One Route to Flying Jets: A U.S. Naval Aviator's Story

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    http://www.palestineherald.com/homepage/local_story_188010802.html?keyword=leadpicturestory

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    From Eagle Scout to fighter pilot, PHS graduate’s career is taking off

    By BETH FOLEY
    The Palestine Herald

    From an early age, Scott Elrod knew he wanted to fly, and not just any jets. He wanted to be a Navy fighter pilot, one of the best of the best.

    Now at 33, the Palestine High School and Texas A&M graduate has added another feather to his list of Navy accomplishments, a recent promotion to Lieutenant Commander.

    A graduate of the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School, TOPGUN, Elrod serves as training officer for his squadron of FA-18F Super Hornets, based in Virginia Beach, Va. His squadron returned May 31 from a seven-month deployment on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Harry S. Truman in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

    “From 10 years old, he decided what he wanted to do,” his mother, Joyce Elrod said.

    Rather than just dream about it, the youngster decided to find out what he needed to do to accomplish his goal, mailing a letter to the Navy telling them of his intentions to fly fighter jets and asking what he needed to do to prepare.

    The Navy responded by sending Elrod a packet with a list of things to do, and some photographs and followed up when the boy became an Eagle Scout at age 13.

    “The Navy showed up at Scott’s Eagle Scout ceremony and presented him with a Navy plaque,” his mother said. “From that point on, he was just like, achieve, achieve, achieve.”

    In school, Elrod played baseball, basketball and pole vaulted while maintaining high enough grades to receive two nominations for acceptance into the U.S. Naval Academy.

    “I wanted to land on boats,” Elrod said. “I wanted to be a carrier aviation pilot and I knew the only way I could do that was fly for the Navy.”

    When his classmate, Jeff Walker, received the appointment, Elrod attended Texas A&M on academic scholarship and joined the Corps of Cadets’ Navy house. He graduated from A&M in May 1998, earning the Distinguished Naval Graduate award and receiving his Navy commission.

    “You kind of don’t know where you’re going to go, what you’re going to do until it’s time,” he said. “You’re at the needs of the Navy, more or less, so there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be a jet pilot, just because you want to.

    “Your performance throughout your timeline dictates what you do and where you’re going to go.”

    Upon entering the Navy, Elrod attended flight school at Pensacola, learned to fly T-34s at Corpus Christi and learned to fly T-45 Goshawks at Kingsville Naval Air Station’s strike fighter training program.

    “At the end of flight training there, you receive your wings,” Elrod said. “T-45s was jet training so I knew I was going to get jets. The Navy has F-14s, F-18s, F-3 Vikings and Prowlers.

    “I liked the F-14s, that’s what I wanted to do, and sure enough, it was like, ‘Hey, you’re going to go fly F-14s at Virginia Beach, Va. I was pretty excited.”

    Upon arrival, the difference between training and daily flight operations quickly became apparent.

    “When you get there you realize who’s the who of the who,” he said. “TOPGUN is a real school and your best pilots are TOPGUN pilots and instructors.”

    In Virginia Beach, Elrod learned the intricacies of flying the F-14 Tomcat, from fighter tactics to takeoffs and landings on a moving carrier deck. He spent three years as part of fleet squadron VF-103, nicknamed the “Jolly Rogers.”

    During that time his squadron was deployed twice, in 2002 with the U.S.S. George Washington, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier in Operation Southern Watch and in 2004 with the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, a conventionally-powered supercarrier in Operation Enduring Freedom.

    At the end of his three years, Elrod had performed well enough to be offered the chance to attend Fighter Weapons School, with a catch. He’d have to learn quickly how to fly FA-18 Super Hornets because TOPGUN was phasing out training on the F-14s.

    “They put me through a six-month transition to the Super Hornet and they threw me into TOPGUN,” Elrod explained. “Not as optimal as most of the people that go to TOPGUN. I would go right from flying the F-14 in a fleet squadron right to TOPGUN, fly F-14s and go back to the fleet and teach F-14s. I flew F-14s, I do a transition, I go to TOPGUN in a Super Hornet and I come back to the fleet as a TOPGUN instructor in a Super Hornet.”

    To make it work, Elrod put in extra hours learning the FA-18’s nuances and graduated second in his TOPGUN class, returning to Virginia Beach to teach other pilots how to fly the Super Hornet.

    “The training and everything you get at TOPGUN has really paid off in a lot of ways,” he said. “I really like being an instructor.”

    Currently, Elrod trains 13 junior two-man crews in his squadron, VFA-32, “The Swordsmen,” how to fly and fight with the FA-18F, a two-seat version of the plane.

    “It’s on my shoulders to get them prepared,” he said, so that those pilots will have the ability to go to TOPGUN when their turn comes.

    While he considers his career far from over, Elrod said he’s very pleased with the way things have worked out between school and his 10 years in the Navy.

    “Small little goals become big goals, eventually,” he said. “I got into Texas A&M and was able to get into the Corps, I got the Navy scholarship, I was able to get into flight school, I was able to get jets, you know, out of flight school, I was able to get F-14s out of jets. I was able to get VF-103, which is one of the really good squadrons. I was able to excel in certain areas enough to get into TOPGUN and I was able to graduate from TOPGUN and did well there.

    “I was able to become a TOPGUN instructor — another check in the block — I was able to become a training officer, which I am right now. I was able to do three cruises and support the guys on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and we did a good job. All these little things, I can’t look back and talk negatively about anything. It’s been all positive experiences.”

    While being away from his wife Melissa and their three-year-old son Jackson can be difficult during deployments, he understood that would be part of the job before he signed up, Elrod said.

    For family members living thousands of miles away in Palestine, hearing news of combat or training operations which might have involved members of his squadron can be nerve-wracking, Joyce Elrod said.

    “It’s very, very anxious, very traumatic,” she said, recalling an incident several months ago involving planes from her son’s squadron. “It was about 2 1/2 hours after we got word that it happened, that we found out Scott was not involved. They were very anxious moments. Anything that happens that we see on TV, we wonder in our hearts, was he involved?”

    Watching her son reach his goals has been exciting for local family members, including her husband and Scott’s father, John Elrod, and sister and brother-in-law, Bonnie and Leslie Starr, Joyce Elrod said.

    “There’s never been a down moment,” she said. “He has really, really just made our lives fabulous.”

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    Beth Foley may be contacted via e-mail at bfoley@palestineherald.com

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