100 years of Coast Guard aviation: Making your passion your profession

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Coast Guard Aviation, which traces its roots to 1916 when Elmer Stone became the first Coast Guard aviator to attend Naval flight training. To celebrate, Coast Guard Compass reached out to those who carry out aviation missions every day and asked them – ‘Why did you choose to become a Coast Guard aviator?’ Stay tuned all year as we share the stories of the crews who conduct nearly every Coast Guard mission from the sky and join us in celebrating “Coast Guard aviation: Into the Storm for 100 years.” Follow along on social media using #CGFlies100, and let us know if there is anything specific you’d like to see as we celebrate the centennial!

Lt. Travis Christy, a pilot currently stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod. Photo courtesy of AUX Michael S. Dubin.

Lt. Travis Christy, a pilot currently stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod. Photo courtesy of AUX Michael S. Dubin.

Written by Lt. Travis Christy

Footsteps resonated eerily across the quarterdeck as my polished leathers made contact with the gleaming marble floor beneath them.

A few steps forward, turn, a few steps back, turn, repeat. I ran through every question I could think of as I wore down the polish on a six foot tract of floor outside the Commandant of Cadets’ conference room.

“What would they want to know? What should I say?”

The questions repeated themselves with every footstep as I rapidly sweat through the undershirt of my uniform in the air-conditioned passageway. Pace, turn, pace, repeat. How long has he been in there? I thought wearily as I glanced at the overlarge doors of the conference room. It has to have been at least half an hour already. Then, as if the doors had been waiting for that thought all along, they swung open soundlessly on immaculately greased hinges.

One of my classmates, also wearing a starched and pressed uniform, strode out, looking exhausted but triumphant.

He whispered, “Good luck” before turning away and marching off towards the barracks.

As I shifted my nervous gaze from his retreating back to the room in front of me, the beating in my chest turned from a strong but steady cadence to a thunderous drum roll.

Here we go, I thought.

Lt. Travis Christy, on deployment. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Lt. Travis Christy, on deployment. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A voice from within the conference room called out, “Mr. Christy, the board will see you now.”

The room I entered was filled with a long elegant table, stained so darkly brown it appeared almost black. Around the table sat four officers, all in dress uniforms. My eyes were drawn to the gold banding that encircled their sleeves for but a moment before landing transfixed on the polished gold wings perched atop their left breast pockets. A projector was humming softly above the gathered officers, and it beamed an image of my Academy profile onto a nearby screen at the end of the room. Almost four years worth of grades, military evaluations and fitness tests stared blankly back at me.

After a series of brief introductions from the assembled board members, one of them, wearing the golden bands of a Captain said, “Ok, let’s get right into it. Mr. Christy, what would being a Coast Guard aviator mean to you?”

I swallowed hard, trying not to think that this panel, and potentially the answer to this very question, would determine the next 13 years of my life. Snippets of prepared answers flitted incoherently through my mind, and after a few uncomfortable seconds, I stopped trying to piece together the perfect response.

Instead, I opened my mouth, and let the words pour out on their own, “When I was young, my Dad always told me to choose a job where I couldn’t wait to get up and go to work in the morning. He said that was the trick of it, to ask yourself what you would do if money was no object, and then make that passion your profession.”

I paused to survey the faces surrounding the table, but they gave no hint of emotion, so I pressed on, committed.

“To me, being a Coast Guard aviator does just that. It means waking up every day and being handed a lottery ticket. You may not get your number called today, or tomorrow, or ten years from now, but eventually, if you play long enough, you will have an opportunity to change someone’s life for the better. To pluck them from almost certain death at the hands of the elements and return them to their families and loved ones. I can imagine no better reason for getting up in the morning than being able to make that kind of difference.”

Looking back, who knows if that was the answer the flight school selection board was looking for in the winter of 2011. Thankfully, it was enough to secure me a billet to flight school upon graduation, and it is an answer that I have revisited numerous times since then, particularly when the road ahead has been especially trying or tedious. I thought about it often as I pushed through my sixth hour of studying for an API test and again when I attempted to wrap my head around my first lesson in Instruments. I thought about it during my first bout with airsickness in the T-6 and again as I desperately tried to hold my first hover in the TH-57. It has been a constant reminder to never settle for anything less than the very best version of myself. Because one day, when my ticket is called, someone may need the very best version of me, and I owe it to them to be able to deliver.

As of this writing, with the same wings on my chest as the ones I had ogled during my flight board interview in 2011, I have had the great privilege of having my ticket drawn twice. Thanks to outstanding aircrews in the back and unwavering leadership from the senior pilots upfront, we were able to save two lives and change countless others in a number of lesser ways.

Today, when asked “What does being a Coast Guard aviator mean to me?” I would say that my answer has remained essentially unchanged: “Being able to ensure that somebody gets to wake up in the morning is what gets me up in the morning.”

And I wouldn’t have it any other way

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