His dream of flight came true
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 10, 2007 1:46 PM
Stephen Anderson took it all in stride -- being denied a slot in the Air Force Academy out of Eastern Wayne High School, finally getting there the following year and being told no more pilot slots were available.
He was an air traffic controller, then a navigator and was always told not to get his hopes up -- that maybe he just wasn't cut out to command a fighter jet.
But his mother, Betty, will tell you that when a much younger "Steve" said his first word, "airplane," it was clear he would never stop until he reached the sky.
So when Goldsboro's 37-year-old native son circles Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Friday and lands his F-16 Fighting Falcon on the flight line, don't be surprised if his parents are watching with tear-filled eyes.
And the Air Force major said he can't wait to show them that he made his dreams come true.
"It's a little surreal -- to think about sitting at Eastern Wayne every day during lunch and staring at the Strike Eagles, to know that's going to be me," he said. "My graduating class from Eastern Wayne isn't going to be out there with posters saying, 'Hey, look, it's Steve.' But that's OK. It was more of a personal journey for me."
The son of an active duty airman, Anderson was exposed to military aircraft at a young age.
"I was one of those kids that most of the other kids would love to hate," he said. "I got to go down to the base when the F-4s used to be there. Dad would put me up in the seat when they were in the hangar."
And like many other fighter pilots, his dream of high-speed flight was born at an air show on the Seymour Johnson flight line.
"A pilot told me at 5 or 6 years old that if he wanted to be a fighter pilot, I would have to go to the Air Force Academy," Anderson said. "I pretty much had said, 'This is what I need to do, and I wasn't going to take no for an answer.'"
As he grew older, his love of planes intensified, and when he got to Eastern Wayne, he joined the ROTC.
"That pilot years before had told me what I needed to do," he said. "I was just absolutely positive that in order to be selected, I needed to be a squadron commander in the ROTC."
As his high school career reached its end, he only applied to one college -- the only place Anderson ever wanted to attend, he said.
"I took the SAT five times to get the score I needed for the academy," he said. "But unfortunately, I didn't get picked up that year."
Still, his determination never wavered.
A group of "old aviators" known as the Falcon Foundation took the young man under its wing. They were going to help make his dream a reality, they said.
One year later, he was a cadet.
But as graduation approached, he was told that of the 600-plus competing for a shot at their wings, only 200 would get to go to pilot training -- and "as fate had it," he was not selected.
Anderson was assigned to be an air traffic controller.
"At the time, I wasn't exactly sure what God's plan was," he said. "Disappointment doesn't quite cover the feeling."
In his mind, though, it did not matter. He was going to be a fighter pilot one day, plain and simple.
The following year, he was sent to navigator training in Texas -- one step closer, he said.
"I told my commanding officer, I said, 'I'm very proud of these wings but I really want to be a pilot,'" Anderson said. "We were one step closer."
For the next two years as a Combat and Tactics Navigator, he was in the sky, riding in the C-130 as a member of the 40th Airlift Squadron.
He knew with every birthday that passed, his eligibility for a slot in flight school took another hit.
It was time for one "last ditch effort," Anderson said. He submitted his package for the final time with a letter he called "The Fat Lady" enclosed.
"A while later, I got this strange call from my commander," Anderson said. "As I tried to called him, my deployed commander at Nelles said, 'Don't worry, he's coming to see you.' I was worried about my wings getting ripped off."
He would, indeed, lose his navigator's wings that day. But they were replaced with the chance at a different pair.
"When he told me to report to Sheppard (AFB), I just about fell apart right there," he said. "I thought about all I had been through and about God. This was His plan."
He completed flight school in 1998, 10 years after being rejected by the Air Force Academy, and was assigned to the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
"It was my No. 1 choice," Anderson said. "I really am the luckiest kid on the block."
Since becoming a pilot, the officer has shared his story dozens of times -- at schools, mostly.
His hope is that a tale of setbacks, failures and sadness that led, ultimately, to achieving one's dream, will inspire the country's youth to chase their dreams until they come true.
"My story, I think, is one of perseverance," Anderson said. "I tell them, 'There is nothing on this planet, absolutely nothing, that you cannot do if you set your mind to it.' I'm proof of that."
So when you hear the roar of the Falcon overhead Friday morning, don't forget about all it took to get Stephen Anderson into the cockpit.
He never will.
"I don't believe in the no-win scenario," he said. I want the kids on the ground to look at me and say, 'Wow, I can be one of those guys.' But more than anything, I'm doing this for Mom and Dad. They will finally get to see, with their own eyes, their little boy coming home."
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