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Wrenches to wings: munitions maintainer becomes F-15C pilot

Second Lt. Kyle Wheeler  once prepared weapons for F-15C Eagles as an air munitions maintenance operator. After earning a commission and completing the initial stages of learning to fly, he is now ready to climb into the cockpit and fire the weapons he once loaded. Wheeler is a a Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program graduate with the 80th Flying Training Wing, Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Robert McIlrath)

Second Lt. Kyle Wheeler once prepared weapons for F-15C Eagles as an air munitions maintenance operator. After earning a commission and completing the initial stages of learning to fly, he is now ready to climb into the cockpit and fire the weapons he once loaded. Wheeler is a a Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program graduate with the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Robert McIlrath)

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

An Airman here is well on his way to fulfilling his dream of flying the same F-15C Eagle he once supported.

Second Lt. Kyle Wheeler, a Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, or ENJJPT, graduate from the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, once prepared weapons as an Air Force enlisted air munitions maintenance operator on the F-15C. After earning a commission and completing the initial stages of learning to fly, he is now ready to climb into the cockpit and drop the weapons he once delivered.

Wheeler always knew he wanted to be a pilot, but the question was when and how.

"I was always really passionate about airplanes as a kid," he said. "Growing up, I enjoyed the airplane ride to Disney World when I was eight years old more than I really enjoyed Disney World itself. I've always had a fascination with airplanes."

Wheeler comes from a military family, with a cousin in the Air Force and a grandfather in the Army, so early on, he knew he was going to be a part of the long blue line. Soon after graduating high school, he enlisted in the Air Force and set out to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas to begin his military career.

After graduation, as an airman basic, Wheeler's first stop was Sheppard to start his technical training in the AMMO course. He quickly finished the eight week course and headed out to his first assignment at Kadena Air Base, Japan. It was there Wheeler's ambitions to the sky were set aside for a new aspiration, to become a part of the honor guard.

"It was an extremely humbling experience," he said. "Definitely rewarding and it was a lot of work. It was awesome."

Due to the high profile nature of honor guard service, Wheeler met Maj. Gen. Brett Williams, at that time 18th Wing Commander at Kadena.

"Kyle was an exemplary member of the honor guard and a top performer in the munitions squadron," Williams said. "As I recall, he was the Airman of the year during our tour so his work ethic was obviously outstanding."

Wheeler loved his job and the experiences as an enlisted Airman, yet he couldn't shake the lure of the skies.

Wheeler knew he was going to need to keep working hard and making sacrifices to soar in the future. He said there were countless weeks where he would end up working 50 to 60 hours juggling the honor guard and school, feeling as though his weekends were nonexistent.

Family and personal drive helped to encourage Wheeler to keep focused on his goals.

"I get my work ethic from my mom, I stay focused because of my wife, and I want to be a role model for my two younger brothers," he said.

He kept his nose to the grindstone working hard and as fate would have it, Wheeler and Williams happened to be stationed at the Pentagon at the same time. It was here the general began talking to Wheeler about his dreams in the skies.

"We met two or three times and he always knew exactly what he wanted to do," Williams said.

With the mentoring from Williams and his own personal drive, Wheeler knew if he was going to fly his beloved F-15 in the future, he was going to have to take a great leap of faith with a long road ahead of him.

"There were plenty of times where I thought, 'Holy cow, I have a year and a half left of my degree, I'm in a job that I really enjoy, is this something that I want to completely give up and go and just do this?' "

Wheeler finished his bachelor's degree in May 2012 and was able to commission as an officer in August 2012 through Officer Training School at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Soon after commissioning, he learned he was not only attending pilot training, but he would be attending the premier combat pilot training program, ENJJPT at Sheppard AFB.

The hard work did not stop there. Through the many conversations Williams had with the instructors during Wheeler's training, his drive and commitment were evident throughout the entire 55-week pilot training program.

"The instructor told me from day one of training he knew Kyle would succeed," Williams said. "He knew what he wanted and he was willing to work as hard as required to get that F-15."

After completing the ENJJPT program, Wheeler finally walked across the stage to receive his long-dreamed-of and hard-earned pilot wings.

To top it off, Williams and Wheeler's paths crossed once more at graduation. The general is currently the director of operations for United States Cyber Command at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. Williams was able to be the guest speaker at Wheeler's graduation and present Wheeler with a set of shiny new wings.

"It was a huge honor and very humbling for me that Kyle asked me to be part of his graduation and wing pinning," Williams said. "I was very fortunate to have served as one of his mentors and to see him succeed was very special for me."

Wheeler was also excited to have one of his mentors there to see him succeed, adding to the high-energy of graduation as Wheeler and his classmates pinned on their pilot wings.

"It was surreal. It's hard to put it into words how I felt," he said. "It wasn't until I came back to work the following week, walking around -- I wasn't the same. When you walk around as a student you go about your business. With wings you get a certain respect, which was neat to see."

Wheeler will be starting Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals Course at Sheppard AFB in August. The IFF course trains pilots the basics of fighter maneuvers from air-to-air employment in offensive, defensive and high aspect flight scenarios to close-air-support capabilities.

He hopes other pilot-dreamers will make the step to pursue their aspirations as well.

"Hard work, perseverance and the desire will allow you to do anything you want to do in the United States Air Force. It's the coolest job ever," Wheeler said.

Once Wheeler finishes training here, he will continue his adventure as he becomes specialized in the F-15.

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