“Never Fly Alone: Adrian Herrera”
I normally start off by trying to give our readers a little bit of an idea about your background. Tell me a little bit about where you grew up, your early years, and where everything started off for you.
“I grew up on the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. My dad was in the United States Navy, and he retired when I was about five years old. His last duty station was in Maryland, so that’s where I grew up. I went to high school right outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and that was pretty formative for me.”
“A lot of stuff happened when I was in Baltimore. My mom developed postpartum depression after giving birth to me. This was in the 1980s, so maternity leave wasn’t really a big thing then, so she had to go back to work and couldn’t adequately cope. As it got worse, it regressed into schizophrenia, and as I started growing up, she went into a home and was institutionalized. Because of this, my parents divorced. I was very grateful that in middle school, my stepmom came into the picture. At that time, she saw a gap with my brothers and me and stepped in and tried to help out. That was really awesome. Additionally, my dad had trouble finding a job during these years, so that was an issue.”
“When I went to college, I moved 3,000 miles when I was just 17 years old to go to school, and I played lacrosse at my university in California. It took me five years to graduate because I struggled through my engineering degree. And then I went into the United States Air Force about a year after I graduated.”
Now when you moved to California, having a father from a military background, was that something that was always on your radar? Or was it a decision you kind of grew into?
“It’s funny because when you have a parent who has retired or is active duty in the military, the higher the chances are that you get into a Military Service Academy because of the ability to get a Senatorial nomination for your Academy package. So when my eldest brother applied to colleges, he applied to the United States Naval Academy, but soon backed out and withdrew his application. My middle brother actually got accepted into the United States Air Force Academy, but they found out he had asthma, so they withdrew his application.”
“When it came to my time, I actually tried to enlist, and my dad was like ‘Absolutely not.’ He was enlisted himself and said to me: ‘I really would prefer that you get a college degree. I didn’t do all of this work for you not to get a degree.’ So even after I graduated with a college degree, I still had that kind of inkling. Many people who serve have that, so I applied for Officer Training School after I graduated. I graduated from college in 2008, so the recession had just hit and I was lucky enough to have a job offer. Again, my dad was pretty adamant: ‘Don’t give up the job offer for something that you don’t know you’re going to get into or you may not like.’ But that feeling was still there and felt that I should continue to pursue the military route.”
And what made you decide, especially with the economy the way that it was, to go into the military rather than take that job offer?
“It went back to my dad, actually. I mentioned earlier that my dad had trouble finding a job while I was a child, and after he retired. For years we struggled to make ends meet as a family. But we survived only because my dad had a military pension. And his pension is what helped my family move forward after my mom left.”
“In one of my mom’s manic episodes, she used all of the money that we had and at that time that pension pretty much kept us afloat. So when considering joining the military, it ‘wasn’t even a question because of the years that the military indirectly supported my family. Even if I served four years in the service, that is nothing compared to what the military was able to give my family. Joining the military was bigger than myself. I felt like it was an obligation because the military gave me healthcare and food at the table when I was a kid. That resonated with me and helped us enough to where when I grew up, I felt that I needed to do my part because of everything this country has given me.”
And how did you decide on the Air Force? And once you were in, what was your job?
“I initially wanted to join the United States Coast Guard. I wanted to fly rescue helicopters, and I wanted to do search and rescue missions. The Coast Guard is a very small branch, and under the Department of Homeland Security, so it’s a little bit tougher to reach out to an officer recruiter and get information. The other branches are a little bit easier. When I applied for the Coast Guard, I also applied for the United States Navy and the United States Air Force because they also have a pretty large variety of aircraft. I have a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, so I really wanted to do something related to flying.”
“I wanted to be an engineer because I had a professional engineering initial license (EIT). When I applied to the Air Force, the recruiter asked me if I would like to fly, since the application board for aviation positions occurred before the non-flying Officer positions. The Air Force is a bit different than the other branches, in which you apply for a position first. Eventually, I applied for all three branches in flying positions, and the Air Force was the first to notify me of my acceptance.”
So once you were in, you were a fixed wing pilot?
“There are four main Officer aviation positions in the Air Force. There’s Pilot, Combat Systems Officer, Air Battle Manager, and Remotely Piloted Aircraft Pilot. The Combat Systems Officer serves as a mission commander on aircraft, so most Combat Systems Officers do not pilot the aircraft, they become mission commanders and aircrew. The exception is that in the F-15E, the backseater (called a Weapon Systems Officer) has a stick and throttle and an opportunity to fly. I got accepted as a Combat Systems Officer. I went to flight school and then I got selected to fly the F-15E Strike Eagle, to sit in the back seat… basically what Goose did in the movie Top Gun. That analogy makes it easier to explain if you are not a Gen Z, because most people in their early 20s haven’t seen the movie!”
And shame on them for that!
“I know! You can’t explain it with that analogy anymore because most people haven’t seen it. Younger people haven’t seen it. So I am an F-15E Weapon Systems Officer, which took about two years to complete Flight School and track the F-15E, and an additional year qualifying in the F-15E to become a full-fledged F-15E aviator.”
OK. I have to ask since you brought it up. How similar was that training to the movie?
“The movie explains the rigorous Top Gun School in the Navy, and Top Gun school is the elite military flight training for Naval Aviators. The Air Force version is called Weapons School. Weapons School is the elite military flight training for the Air Force operators. It’s a six-month program, and I would argue that they’re very similar.”
“Flight School is just the basics of airmanship. I explain to people like this: Flight School is like your undergraduate degree program. When you get your aircraft, you go through qualification training in your plane, which is like your graduate degree program. Air Force Weapons School is like getting your Ph.D. Though I have my actual masters, I am an F-15E Instructor Weapon Systems Officer, but I am not a Weapons School graduate.”
Got it. And did you fly primarily on F-15Es or did they have you on other platforms as well?
“You stay primarily in the plane that you get assigned at Flight School. There are exceptions where people can transition to other aircraft. But generally speaking, you stay in the plane that you’re assigned to. Exceptions are like the F-35. They took a lot of guys from our F-15E community to transition to the F-35, the fifth generation aircraft, to start up that aviation community.”
And once you were certified, what kind of missions and operations were you on?
“In 2013, I moved to England to do an overseas assignment in the F-15E. At your first operational assignment, you earn my Mission Qualification, which tells you that you are ready and deployable for combat missions.”
“Most fighter aircraft fly in pairs of twos and fours; they will never fly alone, to provide something called mutual support – where somebody will always watch your back. Because of this, you can qualify as a ‘lead’ for two jets. That means as a ‘two ship flight lead,’ when two jets go out and fly; there’s one crew qualified to be in charge of both planes. That is a qualification you have to earn; you can’t just lead another jet out there without that qualification. You could also qualify as a ‘four-ship flight lead,’ which means you are directing four planes.”
“I earned both of those qualifications, as well as the ‘instructor’ qualification. Normally, after those qualifications, there is an opportunity for elite aviators to attend Weapons School, or Test Pilot School, etc. Simply put, the learning never ends as an aviator; it never ends! Because I have been out of the jet to obtain my Masters, I have to re-qualify and re-learn everything. But that’s the general career progression for most fighter aviators.”
Now coming from a background where you had no civilian experience flying, what was it like the first time were you actually up in the air?
“During the first month of your flight training, the Air Force lets you fly the civilian DA-20 Katana. They give you about 10 hours in it. That was awesome. That was really awesome. The first time you go up in a military aircraft is with the T-6 Texan. The T-6 is an amazing plane. I think that plane hooks a lot of us on aviation because it’s a really awesome plane. Flying the T-6 was really, really cool because you do a lot of aerobatics. So they teach you loops and spins, they teach you those basic contact concepts so that you understand basic airmanship and basic aviation concepts, but you do it in a fun way. I was a young Second Lieutenant in 2010, and they’re flying me in this very expensive military plane, and I’m getting paid to do it. It feels really nice, I’ll say.”
I’d like to shift a bit now. We’ve talked a little bit about your experiences and the technical side of things. Now I want to talk about some of the people you encountered in your service. When you hear the term leader who is the first person that comes to mind?
“A couple of people actually – a lot of my old Commanders or my old bosses. With my most recent Commander, when I left England in 2017 and moved to Los Angeles to get my masters, he was a big mentor to me. He was great because he was very open to hearing everybody. He would listen to everybody and value everybody’s voice, which is needed in the military, but you don’t get a lot because of the traditional rank structure. Your voice is either valued or heard, but not both. He did both.”
“Other strong leaders that I look up to are those that have broken many cultural and societal barriers. I can only empathize with the bull that they went through to get there. For example, when I first arrived to my F-15E flying unit, my direct boss, my Commander, she was the first female Thunderbirds pilot. The Thunderbirds are the premier Air Force demonstration team similar to the Navy Blue Angels, and it was awesome to have her as my boss. Our base commander was the first female fighter pilot in the Air Force back in the early 90s. If you Google her (Gen Jeannie Leavitt), there’s a bunch of Youtube videos, like old 90’s videos of when she selected the F-15E, and they had to open the roles of fighter aircraft to women for her. So it was really inspiring for me to have those two as my first introduction into my flying community. I’ve had pretty good luck on having good leaders guiding me through the Air Force, which is why I choose to stay in.”
On the flip side of that who are some of the airmen and women who you worked with that had an impact on your service?
“Many of the guys and girls I fly with. A flying fighter unit overseas is a very, very, very close community, similar to the deployed infantry units, and other close combat ground units. We don’t do any ground combat, so we’re not as badass as those dudes, but we have a close-knit and insular relationship as much as they do.”
“One of the groups that had a major impact on me was from my peers in Flight School. I still keep in touch with a lot of the folks in my flying training units. While it was over nine years ago, we still keep in touch – I still send Christmas cards to a lot of them. They had a huge impact on me because, in my first two or three years in the Air Force, we were really close. It was amazing to have such great people introduce me into military life. That was my initial ‘Hey this is how the Air Force is gonna be.”
“When I got to my F-15E operational flying unit overseas, it was no different. I deployed with those folks. I went to their children’s baptisms, christenings, etc. I learned a lot about people very very different from me. They’re not people that I would normally hang out with if it wasn’t for the military. Military relationships are serendipitous: the military puts people together in a forced role, but sometimes they end up getting really, really, really close.”
What are your goals ten years from now, military or otherwise?
“I’m at my crossroads, so you’re asking me at a good time. I’m at that point in the military where I could do the rest of my ‘time’ and retire at 20 years. If that’s the case, I will retire at age 46. After that, I’d probably get out and do another public service job like a firefighter. I could do another 20 years as a firefighter. Then, Boom, I got two pensions. That is a path that I would be interested in, having a second career in policy or public service.”
“My other option is this: my contract will end in 2024. I just got my Masters at the University of Southern California, and I spent two years basically as a civilian to get my degree, not with any real unit. I developed so many connections here. If I wanted to get out in 2024, I could work for a policy think tank or a defense contractor out in Southern California. USC has a very strong and developed network in the Southern California region, and since I also have an undergraduate degree from the Southern California area in engineering, I could do really well if I decided to move to Los Angeles or San Diego in 2024 and work. It could be in public service, it could in a non-profit, could be for local government, a fire Department job, etc.”
“If the military and the Air Force continues to be good to me, I don’t think I’m gonna leave this. If I keep getting assignments hat, I ask for, and it mutually lines up with what the Air Force needs, then I don’t plan on leaving. But I don’t mind leaving at any point if it is not working out in my favor.”
What is one thing you think civilians should know about the military?
“I’ll just speak for the Air Force particularly. 95% of the Air Force is a support role and will not see any combat in their time in the military. When I hear a lot of parents talk about how they don’t want their child to be in harm’s way in the military if they join, the chances that their child will go into combat in the Air Force specifically is significantly low. Keep in mind: there are really awesome combat ground positions in the Air Force that are very hard to get into, and they supplement the SEALs and the Rangers, but they represent a small percentage of the Air Force. The image that people have of combat is a misnomer – I mean the Air Force stereotype of the ‘Chair Force’ is very true. A lot of Air Force positions are support roles for planes, support roles for space, support roles for cyberspace. Even some flying positions won’t really see combat. But a lot of them do. When I went to combat, I’m in the air and supporting the folks on the ground. I’m even in a support role. When I was in Syria and Iraq, I was in the air, dropping weapons in support of ground forces. I don’t want to de-emphasize support roles in our services; it’s very important to delineate that because everyone thinks we all go to combat.”
“The other thing is that I remember thinking that military training was subpar compared to civilian training when I first joined. That is not necessarily true. I have met many officers in the military that attended some amazing universities. For example, I was in a unit with a guy from Berkeley, a guy from MIT, many Air Force Academy graduates, USC grads… overall some great schools. The military officer corps is actually very, very, very intelligent, which I didn’t really realize until I got in.”
What’s one piece of advice you would give the country’s future leaders whether they’re military or civilian?
“The rigorous military flight training that I went through, it really teaches you a lot about the technical expertise of a jet, a plane, and of aviation. But what flight school really taught me, is that it’s really about support. I mean, I’ve always known the importance of support, but Flight School manifested, emphasized, and showed me the meaning of support. The support that we provide to others will lift us and everyone around us. You won’t get better unless you help out other people. And the more that you help out other people, the more you get better. And you can’t get any better unless you help people out.”
Couldn’t agree more. I have one more question actually. So as a guy from the Army who did four years active, we’d often hear all these legends about the Air Force dining hall and the food they feed you guys. I just want to know how true all that talk is? Are the legends true?
“So I’ll give you two jokes that I give people about the Air Force. It is not my joke, and you’ve probably heard this since you’re in the military: When the Navy goes to a new location, they try to find a port and build around the port. When the Army goes to a new location, they basically will clear out everything in the area and then build tents everywhere. The Marines will follow the Navy and then build tents next to the port. When the Air Force goes and looks for a new location, they basically look to see where they can build a nine-hole golf course first, and then they build everything around it.”
“The other joke it isn’t really a joke. In 2015, I deployed to Iraq & Syria with Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against ISIS. I had this image of a deployment because of the experiences of those who went to OEF and OIF, basically all of the wars of the 2000s. I went to Afghanistan at the tail end of Operation Resolute Support and Operation Freedom Sentinel. Everyone had told me Air Force deployments are ‘cush’ deployments, and I was like ‘Yeah right, we’re all deploying.’ But it’s true – I deployed, and there’s literally Wi-Fi everywhere on the deployed base. So, when the Wi-Fi went out one day, the base went apeshit. I remember our Airmen getting crazy when there was no Wi-Fi – everyone was like ‘I can’t call my loved ones. How can I get on Candy Crush? I can’t order my Amazon products for this deployment,’ But there are other service members in tents and in much more harsh environments.”
“I’ve been in tents very few times when we were deployed because we do have regulations about our accommodations as an aviator. For example, we need 12 hours of bed rest prior to a flight. I also can’t drink alcohol twelve hours prior to my flight. These are actual regulations, which is why we have minimal standard living conditions. When I deployed to Syria, we flew 10-hour flights, and now I have some serious back problems from it, so those accommodations were necessary. But those rules are wise because you have to be pretty alert for a long time when you’re flying the aircraft and they’re expensive. But yeah, that’s why I tell people, the stereotypes about the Air Force are true.”