Fathers, Sons, Airmen

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Fathers, Sons, Airmen

Retired Air Force fighter pilot Jay Waitte explains how Father’s Day in his family takes on a special and personal military significance.

Ethan and Edward Waitte
Ethan and Edward Waitte

Military aviation runs in my family. During WWII, my father Edward was a B-24 bombardier, and my wife Kate’s father Fred flew P-51 Mustangs. My brother Mike flew F-111 Aardvarks. And of course, you know I flew F-4 Phantoms and A-10 Warthogs.

But the chain extends further, to my son Ethan. He flew the F-16 Fighting Falcon and still flies the F-22 Raptor. That's one heck of an airplane.

Three generations of fathers, sons, airmen.

My father and I got along very, very well. He didn’t talk much about his service during WWII, but that was typical for his generation.

But one thing’s for certain. He always had high marks that he wanted me to achieve. I remember when I was on the track team in high school, I was throwing the javelin. One time my mother said, “Oh, your father, you know, was a state champion.” At the time I was 17 and he was 38, but he could still throw it farther than me.

While I was at the Air Force Academy, mom and dad would visit me on different parent weekends.

There was an Academy rule that cadets could own cars at the end of their junior year. My father said that if I did well, he'd buy the car of my choice. I said I wanted a Corvette, so I got a brand-new Corvette…as did 319 other cadets. Some Colorado car dealership gave all of us a good deal.

Like me and my father, my son Ethan and I get along very, very well. Since we’re both Air Force pilots, we’ve shared many of the same experiences, both at the Academy and while in service. Ethan even followed my career arc, leaving active duty after 12 years, and is currently serving in the Nevada Air National Guard.

My son decided at an early age that he wanted to go to the Academy. I guess we kind of maybe indoctrinated him by taking him up to the A-10 Connecticut Air National Guard unit near Hartford. I could have just as easily taken him to the Submarine Museum in Groton.

The most important thing to get through the first summer at the Academy is knowing how to make your bed, shine your shoes, and arrange your closet.

Based on my own Academy experience, I was able to give Ethan a head start. Before he left home, we got him two pairs of combat boots. I taught him how to shine his shoes, so he already had two pairs of spit-shined boots. He was very appreciative of that. It made his Basic Cadet Training (BCT) a lot smoother. And he was graded very high.

Years before, when I was in pilot training, an instructor gave me a great tip, one of several that I passed on to my son.

The instructor told me that from the moment I woke up, through the classroom, gearing up, inspecting the airplane, flying, and so on, I should write everything down onto index cards. Then study those cards until every procedure was drilled inside me, and I wouldn’t have to think what to do if I got into a spin; I’d just respond.

Ethan used that same trick, and I like to think it’s one reason he graduated high enough in his class to be able to choose to fly an advanced fighter jet, the F-16.

Ethan’s call sign is “Lefty.” I don’t know why.

One time, when he was stationed in the Middle East, Ethan was refueling his F-22 in mid-air. He put a message right in the front of the cockpit that said: “Happy birthday Dad.” He took a picture. So that was my birthday card! We call the picture “Sunrise Over Syria.”

A couple of years ago, I had my 45th Academy reunion. Ethan joined me with his two sons, and he got to talk to a fairly good friend of mine, a retired four-star general. The General was very, very impressed that my son followed my footsteps and was flying the F-22.

Today, my son is a Lieutenant Colonel and will make Colonel sooner than I did. He recently took command of the 232nd Combat Training Squadron. Ethan calls all the time, and we talk about a lot of different things.

His two boys are ages nine and ten (a fourth generation, perhaps?). I know they are as proud of their father as I am of my son.