Coming home: Lt. Col. Lord reconnects with longtime mentor
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- It's the middle of a day. Heat waves are clearly visible. Strong rays of sun light make the air dense and hard to breathe for airmen on the flightline. Eventually, two Fighting Falcon aircraft come into view accompanied by the sound of their viper engines.
In the cockpit, one of the pilots lowers his altitude in preparation for landing. Looking at the ground below, he begins to recognize his surroundings: the streets he walked to school as a teenager, the mountains he used to run through and the snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji in the distance.
The nostalgia quickly rushes over him--the feeling of "coming home." And with it, the memory of his first flight.
Lt. Col. Kevin Lord, now the 35th Fighter Wing inspector general, returned to Yokota Air Base, Japan, June 24, 2015. It had been 19 years since he last stepped foot at Yokota, the birthplace of his dream to becoming a pilot.
Lord spent his teenage years at Yokota. His father worked for Army Air Force Exchange Service and his mother worked as a civil servant. In these youthful years, Lord interacted with pilots and witnessed a variety of airplanes, inspiring him to apply for the Air Force Academy--the first step in his journey to becoming a pilot.
"As far back as I can remember, being a pilot is all I ever wanted to be," Lord said. "But it wasn't until my family moved to Yokota, the first Air Base we lived on, that I really decided that flying was what I wanted to do."
He was accepted into the USAF Academy, and motivated by the news decided to get a head start on making his dream a reality. Fortunate for him, Yokota's Aero Club and Cessna pilot training program was close by. For three months during his Senior year of high school Lord took ground study and flight instruction with Keita Nanko, a YAC flight instructor.
"It was awesome flying over the base and seeing things from a different perspective." Lord said, remembering his first flight above Yokota. "Sure you can see it from a passenger plane, but there is nothing like being above your neighborhood and looking down while in complete control of where you are going."
Lord entered the Air Force Academy in 1996, with a Private Pilot Certificate from Yokota in hand. Having that past aviation experience allowed Lord to take part in the Cadet Competition Flying Team. A team comprised of only 10 cadets in the entire academy, highlighting the rarity of the opportunity.
"The Academy is difficult with all the competing demands it puts on your time," Lord said. "You have a higher than average college course workload as well as all of the other physical and military requirements that come with being at a service academy."
His hard work and dedication paid off, Lord was selected to attend the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot training program at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. The program is the world's only multi-nationally manned and managed flying training program chartered to produce combat pilots for NATO.
Leaning on his previous knowledge and experience as a Cessna pilot, training began smoothly for Lord. But as the training progressed, Lord admitted it became much more difficult.
"I was extremely excited for the chance to fly the F-16, it is what I had been working towards," Lord said. "Being at Yokota, I used to see them come in from Misawa or Korea and I always thought they were the coolest looking plane."
One step closer to his dream, Lord entered the F-16 Fighting Falcon Initial Qualification Training course with the 178th Fighter Wing Air National Guard in Springfield, Ohio. Lord was in for eight-and-a-half months of intense training including academics, simulator sessions and hands-on flight training.
"It felt like complete control." Lord said recalling the first time he grabbed an F-16 control stick. "You know that your training and preparation are going to be the difference on how well you perform," he added. "Sometimes I would get a great feeling of pride and accomplishment, sometimes it was a feeling that I needed to work harder next time. But knowing that it is was up to me, and that I was in complete control is always an exhilarating feeling."
Lord's career as an F-16 pilot spanned the globe including multiple US states, Germany, and South East Asia. His former supervisor at the U.S. Air Force Europe-Air Force Africa, Lt. Col. Julie Gaulin, recounts her time working alongside Lord.
"Kevin is awesome to work with," Gaulin said. "He is a 'get it done' type of guy. He never waits for someone to tell him what to do; he finds what needs to be done and does it."
While working in a staff position for USAFE, Lord ensured combined air force flying units were resourced and prepped for upcoming missions. During real-world events, he also filled in as a subject matter expert on the crisis action planning team. Gaulin said Lord was trusted by leadership and his daily work dedication and effectiveness made him an invaluable team member on both a strategic and tactical level.
After Lord's distinguished staff assignment at USAFE, he re-qualified in the F-16, leading him back to Japan, the country he called home as a teenager.
Lord reentered the Japan sky in 2014 at Misawa Air Base, but he still longed for the opportunity to fly over the base that sparked his dream to become a pilot, and when that opportunity arose he jumped on it.
"I was excited when I heard Yokota needed some F-16s to come down and do a barrier certification." Lord said. "When the flight got scheduled I asked the schedulers if I could lead the mission to Yokota."
Approaching Yokota from the cockpit of his F-16, he saw the green airfield and said it was welcoming.
"It was awesome," Lord said. "Coming in from the North and seeing Mt. Fuji, seeing the mountains of Ome and seeing the traffic on Route 16 out the gate...it was like coming home."
On the ground, Lt. Col. Gaulin, Lord's former supervisor and now the 374th Operations Support Squadron director of operations, was waiting.
"While working, I just happened to mention to my co-worker, Nanko-san, that my friend Kevin Lord was in one of the F-16's, and that I was excited to get to say hello to him," she said.
Keita Nanko, who now works as an air traffic specialist for the 374 OSS, immediately remembered his former student from nineteen years ago.
Lord found time to meet his former instructor, Nanko-san, who helped him pave the first stones on his path to becoming a pilot.
"He asked if I remembered him as a kid," Nanko said. "I realized immediately who he was and remembered flying with him."
Nanko said that he was very proud to see Lord as a full-fledged Air Force pilot.
"I taught him how to fly," Nanko added with excitement. "It is a great joy to see my students achieve their dreams."
Nanko said people often teach and mentor without realizing the profound impact they may be having on their student. He said Lord's story is a testament to the success that comes along with putting in time and truly caring about a student's aspirations.
"Flight training is not only learning how to fly, but also maturing your thought process," Nanko said." Instructors don't give all the answers to students. We just assist them on how to find answers. In this training process, students grow up as aviators as well as humans.
"Dream won't become true without hard work," he added. "Students learn about this during flight training."
Nineteen years ago, Lord took off from Yokota's runway in a Cessna-152 with aspirations to be a pilot in the United States Air Force. Now, in 2015, he is a lieutenant colonel, F-16 pilot, and proven leader.
"I feel very fortunate to actually be doing what I want to do and have a job that I look forward to coming to everyday," Lord said. "I am also very grateful that what I do also allows me to serve my nation."