A PILOT OF EXCELLENCE
Interview with Brett Vance
- Greetings Brett. What is it you do?
I am a career fighter pilot and test pilot, and I’ve been flying since I was a teenager. Joined the Air Force at age 17 at the Air Force Academy, then went to USAF pilot training right after that and have been flying pretty much all the time — both military and civilian — since then…except for a Pentagon tour and a furlough here and there!
2. What is the purpose of Jet Jockeys, and what is your role for this program?
Jet Jockeys is a new docu-reality TV show, and we intend to examine the lives of very special pilots who have amazing stories to tell and document those lives and stories to entertain, excite, and most of all, to inspire our audience. From the younger viewer, I would expect to hear, “I think I could do that!” From the more experienced viewer, I might hear, “That was incredible!” That to me would be success and fulfilled purpose for the show. I have a big responsibility as your pilot-host to bring out those stories in the best way possible. I’m wearing a few other hats for the production as well…casting, technical consultant, scheduler…there’s a lot going on here for a show that has both people and engines-running aircraft in close proximity!
3. How did the idea of Jet Jockeys come about?
I am a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and every year we have an international symposium and awards banquet to culminate the year’s activities. My wife Sherri — our show creator — was with me at the event several years ago and decided then and there that we had to capture some of the amazing stories we hear every day in the flight test community. She developed the concept into the show about pilots and the planes they fly. We will showcase all kinds of pilots and all kinds of aircraft. Note — this is not another gear show…there are plenty of those out there. Instead, these are stories of character, emotion, bravery, and accomplishment — people stories — set in the context of some super-cool hardware!!
4. When did you first decide to become a pilot?
Simple! I grew up in West Texas near an Air Force Base. I would travel with my Dad on business occasionally and we would drive by the base sometimes. The departure path from the runways was right over the highway we always traveled, and the jets were low and loud. I always asked to stop and watch. I’m pretty sure I decided to be a pilot when I was seven years old. A few years later, we took a family vacation up through Colorado on the way to Yellowstone. You guessed it…we drove past the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and that was that.
5. What are some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome while chasing your dreams?
Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and nothing like that ever comes easy! The word “sacrifice” comes to mind. I was always taking extra science, math, and aviation classes in High School, foregoing other opportunities. The academy was the same way, since I took extra classes in pursuit of a double major. With a high workload, you have to deliberately structure in balance, so that is always a major life consideration. Ya gotta put in the work to get the reward. People have told me I’m lucky. Not even close. When I respond that I went to school for over 25 years to nurture this career, they understand. The price is high to fly solo at 50,000 feet at Mach 2. Or maybe 800 knots at 500 feet above the deck. Your call…they’re both fun!
6. Any events in your life that particularly impacted your vision with your career or Jet Jockeys?
We all have setbacks or experience life in a way that doesn’t fit our idea of what we think our timeline should be! Maybe I didn’t get the assignment or the airplane I wanted. Maybe this whatever event I want to happen is taking too long. Maybe I’m not doing what I need to be doing to get this accomplished. All those ideas for me have turned out to be ridiculous, but only because now I have the perspective of time and experience to better analyze what was really happening. As I looked back through that lens of time and experience, I began to see that I was always exactly where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there. God never moved me to the next big thing until I was ready for the next big thing. Now, consequently, that is a huge load off my mind, since I know I’m always where I’m supposed to be. And yes…that’s a huge confidence builder as you can imagine.
7. What would you recommend to young people that are potentially interested in becoming a pilot in the future?
Figure out early what kind of pilot you want to be, since various aspects of this career field have different requirements. Military versus civilian; fighters versus heavies; regional airlines or flag carriers, career instructors, LifeFlight, fixed-wing versus rotary-wing…the list of choices is endless. College grad or not, engineering degree or not. Masters degree or not. All these ideas need to be considered as early as practical. I knew by the time I was in 10th grade what classes I needed to take and what leadership accomplishments I needed to demonstrate to get to the Academy and then ultimately to the Air Force Test Pilot School. If you are even just thinking about this career field, get some quality time with your school counselors early and often to get them to help you map out the plan. Once you have the plan — stick to the plan!
8. How do you find well-being in your life?
Another simple answer: know your priorities and live according to those priorities. For me — in order — God, my wife, my family, my job, then everything else. Essentially those five priorities. Keeping those in balance and emphasizing what needs to be emphasized when it needs to be emphasized is liberating. Oh…and let’s not forget some righteous iron-pumping time at the gym a few days a week. That helps!
I lived in Odessa, Texas for most of my childhood and attended Permian High School…home of the Friday Night Lights. My hometown was near a now-closed pilot training base — Webb Air Force Base — which is where I got my inspiration to fly. The U.S. Air Force Academy was a logical choice for college — if you want to join the company, you should probably attend the company school!
I started my military aviator life as a T-38 Instructor Pilot after graduating from the Air Force Academy, and then went on a few years later to fly the A-10 on a three-year assignment at RAF Bentwaters, England. About a third of my time there was spent on the European continent supporting NATO operations. But after five years of operational Warthog flying and almost as many years before that in the training command, it was time to join the flight test business. I graduated from USAF Test Pilot School and was immediately assigned to the F-16 Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California. In those fast-paced, incredible years as an in-the-trenches military test pilot, I flew a variety of weapons development programs, engine tests, new F-16 avionics upgrades, and several classified programs. It’s truly fascinating how we can stop the bad guys in their tracks when we pull out all the stops.
After a stint at the Pentagon in Special Programs and Legislative Liaison, I returned to Edwards as Deputy Commandant of the Test Pilot School; and for my final tour on active duty, I reported to Hill Air Force Base in Utah to command the 514th Flight Test Squadron, without a doubt my most challenging yet rewarding officer assignment.
Retiring from the military and thinking my days in federal service were over, I began flying for Delta Air Lines, based in Salt Lake City. But when the bad guys crashed planes into our buildings on 9/11 and killed thousands of Americans in just minutes, we all knew that the industry had been changed forever. It was just a matter of time before I and thousands of my closest friends were forced to leave the airlines in the mid-2000s. Fortunately, my network of fabulous test pilot friends hooked me up with a great job in the test biz again, this time as a government civilian. For several more years I served as Chief of Training for the Test Pilot School, flying the F-16, T-38, King-Air, and all the gliders…the same flying I was doing as a military officer just a few years before. Opportunity knocked again, and I left the school to fly with the Federal Aviation Administration as a test pilot, instructor, and evaluator. There I saw firsthand the wide variety of the latest technology the aviation industry has to offer. At any one time, I’m the test pilot on over 100 projects!
But now, hosting Jet Jockeys is a dream come true and a totally logical next step. These years of experiences have primed the pump and all the people I’ve met have so many stories of incredible aviation feats you can’t even imagine. We must all defy gravity in some way to achieve our dreams, and I will tell you how so many amazing aviators in all walks of life have done just that. Fly Safe, y’all!