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How a lumberjack from rural America chased clouds for 33 years.

  • Published
  • By Tim Gantner
  • 340th Flying Training Group Public Affairs

A story about a U.S. Air Force instructor pilot who never stopped having fun!

 

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-Randolph, Texas – "Kervin, hurry outside; your father is flying home," shouts Lois Waterman.

Kervin runs to the porch.

Chuck Waterman pulls out of a turn down into the weeds in an F-101 Voodoo over Willy-O Lake. Kervin watches the sun glisten off his father's plane. Kervin smiles so big it hurts.

This was in the early 1970s.

Kervin confesses his father may have flown too low. He also points out he didn't follow in his father's footsteps in this way.

Kervin's father, Chuck served in the U.S. Air Force as a pilot for 26 years. He died in 1993.

Lt. Col. Kervin Waterman reveals the thought of following his father into the air was always in the back of his mind. How could it not? 

The sight of his father soaring over their home planted a seed in his young mind. But, it would be years before Kervin could take action.

Kervin grew up in a small rural town you maybe never heard of: Newport, Washington, 50 miles north of Spokane near the Idaho line

Before Kervin gained hard-won wisdom after decades of cloud chasing, he had to overcome his bite-sized fear.

In high school, the thought of flying was intimidating, and Kervin acknowledges he was much more comfortable with academics. 

He felt it was complicated and wasn't sure if he had what it took. But, Kervin still thought it would be cool to be a pilot.

After graduating from high school in 1984, Kervin attended the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, to study engineering on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. 

In 1986, a pilot slot opened up after his sophomore year. Although Kervin still had doubts, the raw and ready cadet jumped at the opportunity.

"I was not confident when I received my pilot slot," says Kervin. "But all I ever wanted to do was fly airplanes."

Living up to his father's example, Kervin decided to push his fear to the side and follow his dream: to become a pilot.

To the delight of Kervin and the U.S. Air Force, the life-changing decision made in 1986 paid off for 33 years. A win-win situation.

"Once it worked out, I thought it would be much better than working for a living," says Kervin. "I figured I'd keep on doing it until I wasn't having fun, and I never stopped having fun."

For Swervin Kervin, fun is always a high priority.

If you didn't already know, pilots have call signs. For Kervin, he knew immediately the name he would use for his career: Swervin.

The story goes that as a teenager, Kervin purposely swerved back-and-forth from one side of the road to the other leaving black marks down the road, and a friend in the car dubbed him "Swervin Kervin." This nickname became an excellent call sign. Plus, it rhymed, Swervin adds.

In May 1988, Swervin was commissioned as an active duty second lieutenant and began training that December at Williams AFB in Phoenix, Arizona. For pilots, Williams was also known as "Willie." 

At the end of 1989, Swervin finished pilot training. He stayed on as a T-38 first assignment instructor pilot at Willie.

"That was the best pilot training base, and it was a shame when they closed it. It was a well-kept secret," says Swervin. Willie supplied the Air Force 25% of all pilots by the time it closed in September 1993.

Swervin's second assignment landed him at Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, as a T-38 instructor pilot.

Then from 1995 to 1998, Swervin flew the C-130 Hercules at Dyess AFB base in Abilene, Texas.

Following his stint at Dyess, Swervin returned to Vance in 1998 as a T-37 instructor pilot. But this time around, his life would change.

"Oh great! I have to be a sponsor," says Swervin recalling the exact moment a sponsor packet landed on his desk.

After flipping it open, he found out who he would sponsor: his future wife!

Of course, neither of them knew. How could they?

When Janel arrived at Vance with her one-year-old daughter, Emma, Swervin showed her around the base and got to know her a bit over a weekend visit. After she returned from instructor pilot training, the two started dating. 

Over the next 23 years, Swervin and Janel welcomed six more children, including foster son Levi.

Swervin shared their story with love, joy, and even laughter.

"If you want to learn how to be a great sponsor, talk to Swervin," is how his former commander jokingly advised other sponsors.

Swervin became a respected pilot instructor and climbed the leadership ladder. He began to make a little noise in the instructor pilot world.

He had learned his craft. He had paid his dues, and his students proved it every time they suited up.

In 2001, Swervin and Janel were hand-picked as initial cadre in the T-6 at Moody AFB in Valdosta, Georgia 

Swervin served as a T-6 operational test pilot and instructor. At the same time, Janel made history as the first female T-6 instructor pilot.

And guess what?

There's even a rumor flying around that Swervin wrote the T-6 manual.

Swervin laughs, "No, that's an exaggeration. I didn't write any manual," says Swervin, denying he is the mastermind behind the T-6 manual. "I was around when they were finalizing it, but no, I didn't write the manual. The people here like to exaggerate a lot."

In 2003, Swervin arrived at Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas, tasked with various roles.

After serving 20 years on active duty, Swervin retired as a major in 2008 and was about to hang up his flight suit.

But, he wasn't ready to stop flying. He was still having fun. 

So, as a Reservist, he found a home with the 96th Flying Training Squadron. Swervin donned a new patch and became a Boxing Bunny in 2009.

The 96th was a natural fit for Swervin.

"I had flown with the guys, built up a rapport, and they eventually promoted me to lieutenant colonel," says Swervin.

But that was 12 years ago. Today is May 4.

The clock is ticking, and Swervin only has two flights remaining in his Air Force career.

Maj. Harry Stell of the 96th is briefing eight instructor pilots before a special mission. Swervin is sitting across from the director of operations, Lt. Col. William Pope, a former student under Swervin in 2016. He refers to William as "Bubba."

This isn't your regular briefing. Nope! 

Today's brief is for a historic T-6 four-ship formation. The eight crew members combined have more than 33,000 hours in the air.

If you're wondering, 33,000 hours is about 270 round trips to the moon for Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong couldn't imagine the number of hours spent flying among Swervins' crew.

Think about that.

After an hour delay at the step-desk, Swervin and his wingmen get on a bus to the flight line. Swervin makes his rounds, inspecting the aircraft, and gets strapped in. He's in the back seat of a T-6 with Harry in the front seat.

The historic-four ship takes off mid-afternoon into a gorgeous blue sky.

Near the end of the flight, the formation is flying together; then, all of a sudden, Swervin's T-6 hangs a left turn and splits off from the pack.

In less than 24 hours, Swervin must separate once again.

Swervin and Harry land, and the historic four-ship formation is a success.

Swervin is walking off the flight line. He's now 18 hours away from his very last flight in the Air Force. His thirty-three years of experience set to expire for the 96th.

The final flight in Swervin's Air Force career only goes by one name: the fini-flight. For pilots, it's a long-standing Air Force tradition steeped in aviation history.

"It's bittersweet, but all good things must come to an end. I'm sad, and I'll miss it, but I think I'll be fine," says Swervin.

Thirty-three years is a long time to do anything, but Swervin says he's still having fun. 

In 2016, after 28 years of service, Swervin received several separation extensions. In all, he completed 32 years of service, but he thought he had reached his maximum years.

As it turns out, the 96th commander, Lt. Col. Vinny Danna, put in a two-year extension request for Swervin.

The request was approved. But, for only one year.

During the pandemic-stricken year, Swervin completed his 33rd year of service.

"I've never heard of anybody doing that before... ever. The extra year helped us out by holding onto that wealth of experience," says Lt. Col. Wolfgang Von Aspe, a 96th pilot instructor.

Swervin has flown over 7,000 total hours across four decades. Swervin's claim to fame is the 6,000 hours in ejection seat aircraft. Those kinds of hours are in the upper echelon of instructor pilots.

Also, here's a fun fact. Swervin holds Laughlin's mark for T-6 time with 3,369 hours in the air.

All Swervin's hours helped put generations of U.S. Air Force pilots in the air. He built his world-class reputation as an instructor pilot, one student at a time.

It's been 13 years since Swervin joined the 96th, and Bubba sometimes wonders why he's continued to serve.

"Swervin voluntarily gives up his time and livelihood to come to Del Rio, Texas from Washington to fly, and I have to ask why he does that. It's not for the paycheck, it's not for the commute, but I believe it's for the people and students," says Bubba. 

Swervin opens up about what being an instructor pilot means to him.

"I enjoyed my flying career. It's a sense of satisfaction teaching someone how to fly. You kind of fly on through them as they continue their career," says Swervin.

Bubba adds, "It's his desire and passion to teach, train, and inspire the next generation of air power. I love his passion for flying. I hope we can continue in his flight path of excellence."

For Harry, Swervin represents the old guard.

"Swervin is a different breed. When you walk around as a new guy with a question, you seek out somebody like Swervin because he's been around and has seen it all," adds Harry.

Harry calls Swervin a legend.

Swervin laughs and says, "Harry exaggerates. I just think I've been here longer than everyone else, riding it out to the bitter end; no, I wouldn't call myself a legend. I've just been doing this for a very long time. I want to think I'm good at it."

Harry adds, "From when I first showed up, not knowing anything to becoming the instructor I am now, I owe that to Swervin. He's the type of instructor I want to be."

Swervin is a humble man and would never accept such praise. But, for the 96th, Swervin is a legend.

"Test pilots know about Chuck Yeager, but for the 96th, it's Swervin. Swervin is the 96th. Hopefully, we can emulate what he does moving forward," says Harry.

With Swervin's retirement, the pilots of yesteryear are fading away. The Boxing Bunnies now have a colossal flight suit to fill. It doesn't appear anybody is a fit at this moment.

Is it possible Swervin has forgotten more tactics than new pilots will ever learn?

The bottom line is this: Swervin delivered a steady flow of information for young pilots for over four decades and has cemented his status among his wingmen.

The hours flew by following the four-ship flight, and suddenly it's early morning before the fini.

Swervin is on a computer when he discovers that a 47th Flying Training Wing T-6 climb-out procedure will be renamed the "Swervin climb-out." It's being renamed to honor his contributions to Laughlin, Air Education and Training Command, and the Air Force pilot corps. This is the first time Laughlin is celebrating a pilot instructor with a named procedure.

"Having a departure named after you is better than having a street named after you because you pretty much have to die to receive that honor," says Swervin.

Swervin and the crew get briefed, and he gears up for his final flight. He walks the flight line for the last time. He climbs into the front seat of a T-6, taxis, and launches into the air.

Hours later, with his family waiting, over a hundred friends show up to celebrate the end of an era. Close friends even flew their planes from other states.

When Swervin lands, he's greeted with cheers, sprayed down with Champagne, shakes hands with almost everybody, and shares champagne-soaked hugs. He embraces his children and kisses his wife, Janel. 

At the end of the fini-flight celebration, Swervin runs off to get dry for his retirement ceremony.

The party moves inside the 96th building.

Swervin's youngest, Levi (also known as the Texas Tornado), is sitting next to his dad, drinking an orange soda. The Texas Tornado becomes the entertainment for the afternoon with his enthusiasm and excitement throughout Vinny's speech.

At the end of his speech, Vinny gives the floor to the most respected pilot in the 96th.

"Swervin is a great officer and person. He truly is," said Danna.

"You're revered as an instructor pilot at the 96th," he told Swervin.

"I am honored and humbled to be standing up here on his behalf and extremely blessed to have known such an outstanding individual," says the commander.

Now, it's Swervin's turn to speak.

"I promised I wouldn't get emotional," says Swervin. His facial expression changes. His voice rises a bit. The end is near, and he knows it. "This has been the greatest squadron. All the Randolph folks and former Bunnies, thank you. This is all I got." 

During the standing ovation that followed, Janel wraps her arms around her husband in quiet support.

Following the ceremony, Swervin enjoys tacos and drinks with his family and friends.

Now, the book of Swervin is closed, and he begins a new tale. Given a chance, would Swervin rewrite his book?

"I would write it the way I wrote it the first time. I wouldn't change a thing. I had fun the whole way," says Swervin.

Swervin did things the only way he knew how: his way. 

Near the end of pilot training at Willie, flying a T-38 became that "A-ha!" eureka moment that took Swervin to the point of no return. He never wanted to do anything else.

He is proud of his career path because he followed his heart chasing clouds for 33 years.

"Once I knew flying is what I wanted to do, I never wanted a desk job. I never wanted to go to the Pentagon or do a staff tour. I don't think there is anything wrong with only flying airplanes until they tell you that you can't fly airplanes anymore," says Swervin.

The party's over, the tacos are gone, and the halls are quiet. Swervin picks up his separation orders. He punches his Newport address into the GPS and notes that he has a journey over 2,200 miles to get back home to his tree farm.

After retiring, Swervin must find something else.

So, what's next for Swervin? 

"That's a great question. I'm still not sure what I want to do when I grow up," says Swervin smiling. "Maybe I'll move on to gardening. It's a slower pace. There's still satisfaction growing stuff." 

Or maybe Swervin will start a vineyard. "We have a berry orchard garden with a bunch of berries in it. I want to expand the scale of it and make my own berry wines," adds Swervin. "I grow the berries, and Janel handles the strawberries,"

Back home in Newport, the Waterman's run a logging and timber services company. But, Swervin says he should help out more with the family-owned business.

Swervin has no interest in flying civilian planes. He also has no desire to get a job working for a boss, except for Janel. She manages the family business.

Swervin's father wanted him to join the family business, but his mother wanted him to use his brain.

How do you think your parents would feel about your career?

"My father would be proud of the flying, but he would also tell me to work out in the woods more. He would tell me to get to work. For my mother, flying is a smart person's game. It takes brains to fly," adds Swervin.

The Waterman children range from 4 to 23. Emma Waterman, their eldest, is now a lieutenant in the Air Force after her 2020 commissioning through the Montana State ROTC. Christian, their oldest son, serves in the Army with the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Swervin lives in the same house he grew up in.

When Swervin retired from active duty in 2008, he moved back home to Newport and built his mother a house. They're now neighbors.

"I'm raising my children in the house I grew up in, which is cool," says Swervin.

The only thing we know for sure is Grandma Waterman is baking in the kitchen, and her grandchildren will enjoy her famous little cookies on the porch. 

And for Kervin?

For a moment, let's imagine.

Swervin is wearing flannel, cutting trees down in the woods, busting his back. He decides to take a break and strolls to the porch to take a sip of water. He looks toward Willy-O Lake with a thousand-yard stare.

Memories of childhood stay until the end of time.

Will he look back with wonder?

Will the porch take Swervin to a place where he will ache to go again?

Perhaps, Kervin looks up at the clouds and remembers his father swooping down in the weeds and everything that flying meant to the both of them.

Will Kervin ever fly again? Maybe.

Or, just maybe, his dad's message will be something all too familiar, and Kervin gets back to work!