By Di Freeze
If you ask an aviator why he or she chose to fly, chances are that person was encouraged by a father, mother, grandparent, or even good friend. Take, for example, Lt. Che’ Coleman, a Navy lieutenant based at Vance Air Force Base we became acquainted with when he made a training flight into Centennial Airport. From an early age, Coleman knew he wanted to fly.
“My grandfather was very involved in aviation, so he took me to various airports—Philadelphia International, McGuire AFB, Willow Grove NAS in Philadelphia—and we would sit at the end of the runway for hours just watching planes,” he said. “It was even better when we had our air scanners, so we could listen to everything going on. We would also go up to any civilian or military pilots we could find and talk for as long as they could stand it.”
Coleman was very familiar with military life. Born in Philadelphia, Penn., he grew up an Army brat.
“My dad is an Army doctor,” he said. “My mom is a retired nurse. When we were stationed at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center, my mother took me to the approach ends of Stapleton Airport for hours on end, where I was introduced to commercial aviation. I spent most of my life on the road, moving from place to place, all over the world, on an average of every three years. Often less than that, but it worked out great. I learned to be ridiculously flexible and varied when it came to meeting people and adapting to a new environment.”
The drawback to it was constantly leaving friends and loved ones (often newly created).
“Timing always seemed to be that you met people right as you were arriving and they were leaving, or vice versa,” he said.
Because Coleman often found it challenging to find peers who shared all of his varied interests, he ending up having to create his own balance to be who he wanted to be.
“It was a challenge because I was always too black for the white crowd, or too white for the black crowd,” he said. “Moving was the perfect environment for that, because it was a clean slate with each new place, and I created who I was and what I was comfortable with and fine tuned it as I matured.”
Coleman did something useful with his love of flight when he joined the Civil Air Patrol in the eighth grade. He’s been in a military uniform ever since.
“I did that, along with Army JROTC, in high school,” he said. “I loved all of it.”
The next step was The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, in Charleston.
“That was a very interesting few years,” he said. “It was intimidating in a lot of ways.”
The reason was that up until then, his dream of flying was intensely personal. There, he was “surrounded by men with similar dreams and desires.” He said reality bit when he realized that those people were often “smarter, stronger, richer, better looking, etc.”
“It forced me to step up to the plate, if I was going to stand a chance,” he said.
During his entire time there, he was in Air Force ROTC and knew he wanted to fly. But during his senior year, he went to San Diego to visit family.
“They took me out to Coronado to see BUD/S training and it changed my life forever,” he said.
After seeing Basic Underwater Demolitions/SEAL training, Coleman turned down his commission to the Air Force—much to his parents’ dismay.
“I was going to be a SEAL,” he said. “So, after graduation, I took a year off to get in proper physical shape and worked as a hotel concierge at the Charleston Place Hotel downtown. I had this crazy idea I wanted the whole James Bond image.”
After a year, he enlisted in the Navy and was a SEAL for four years. His direction changed when he had major knee reconstruction.
“I had to rehab myself the last year,” he said.
Once that was complete, Coleman put in his package to Officer Candidates School “to be an Officer and a Gentleman.” He was thrilled when he was picked up for a pilot position.
“I could have gone back to the SEALs, but I was happy with the experience, and I was ready to go back to my original love and dream,” he said.
In Pensacola, he started off in the T-34C. He later went to Corpus Christi, Texas, for C-12 (Super King Air) training.
“That’s where I got my pilot wings,” he said. “I wanted to fly jets/fighters but my grades weren’t quite high enough.”
Still, he wasn’t deterred.
“I was just so happy to fly,” he said.
After six months of P-3C school in Jacksonville, Fla, Coleman got picked up for P-3C/EP-3E flying out of Rota, Spain.
“Talk about the greatest experience in the world!” he said.
He was there for two and a half years (out of a three-year tour), because the entire squadron was moved back to Seattle.
“Much of that time I was on the road on deployments covering the Middle East, Iraq, and even South America,” he said. “For a reconnaissance pilot, it was quite fantastic, and home was sunny southern Spain.”
The sun wasn’t all that attracted him. There, Coleman fell in love. These days, he’s “working with patience to one day get her here.”
Following his time in Spain, he selected orders to put him where he is today. After attending instructor school in San Antonio, Texas, for the latter part of 2005, and early part of 2006, he’s now an instructor pilot in Enid., Okla., at Vance AFB. He instructs in the T-6A Texan II, a tandem-cockpit, turboprop aircraft used by the Air Force for basic pilot training, by the Navy for primary and intermediate joint naval flight officer training, and by the Air Force for navigator/weapon systems officer training. With its highly advanced, all-glass cockpit instrumentation, the aircraft is replacing the Air Force’s T-37B Tweet and the Navy’s T-34C Turbo Mentor.
“It’s nothing like I would have imagined myself doing, but I truly love being an instructor pilot,” Coleman said.
He said he loves to teach, and that it’s very rewarding to see that “light come on when a student gets it.”
“I learn something new everyday, and as far as job satisfaction, it ranks amongst one of the best,” he said. “I tell them that I know how hard they worked to get here, because I went through it too. I know what’s required, and it’s not easy, by any means.”
Coleman said that once a student gets there, it’s his job to “make their dreams come true in letting them fly airplanes.”
“I take it seriously,” he said. “I give them my all, but they’ll scare the hell out of you sometimes with innocent mistakes they never see coming. I always have to be on my toes. That’s exhausting, but so rewarding.”
Coleman is now at Vance for the final three years of his commitment to the military (he’ll have 13 years in when he’s done). As for what’s next, he’s looking at the airlines primarily.
“Fed Ex and Southwest are my dream airlines right now,” he said. “I do plan on flying in the reserves or Air Guard because for as long as I’ve been in a uniform, it’s hard to break the habit and lifestyle. Plus a double income is always nice.”
The 34-year-old says he loves his life and what he’s accomplished, and that the primary goal and focus is to remain in an airplane.
“Flying is the only thing I love to do everyday!” he said.