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Citizen Airman guides student pilots into ‘mosaic of airpower’

Pilot training is first a leadership program

Lt. Col. William Pope (seen here as a major in pilot training) took an unusual path into the pilot’s seat, and as challenging and frustrating as his journey was at times, his determination and faith, and his commitment to being with his flight surgeon wife and children, helped him break through the walls to reach his flying goals. Today, he’s the director of operations for the 96th Flying Training Squadron at Laughlin, where he believes his greatest career successes are tied to guiding students through the undergrad flying process. (U.S. Air Force photo by Janis El Shabazz)

Pilot training is first a leadership program

Lt. Col. William and Lt. Col. Necia Pope pose for a family photo with their children in front of one of the Laughlin Air Force Base T-38 Talon aircraft, in which William Pope is an instructor pilot, assigned to the 96th Flying Training Squadron. Necia Pope is a flight surgeon at Laughlin. Being able to live, work and play in the same place for a flying couple took a lot of flexibility, patience and faith. Today, with some help and support from the Air Force Reserve, the family calls Del Rio, Texas, home. (Courtesy photo)

Pilot training is first a leadership program

Lt. Col. William Pope, 96th Flying Training Squadron director of operations, talks with a member of the flightline management team at Laughlin Air Force Base, Del Rio, Texas. Pope, who took an unusual path into the pilot’s seat, continues to actively learn about his craft from his many experienced teammates at Laughlin, which enables him to excel as a student advisor and mentor. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas --

Every Airman’s journey is unique, but now and then, you come across someone whose path is a testimony to faith and commitment, tenacity and grit - refusal to quit. Lt. Col. William Pope’s story is like that.

When he was a child, Pope decided he would be a pilot. But getting there required the 96th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot to zig when he wanted to zag, to accept opportunities that weren’t part of his dream, and to reassess his reason for chasing that dream.

A bright kid who excelled in ROTC at the Citadel, he was offered aviation, but not a pilot slot. Accepting the B-52 navigator opportunity, he threw himself into the role, excelling in his career. Relying on a strong reputation as an exceptional aviator, he again sought a pilot position but his initial application score was low. He worked hard and tried again. Scoring 96 out of 99, he re-applied only to realize that he had too much time in service and would require an Air Force Chief of Staff waiver. It was disapproved.

It was a frustrating time and Pope was considering separation from the Air Force when an unexpected deployment extension gave him some time to weigh his single-minded pursuit against the backdrop of his Christian faith.

The life-changing revelation that his purpose, worth and value were based on something bigger than his career field, coupled with meeting his soul mate, changed how he viewed his life and options. In 2010, he separated from active duty and joined the Texas Air National Guard, ensuring he and his bride, Necia, would be able to stay together. Later, when Necia (an Air Force physician) accepted orders in Virginia, Pope found a position there with the Air Force Reserve.

He still dreamed of being a pilot, but his dream was more complex. And, of course, nothing else had changed. He would still need a time in service waiver, and he wasn’t getting any younger.

Still, with Necia’s encouragement, he tried again. This time he was accepted. This time the waiver was approved. But, to make it work, Necia would have to be a “single mom” for more than a year, and even once he completed pilot training, Pope didn’t know if his family would be reunited.

They accepted the challenge on faith, and their faith paid off when Pope was accepted as the 340th Flying Training Group’s only “first assignment instructor pilot” at the 96th Flying Training Squadron, and Necia soon after accepted a flight surgeon opportunity at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas.

With a career laden with amazing experiences, it is this opportunity to “effect airpower and have a direct impact on others’ lives,” that is the most rewarding for Pope. Selected as the squadron director of operations in 2018, Pope previously served as the Reserve student liaison officer, responsible for operational and administrative control over students in phase one training.

“We are the students’first impression of pilot training and - for many - of the Air Force, so every aspect of their careers will be affected by how we treat them, how well we guide and counsel them, and by the leadership and Airmanship examples we set,”  Pope explained. “The responsibility is sobering, but the rewards are immeasurable.”

Had Pope been accepted as an active duty pilot when he first applied, his journey would have been completely different, and he may never have considered opportunities with the Reserve.

“I think I would feel that something significant was missing,” Pope said. “The Reserve has added a dimension to my life and career that I wouldn’t want to give up. Being able to make my family my top priority and still being able to serve, to fly and teach others to fly - this is the real dream come true.”

The challenges he experienced in pursuit of his dream help him connect in a unique way with his students that the traditional approach would not have allowed.

“When I see a student frustrated or on the verge of giving up, I know exactly how that feels and I am fortunate to be able to use my experience to help students see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Pope said. “Sometimes people just need an empathetic ear, and I can certainly provide that.”

Having served in the active, Guard and Reserve components, Pope’s knowledge and experience are shared by few other instructors.

“I hope sharing my experiences with our students is helpful for them. I know that being able to interact with them every day, and finding ways to help them succeed in this program more than makes up for the frustration and uncertainty early in my career,” he said.

As he has developed personally and professionally, Pope has gained clarity and understanding that helps him focus on the most important part of being an officer, a pilot and instructor.

“I recognize now that in my early years as an officer I was pursuing an identity in what I could become as a pilot.  It was an ‘if-then’ equation.  As an instructor pilot, I strive for students to understand that pilot training is first a leadership program.  Flying is the medium through which we teach them to be leaders,” he said. “They have intrinsic value, unique identities, and are contributing their lives to much more than a cockpit.  As they flow through the pipeline, they coalesce into what I refer to as the ‘mosaic of airpower’ that will go on to provide phenomenal capabilities that bring to bear effects for the combatant commander in pursuit of achieving national objectives.  When students are aware of the key role they have in airpower, the proverbial ‘light-bulb’ shines bright.”