Chasing the Sky: One Airman pursues his dream of flight though the Air Force and education

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 (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Jennie Chamberlin)
Master Sgt. Thomas Black, a reservist with 63rd Air Refueling Squadron, stands before a KC-135 Stratotanker at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 6, 2012. Sergeant Black is a boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker, but his aviation knowledge extends far beyond that. He is also a former Air Force maintainer, a civilian pilot and the owner of a business that offers various services from pilot and maintenance instruction to airplane repair. He said flying has always been a passion of his, one that the Air Force and its educational benefits have helped him pursue.
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Chasing the Sky: One Airman pursues his dream of flight though the Air Force and education

Posted 5/8/2012   Updated 5/9/2012

by Staff Sgt. Jennie Chamberlin
927th Air Refueling Wing

5/8/2012 - MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla.  -- While sitting in school suspension, a young Thomas Black read a book that changed his life. "I was reading a book by Chuck Yeager called "Wings", and I thought, 'man, this is what I want to do.'"

Reading the book by the famous Air Force pilot inspired the high school student to pursue a career in the skies, and altered his approach to education.
"It made me change my attitude. I straightened my life up because I knew I needed good grades to be in the military."

That was how Master Sgt. Thomas Black, now a reservist with the 63rd Air Refueling Squadron, began his journey to the skies. When he was sixteen, he made a purchase that solidified his passion for flying.

"At the time, to go up in an airplane cost $15 to $20 an hour. So I took a bunch of change and I scraped together the money to fly. Once you get up in the air, it's all over."
Since then, Black pursued his love of all things aviation using more than one path. He joined the Civil Air Patrol in 1986, and flew search and rescue and anti-drug missions with that unit. Black joined the Air Force in 1989, the same year he received a civilian pilot's license. He served as a crew chief and maintenance instructor for F-111 Aardvarks for 10 years, but he always had his eye on becoming an Air Force pilot. While on active duty, he went to college and earned a bachelor's degree so he could apply for a commission. By the time he graduated, Black learned the age requirements to be a pilot had changed and he could no longer apply. He continued his career in the Air Force, but switched to the Reserve component, serving first as a C-130 Hercules flight engineer with the 731st Airlift Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., and currently as a KC-135 Stratotanker boom operator with the 63rd Air Refueling Squadron at MacDill AFB, Fla.

As an Air Force maintainer, air crew member and a civilian pilot, Black learned about airplanes inside and out. Over the years he's accumulated over 2,500 flight hours in military and civilian airplanes. Eventually he decided to put his extensive knowledge of aviation to another use. After earning his Federal Aviation Administration maintenance license, Black discovered that many other people were interested in the process. He turned that process into a business by helping people earn their license for airplane maintenance. An FAA maintenance license is required to work as a maintainer on civilian aircraft.

He expanded his business to include a myriad of aviation-related services, calling upon skills he learned in his Air Force career and ones he cultivated on his own. Black said his work in the Air Force and with his business sparked a new passion - helping military members transition to civilian life by giving them the tools to pursue careers in aviation and aviation maintenance. A majority of his students are military veterans, and Black said he appreciates military students because of their willingness to learn and dedication to their craft.

The pilot said the key to being successful in the transition is education. His military and civilian careers each pushed him to excel in the other by motiving him to pursue a college degree.
"Because I wanted to fly, I had no desire to get a college degree. But because I wanted to be an Air Force pilot, I needed a degree to apply for a commission."

Black earned a bachelor's degree, but didn't stop there. He earned six degrees in all, including a master's degree in Aeronautical Science from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and three Community College of the Air Force associate degrees. He is currently working on a doctorate of education, and said he is adamant about encouraging Airman to pursue formal education goals.

"I think all people need to take advantage of what the Air Force offers in the Community College of the Air Force degree. A lot of Airmen don't realize what a serious degree it is. I always tell Airmen to take advantage of the educational benefits the Air Force has to offer."

Co-worker Master Sgt. Johnny Pullen, an air refueling evaluator and instructor with the 63rd Air Refueling Squadron, said Black's contribution to his unit goes beyond being a highly qualified KC-135 Stratotanker crew member; it extends into motivating others to know their airplane better. "He inspires guys on the flight line to increase their knowledge base, and he's the kind of guy that really cares about seeing them succeed," said Pullen.

As Black prepares for his upcoming retirement in October, he said he is sad to be leaving the Air Force but looks forward to putting in more time at his business. Both careers are a culmination of goals he formed in high school.

"I always wanted to fly, I always loved airplanes, and I always wanted to serve in the Air Force."
For Black, dreams do come true.