FORT MILL -- Piloting an acrobatic aircraft around St. Louis' famous arch with a former high school buddy piloting the jet next to you: That was the most memorable experience in U.S. Air Force pilot training so far, according to two Fort Mill grads.
"We were probably 1,000 feet from the arch, flying around it," said Quinn Gallagher, 24. "It was amazing. We were flying together."
Gallagher and Adam Glover, 25, both former members of Fort Mill High's U.S. Marine Corps Junior ROTC, just finished the second phase of USAF pilot-training in Enid, Okla. After going separate ways after high school, they coincidentally ended up in the same flight training class. They figure the odds against it were about 100 to 1.
Both were in Fort Mill last week for the holidays, enthusiastically topping each other's sentences as they described flight training. They sported excess facial hair they will have to remove before beginning their final training phases.
Gallagher will go first to Alabama and then to New Mexico to learn to pilot an Air Force search and rescue helicopter that he describes as "a Blackhawk on steroids." Glover will return to Oklahoma to become a cargo plane pilot. Both expect to ultimately spend time in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Glover graduated from high school in 2001 and proceeded to Georgia Tech to study mechanical engineering. He had wanted to be a pilot ever since he saw the film "Top Gun" as a kid.
Gallagher graduated from high school in 2002 and went to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, where he majored in systems engineering management. He had always known he wanted a military career, he said.
They retained casual contact with each other over the Internet and shared news from their former Fort Mill ROTC officers. Those officers, Lt. Col. Bill McHenry and First Sgt. Steven Sprague, had been a major influence on their lives, they said.
"They were great mentors to us," Gallagher said.
Competition is fierce for pilot slots with an average washout rate of about 30 percent. Just making it to pilot training in Oklahoma meant completing a three-day physical in Texas, where everything from their eyesight, heart and lungs to reflexes and eye-hand coordination were tested.
Tough get tougher
Twelve hours of training per day are also required, first on a flight simulator and eventually in an aircraft. The pair trained on T6 Texan IIs, the Air Force's newest training plane.
Pressure is high because they are graded on each exercise, and the scores help determine whether they will get their choice of aircraft when they graduate. The two Fort Mill High grads finished in the top of their class in Oklahoma.
They agree the most difficult part of pilot training is learning to land the aircraft.
"You have to aim for the ground, and it's uncomfortable to see the ground getting larger and larger and you know you're going 120 mph," Glover said.
"You have to slow before you land," Gallagher continued. "It's like diving at the ground and saving it at the last minute. If you don't flare perfectly, you hit the ground hard."
Phase II's most exciting experience is six solo flights, the last of which is flown in formation.
"Formation flying is the hardest, most fun and most scary," Gallagher said. "You're flying 'lazy eights' and other difficult maneuvers at speeds up to 200 mph 10 feet wingtip to wingtip from the plane next to you."
It was during a cross-country flight by controls and air traffic controllers directions only that they circled the St. Louis arch together.
"The air traffic controllers know the pilots like to do cool things," Gallagher said.
The next landing
Both pilots received their first choice of aircraft.
Glover married his high school sweetheart, Laura Brunson, more than three years ago. Cargo aircraft usually are only away from base for a week or two at a time, compared to other types of aircraft, deployed four to five months at a stretch. Glover hopes eventually to become a flight instructor.
"I was advised by someone early on to choose the mission I want to fly, not the aircraft," he said. "It's a matter of personality. I want to fly combat search and rescue, and for that I need to fly a helicopter."
The fellow Fort Mill High alums hope their professional paths will cross again under positive circumstances.
"If my plane were shot down, Quinn could come in and get me," Glover said, adding, "but I hope that doesn't happen."
Both feel "honored and privileged" to have become Air Force pilots and to serve their country. They have no qualms about flying to the most turbulent parts of the world.
"Flying is really fun," Glover said, "but it's also very service oriented."