, knowing that the tenacious, positive student would be an equally tenacious, positive Air Force aviator.
Having secured a waiver, Lane could have sat around, doing nothing while he healed.
"He was always in the squadron, learning, reading, sitting in on briefings, helping his classmates with their studies, and finding ways to contribute to the mission," said (William) Pope.
Current 96th FTS Liaison Officer Maj. Christopher Perkins also kept an eye on Lane during and after his DNIF period.
"He got the short end of the stick," said Perkins. "And halfway through his T-1 phase, he still didn't have a job lined up. He wanted a combat aircraft, and the Guard could only offer the C-130, so we decided to get involved."
Pope and Perkins both have friends and former teammates in the bomber community, so they went to work, talking to contacts about possible positions. Even if a position were to become available, Lane was Guard. He would have to get approval to transfer to the Air Force Reserve and he had to do it himself. Pope and Perkins couldn't do it for him.
Today, Air Force Reserve 1st Lt. Mike Lane is in B-1 Lancer pilot training at Dyess AFB, Texas. When he finishes training, he'll remain there, assigned to the 345th Bomb Squadron. He's found his place, his calling, his home.
Lane knows that things could have ended very differently for him.
"All it took was honest care, for people to reach out and say 'I've been there, I've done it, you're going to make it through this'," Lane said. "They (Reserve teams) live and breathe their role as instructors, mentors and leaders, and I'd give them the shirt off my back."
Pope sees the situation as a gift to him, though.
"This is why I get up and go to work in the morning," Pope explained. "Investing in people is what it's all about. Whether he stayed with UPT or opted to take another path, we would have helped him become the leader he is intended to be."
The lieutenant reflected on his time with Pope, Harrison and all who supported him during those rocky days, and his greatest hope is that he is one day able to instill that same understanding and courage in future young aviators.
"Being a B-1 driver is my passion; it's what I want to do and I'm going to do my best to kick butt. But, it's only a short stint of my life - 20 years if I'm lucky. And I don't want people to think of me just as 'Mike the pilot' but also 'Mike the husband, friend, life-loving goofball' that I am," he explained.
The on- and off-duty time and effort Reserve Airmen at Sheppard and Laughlin devoted to help Lane land on his feet and find his path came as no surprise to the 340th Flying Training Group commander, who expressed delight and pride in his team.
"We grow Airmen," said Duckworth. "This is exactly what we're for. Even if it isn't 'required,' it's the right thing to do, whether students are Reserve, Guard or regular Air Force, and nobody does it better than our Reserve Citizen Airmen."