‘Flying’s always been in the blood’: F-16 pilot carries on family legacy
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Before he could walk or talk, before he knew or understood the breadth of his family's military service, Dustin Carey was drawn to airplanes.
Countless hours of his childhood were spent planted in front of a TV, raptly watching the winged machines defy gravity as they engaged in dogfights and historic aerial battles. Bombers, fighters, reconnaissance aircraft - the capabilities of each one kept him mesmerized.
"It's hard to say exactly what role aviation played in my childhood and my life because they were so completely intertwined," said Carey, now a captain and F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter pilot with the 13th Fighter Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan. "It's always been an interest of mine. When I was in first grade, we had an assignment where we had to answer, 'When I grow up, I want to be a ... .' I wrote pilot. I just knew."
Military service - and aviation - were in his blood. The path that led to Carey becoming a flyer in the U.S. Air Force is hardly surprising considering the extent to which these two passions are engrained in his ancestry on both sides of his family tree.
He is the fourth generation of Carey men to serve in America's military, although he is the first to join outside a period of mandatory wartime conscription, also known as the draft.
His father was also an Air Force F-16 pilot, serving from the Vietnam War through the early '90s. His grandfather was an Army B-17 Flying Fortress top turret gunner and flight engineer during World War II. His great-grandfather was an Army supply troop during World War I.
His mother also has her pilot's license; her father flew into his early 80s. Carey's maternal great-uncle, Lincoln Ellsworth, was the first man to make trans-Arctic and trans-Antarctic flights. Ellsworth was twice awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, once for those trailblazing flights and again for claiming 350,000 square miles of Antarctic land for the U.S., "the last unclaimed territory in the world" according to the award's citation.
So what is it like to be the latest in a line of men who each played a particular role in history and, in essence, carried on the family business?
"It's amazing to be able to carry on the legacy," said Carey. "I'm extremely lucky. My relationship with my dad was close before, but after becoming a pilot it took on a whole different meaning."
During the days of a young Dustin with his eyes glued to the TV screen, it became apparent to his parents the course his life might take.
"I have absolutely no idea what draws our family to flying, but it's amazing how it all just comes together," said retired Lt. Col. BJ Carey, the captain's father. "Before Dustin could even talk, he'd point at the sky and make sounds we were sure meant 'plane.' It was all just a part of his life from day one."
Captain Carey first soloed in a glider around age 15 and although the elder Carey thoroughly supported his son's interest in learning how to fly, he made sure his son knew it wasn't the only option available.
"When he chose aviation as the direction for his life, I sat him down and made that clear," said Mr. Carey. "I said, 'Listen up. If you want to do this, it's going to be for yourself, not for me or anybody else.' The most miserable people I've known were pilots who just didn't want to be in that lifestyle."
His son took that to heart and began Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Four years of hard work helped him earn a slot for undergraduate pilot training (UPT), which senior cadets compete for based on their officer potential, grade point average, Air Force Officer Qualifying Test, physical fitness test and Test of Basic Aviation Skills.
After UPT and a year of specialized training on the fighter/bomber track at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., it was time for assignment night. The much-anticipated result: then-2nd Lt. Carey, like his father before him, would fly the F-16.
"After earning my wings, my dad came up and shook my hand," said Captain Carey. "He said, 'Welcome to the club,' and that's what it really is: a community of pilots. I grew up in Colorado with his old flying buddies always coming around and I would sit and listen to them tell old stories. It's hard to understand that camaraderie from just seeing it; you have to live and experience it."
Now, he is living the lifestyle that he grew up admiring as a part of the 13th Fighter Squadron, the same unit his father was assigned to in the late '70s for training. Like his father, he plans to make a career out of flying for the Air Force.
"To be a part of the camaraderie that comes with being a pilot is everything I thought it would be and more," said Captain Carey. "Flying's always been in the blood, and to be able to do that while carrying on my family's heritage is awesome."