Story by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dakota Rayburn
PACIFIC OCEAN -Pacific winds whip across the nonskid of the flight deck on USS
John C. Stennis (CVN 74) as she cuts through glassy water reflecting a bright blue sky. Pilots
with steady hands on the controls of haze grey Sea Hawks, beat the JP-5 heavy air down and away in time with flight crew Sailors directing each takeoff and landing.
The Chargers of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 14 and the Raptors of
Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 71 are currently deployed with Stennis. These
squadrons’ pilots rely on extensive training, muscle memory and on-the-job experience to navigate the dangers associated with their line of work.
Lt. Jason ‘OMG’ Gaidis of HSC-14 from Brownsville, Ind., said big mistakes can result
in the loss of life, limb and equipment; which is why aviation officers must not only have the
necessary skills, but also confidence in their own abilities, to overcome any challenge.
People with distinct personalities seem to be attracted to, or develop within this kind of
job. Lt. Pete ‘Therapist’ Listron of HSC-14, a helo pilot for four years from La Grange, Ga. and
known within HSC-14 for his energetic character, is a good example of that. He uses his
emphatic personal motto, “Tight, tight, mega tight!” often but most especially to describe the
huge rush he experiences when flying. He said his favorite thing about piloting helos is when
he gets to fly backwards. Flying though, requires all of a pilot’s attention while using his or her whole body to operate the helo safely and smoothly.
“There’s a lot more to being a pilot than just going up and flying,” said Lt. Ashley ‘Mr.
Ping’ Hallford of HSM-71, a Sea Hawk pilot for four years, from Southlake, Texas. “There’s a lot of time commitment involved, specifically with mission planning.”
Other than the many various contingencies involved in planning a mission, the physics of
flying a helo present a more fundamental challenge. Gaidis explained the complexity of rotarywinged
flight as being like a balancing act that seems nearly impossible at first glance. However
due to extensive training, that skill becomes second nature, similar to riding a bike or driving a car.
“Imagine balancing three gyros on top of each other,” said Gaidis. “For a helo pilot, you imagine the result you want and your hands do it.”
Lt. j.g. Alex Wells of HSC-14, from Vestal, N.Y., explained that officers who make it
through flight school and then graduate from either fixed-wing or rotary-wing training are
nowhere near being finished with their education. Pilots are constantly learning and evolving to keep up with changing technologies so they can perform at the top of their game.
“It’s an unbelievably large amount of work to be a pilot, but it’s also a crazy amount of fun,” said Gaidis.
Each pilot has to overcome many difficult obstacles to reach their goal. They must
graduate from several different education courses and maintain a high standard of physical
fitness while spending countless hours studying and training to eventually be able to fly. Some
are following a dream, living for a thrill, wanting to improve their lives or modeling their life after someone they admire.
“[I wanted to be a helo pilot] when I was a kid; that’s kind of what pushed me toward it,” said Wells.
Few people are lucky enough to reach a childhood goal the way Wells has. Perhaps that’s
why some prefer to experience an individual moment up in the air to its fullest. They devote all
of their attention to the helo and its surroundings, not just as a job they are tasked with but as a fluid moment.
“Flying is dynamic,” said Listron. “You’re in it to win it.”
Some Sailors view getting commissioned as a pilot to be the next step in their career.
Gaidis used to be an aviation structural mechanic 2nd class, earning has aviation warfare and naval aircrew pins before commissioning in 2010. He was a crewmember aboard C-2A
Greyhound cargo aircraft when he realized he wanted to be an officer. He applied to the Seaman to Admiral Officer Program several times before being accepted.
“I knew I wanted it and ‘no’ means try harder,” said Gaidis. “Once the opportunity came I worked hard for three years and made it happen.”
Other pilots pursue a family legacy with the same fervor Gaidis had in his career. Hallford’s father was a fighter pilot in the 1980s, flying F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets; and
her grandfather was an Air Force pilot before that. Legacy isn’t her only motivator though, she’s just as heavily influenced by her own ambitions, if not more so.
“When I’m doing anti-submarine warfare [training] and I’m tracking a sub we can’t see
but can tell where it is, it’s a cool feeling,” said Hallford. “You get a lot of experiences here
you’re not going to come across in the civilian world, so I take advantage of that while I can.”
According to Hallford, Sea Hawk pilots’ personalities usually don’t reflect any of the
dangers involved in their strenuous jobs. They prefer to behave and react a little more fluidly and have laid-back personalities.
“I think we’re pretty down to earth,” said Hallford. “We’re definitely like a family.”
Despite the wide variety of reasons people fly helicopters, pilots have formed a tight-knit
group. Listron likes the community saying they have bonded over the years they’ve worked
together and have created a culture all their own akin to a brotherhood. Like any close community, helo pilots have developed camaraderie with one another.