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Rockford-area grad overcame eye issues to pilot Thunderbird

June 9, 2017

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) — As a student at Christian Life High School, Maj. Nate Hofmann was focused on moving onward and upward, riding his passion for flying to a career with the U.S. Air Force.

After school, Hofmann would spend his last dollar on flying lessons at Poplar Grove Airport, despite his father’s pleas that he save his money. His father, an electrical engineer for Hamilton Sundstrand, now UTC Aerospace Systems, provided some of the inspiration for his flying career.

He obtained his pilot’s license right around the time of his graduation from Christian Life in 2001.

Then, his dreams of flying for the Air Force came to a screeching halt.

“When I signed on the dotted line, the admissions officer told me I’d never fly,” said Hofmann, 34. “Back when I was wanting to pursue pilot training you needed 20/20 vision. Mine was way worse than that. The chances of me flying in the military were almost zero.”

After graduating from Christian Life, Hofmann studied at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, receiving his commission through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. He graduated in 2005, then served as a communications officer and program manager. But he wasn’t allowed to climb into the cockpit.

That was then. Today, Hofmann is soaring in every sense of the word.

In 2010, Hofmann underwent laser-corrective eye surgery, enabling him to achieve his lifelong dream of training and eventually flying for the Air Force. He’s logged more than 300 hours in combat, and now he is wrapping up his first year with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s precision flying team that wows audiences at events like the Super Bowl and Daytona 500.

During demonstrations, Hofmann flies as fast as 600 mph and as close as three feet away from his fellow pilots. He also is the team’s navigation planning officer.

“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work, and sometimes we fly so close and so fast it can be terrifying,” Hofmann told the Register Star. “A big part of flying in the demos is overcoming the challenge and the fear that occurs when you’re flying that close. It’s not comfortable, not natural.”

Hofmann credits his teachers from Christian Life for motivating him to pursue his dreams.

“Christian Life is a very unique school in that teachers that serve here are making a lot of sacrifices and they do so with a mission of impacting students’ lives,” Hofmann said. “You develop a really close relationship with them and they know your hopes and dreams for the future, and they’re in a place where they can really speak in your life.”

Last week, Hofmann — who lives in Las Vegas, where the Thunderbirds are based, with his Rockford-raised wife Jennifer and their four children — returned for his alma mater’s 39th graduation ceremony as the commencement speaker. He delivered a motivational speech drawing from his own successes and setbacks that left him in tears.

“Your dreams for the future are divinely inspired,” he told the graduates. “You will experience defeat along the way; that’s part of it, unfortunately. If you never give up and remember who you are in Christ, you will encounter victory in a time and place you do not expect.”

‘Makes you proud to be an American’

Next time you see the Thunderbirds in action, notice the jet on the far right. That’s Hofmann’s plane. He’s one of six pilots on the 12-person Thunderbirds team, and one of the four who fly together while two others perform solo stunts. Two more pilots are airborne but hang back, and four more are on the ground.

“I have to look left the entire time,” he said with a laugh.

The Thunderbirds will appear in more than 60 events through 2018, including Bastille Day in France and the Royal International Air Tattoo in England, the world’s largest military air show. This weekend, they’ll be at the Scott Air Force Base Air Show & Open House in southwestern Illinois. He’s on the road more than 250 days a year.

“When you go to events like the Super Bowl, you feel thousands of fans raining down their support of the U.S. military on six individuals,” Hofmann said. “It makes you very proud to be an American in the U.S. Air Force.”

He never imagined flying for the Thunderbirds, but he’s happy to be in the air.

“It’s been the most intense training of my life,” he said. “Once I got the waiver and was accepted into pilot training, I never took a day for granted because I knew the journey it took to get there.”

Mike Hoekstra, principal of Christian Life High School, said having Hofmann return to spend time at the school is “very rewarding.”

“To have people like Nate who are at the top of their field remain so involved in our school speaks to his character and the family atmosphere we’ve created here at Christian Life,” Hoekstra said. “I know that it means a lot for our seniors to hear a message about perseverance and success from someone who was sitting in those same seats not too long ago.”

Danger zone

In 2015 and 2016, Hofmann flew combat missions against the Islamic State.

“It’s scary when you look down outside the window and you’re surrounded by enemy territory,” he said. “America has no idea (of) the atrocities that innocent people are going through. To be able to defend them was an honor, something I’m proud of.”

The F-16 jets and software used in air shows are the same as used in combat, Hofmann said. A big difference is that the smoke systems installed during demonstrations are missing during combat, for obvious reasons.

“Where you tie the combat experience and putting on the aerial demonstration is that mentality to never lose,′ Hofmann said.

During this year’s commencement, Christian Life honored graduate Haley Bartlett, who plans to join the Air Force. But unlike Hofmann, Bartlett wants to work in the intelligence field and not take to the skies.

Still, she said, Hofmann’s commencement speech struck a chord with her.

“It inspired me to continue with going through the Air Force and ranking up,” she said.


Source: Rockford Register Star, http://bit.ly/2rdw4SC


Information from: Rockford Register Star, http://www.rrstar.com

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