KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Staff Sgt. Jim Cagle is not your typical E-5 for a number of reasons. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, he literally stands out, but that is not it. With four stripes on his sleeve, less gray hairs and facial lines (though to be pushing 60 it could be worse) are expected, but that is not it either. When he is not at Unit Training Assembly skillfully maneuvering a plus-sized forklift for the 41st Aerial Port Squadron, he’s handling a much larger piece of machinery in the skies as a captain for American Airlines, but that is not it either. On his Facebook page are videos of him banging on the ivories and crooning along, but even that is still not what makes him so atypical.
Nearly 30 years ago, Staff Sgt. Cagle was Capt. Cagle, F-15 pilot for the Louisiana Air National Guard.
Such a discrepancy in rank may lead one to assume something like reduction in service or misconduct, but such is not the case. Cagle’s story is more so one of opportunity, unwavering patriotism, and, well, certain rules regarding an officer’s date of commission in relation to rejoining the military.
Cagle’s journey started just under two hours from here where it is ending when he retires in March. After graduating from Columbia High School in Columbia, Miss., in 1978 he enlisted into the Mississippi Air National Guard and was off to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic military training.
While working as an enlisted member in the 172nd APS in Jackson, Cagle was also working on a degree with his sights set on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test and commissioning which he achieved in December 1980.
After rigorous undergraduate navigator training, land survival, water survival and fighter lead-in training followed by F-4 flight training, Cagle’s first assignment came as a weapons systems officer on the F-4C Phantom II with the Louisiana ANG 122nd Tactical Fighter Squadron in New Orleans.
During this time, Cagle was often on Air Defense Alert orders and flew as an adversary for fighter units training in Gulfport. His outstanding performance in his position afforded him recognition from his peers and the opportunity to attend undergraduate pilot training where he graduated in the top 20% of his class and was awarded the UPT Leadership Training Award.
Upon completion of UPT, Cagle was slotted for a position as an F-15A Eagle pilot, again, with the 122nd. Notable achievements from his time as a fighter pilot include crossing the Atlantic multiple times into Iceland and Europe, performing Adversary Air for visiting fighter units, and leading an 8-ship formation of various aircraft during a week-long air to air competition against other fighter squadrons where he was awarded the “Top Flight Lead” award.
Fifteen years after his Air Force career began, Cagle began to embark on a new journey: a family. With a new marriage and the prospect of children, Cagle said the fighter pilot lifestyle, which he likened to a “supersonic biker gang,” did not exactly fit into the equation. Also, the economic advantages of pursuing a career in the commercial airline industry were enticing. As a result, in 1993, at the rank of captain, Cagle said farewell to the Air Force.
At least he thought he did.
Fast-forward a few presidents, five Summer Olympic games, the rise and fall of MySpace to 2015 and two now adult children and Cagle found himself in uniform once again, though instead of a flight suit he donned an Airman Battle Uniform and instead of the bars of the captain insignia on his lapels, four stripes representing the rank of staff sergeant adorned each sleeve.
Due to his civilian job revamping their retirement system, Cagle toyed with the idea of returning to the military and finishing his time needed to retire. Initially, he contacted an officer recruiter, but there was nothing the recruiter could do for him unless he wanted to be a Chaplain, as there was a shortage. Luckily, though, a recruiter called him out of the blue and asked if he was still interested in returning to service.
“I just made this life decision just all of a sudden, and it was the best decision I’ve made,” said Cagle.
Cagle said he was apprehensive about the possibility of not enlisting in time, as he needed five years to retire, his 55th birthday was approaching, and the age limit for enlisted members is 60.
Ultimately, the recruiter took his circumstances as a challenge and got the job done. March 17, 2015, 37 years after he first raised his right hand, Cagle was once again an enlisted member of the Air Force, this time as a reservist.
For the past five years, Cagle has had the best of both worlds continuing his commercial airline pilot career while serving his country.
Going back to his original Air Force home, an aerial port, Cagle joined the 41st Aerial Port Squadron as an air transportation operations center controller. While he said he had forgotten a lot of what he learned when he first worked in the career-field, much of the knowledge eventually came back as he trained with the 41st.
“We supervise in the coordination of loading and unloading cargo and passengers,” said Cagle.
While being an ATOC controller is a far cry from pulling 9gs in an aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier, Cagle is happy to be here, and his own experience on the ground has made him appreciate the flightline crews he encounters in his civilian job.
“When I’m in my civilian job as an airline captain, I do the pre-flight walk around a lot, though it’s the co-pilot who is supposed to do them,” said Cagle. “I am always sure to talk to my ground crews. I have a better appreciation of what they do now.”
In addition to having to adapt and learn the job part of his Air Force career, Cagle said it has been interesting to see how much society has affected how the Air Force operates in general.
“An 18-year old young man in 1978 is a lot different from an 18-year old man now,” said Cagle.
He admitted that coming back in after so long was an adjustment from what it was like to be in the military 25 years prior.
“It’s interesting to see how our society has changed,” said Cagle. “Young people are a little different today than they were back then and the Air Force has accommodated that. It’s really interesting, for example, they tend to take people’s feelings more into consideration now than they did back then. Mental health issues were swept under the rug, and now we’re more geared to being more open about things that are going on. Overall the way things are done now is a positive.”
In March, mere weeks shy of his 60th birthday, Cagle will retire from military service. He said he plans to continue flying until it is not fun anymore, or until he turns 65, and after that, it is all about family and traveling.
“I’m happy to be here and it was the best decision I’ve ever made to come back, and it almost didn’t happen. I’m really glad I told that recruiter, ‘You know what? If you can make this happen, let’s rock and roll.”