JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas --
This year, for the first time in the history of the 340th Flying Training Group, a reservist will become a First Assignment Instructor Pilot. Maj. William “Bubba” Pope will start his FAIP assignment with the 96th Flying Training Squadron at Laughlin Air Force Base, Del Rio, Texas, this summer.
“Maj. Pope has an outstanding personality and demeanor and that, coupled with his previous strong performance during his career, made it apparent that he would be a great choice for the first FAIP in the 340th FTG,” said Maj. Hunter Letchman, assistant director of operations and reserve liaison for the 47th Student Squadron at Laughlin.
Prior to his selection for SUPT, Pope held various leadership positions to include deputy chief of standards and evaluations, master air attack planner, range operations officer as well as a B-52 instructor and evaluator navigator with more than 1700 hours.
Pope has been interested in aviation since the age of eight when he entered a local contest at an AM radio station hoping to win money for flying lessons. He won the contest and on his 16th birthday, he made his first solo flight in a Cessna 150 at the Fairfield County Airport in Winnsboro, South Carolina.
Pope’s path to being the first reserve FAIP was long and, at times, a bit tumultuous; but he said he wouldn’t change a thing because, looking back, he needed the time to be fully prepared when the opportunity finally came.
“I come from a very close family,” Pope said. “In ROTC at The Citadel, I had no clear idea that I would make a commitment to join the Air Force, or any branch of the military for that matter. I still knew I wanted to fly, but at that point I couldn’t see being separated from my family to commit to possibly ten or more years to attend pilot training.”
He decided to test the waters with the Air Force on a basic four-year tour and see how it affected family life. Pope excelled at field training and was named class cadet leader. Further, he said the T-38 incentive flight he took two days before graduation “blued” him for life.
“That flight reignited my thirst for being a pilot. For the first time things got really real. It was the biggest thrill I’d ever had, and I began to see the Air Force not as a job but as a career, a profession – a calling.”
Pope wanted to fly fast and…upside down – that meant JETS. Shortly after landing, he called his ROTC detachment to see if he could still get into pilot training. At the time, however, the needs of the Air Force were in the field of navigation and Pope was assigned to Randolph for joint specialized undergraduate navigator training.
Pope earned his navigator wings and was eventually stationed at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota., Though he enjoyed the mission, his desire was still to be in the driver’s seat. After making a name for himself as a navigator, he decided to revive his quest to be a pilot and needed to position himself better if he were to have a chance of realizing his dream.
He decided to apply for the active-duty pilot selection board only to find out that, despite being a formal training distinguished graduate, his application score was not competitive. Within 30 days, he retook the test and raised his score from previous score of 36 to 96 out of the 99 available points. By this time, he discovered he was one month beyond the time-in-service threshold to enter pilot training and would need an exception to policy waiver approved by the Air Force Chief of Staff. Though disappointed when his package was not approved, he was determined not to give up.
In 2008, Pope was considering separating from active duty to pursue commercial aviation when he deployed to Guam. “I was only supposed to be in Guam for a few months,” said Pope. “I ended up being there for six months, and what I initially saw as a downer ended up turning into the best thing for me at that time in my life.”
While in Guam, he returned to what he considered the “core of his being” which was rooted in his Christian faith. He realized that he had been pursuing becoming a pilot through the wrong lens. He was trying to personify the image of what he considered a fighter pilot to be. “This was a turning point in my life, because I realized my identity was not based on what job I had. When I realized my purpose, worth, and value came not from my career, but in who I was, it was a life-changer.”
The other life-changing event during his time in Guam was when a friend “electronically introduced” him to the love of his life, Necia, a urology resident assigned more than 7,000 miles away in San Antonio, Texas.
“It was love at first chat. I knew from the onset of our phone conversations that she was the one for me.” After returning to Minot, he flew down to meet Necia for the first time, and a year later, they were married.
Pope found himself at a crossroad. He still wasn’t a pilot and now he would be stationed many miles away from his new bride. He could not find an active duty job in San Antonio, so he decided to leave active duty in 2010 and join the Texas Air National Guard.
In 2013, Necia received orders to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. Pope took a job at the base as a traditional reservist and eventually secured a position as an air reserve technician.
During the Langley assignment, he deployed to Korea. Through a chance meeting with a reserve personnelist, he learned about a Reserve Command program that would accept unsponsored officers for pilot training.
He submitted his paperwork again and the SUPT selection board approved his application in January 2015. This time he received the exception to policy waiver and, shortly after returning to Langley, Pope was approved to start training at Laughlin in November of 2015.
“Being geographically separated from my wife and nearly two-year-old son Tyler for more than a year was sure to have its challenges, but Necia couldn’t have been more supportive. She was undergoing ‘single-mom’ operations as a full time surgeon and we had no idea where I would end up after SUPT or how we’d get the family back together. Despite these challenges, our faith assured us that it would all work out.”
“I couldn’t believe that for the first time in my life, I was getting to do what I loved,” said Pope. “Every day I got to wake up, fly really cool aircraft, study what I loved, and do it all over again.”
However, the challenges continued. After a few months of training, they discovered Necia was pregnant and they expected their new daughter to arrive just prior to Pope’s scheduled graduation date.
During SUPT, Pope worked closely with Letchman regarding assignment opportunities. He knew that based on his time in service an assignment to the Combat Air Force was unlikely. Pope still wanted to be able to fly fast and upside down; and that, coupled with his passion for teaching, led him to inquire about the possibility of remaining at Laughlin as a FAIP. Letchman worked with leadership to pursue approval. The same day that Pope agreed to accept the FAIP position, Necia found out that there was an opening in Flight Medicine with the 47th Medical Group at Laughlin. She began engaging her leaders for a possible move.
In his intent-to-hire letter, Lt. Col. Richard Morneau, 96th FTS commander, said he was very excited at the possibility of having Pope join the squadron. Morneau said, “This would be the first FAIP hire for the 96th, and Pope was an exceptional candidate. He ranked towards the top of his class and he received the Top Lighting award as the student who most contributed to the overall success of the flight through flight room leadership, teamwork and peer relations.”
Pope was finally on the threshold of realizing his dream. The first step would be to complete the three-phase SUPT program.
Pope accomplished SUPT as a distinguished graduate in December 2016 and is currently in Pilot Instructor Training. As of today, everything is all set for Pope, Necia, Tyler, and new baby Alena, to reunite at Laughlin this summer.
Pope is excited to get to work as an instructor pilot. “Training student pilots is one of the greatest missions to be a part of; I like to call it ‘cultivating airpower,’” said Pope. “The students within SUPT are among the brightest of their generation. They have accepted the call to serve, and they’ll be the ones continuing to lead our Air Force into many future successes and even brighter tomorrows.”