LinkedIn: Erik J. Heels: USAF

Reese AFB, Lubbock, Texas. Hanscom AFB, Bedford, Massachusetts.

This article is one in an ongoing series about my life experiences, the people that I’ve met along the way, and how I’m using LinkedIn to reconnect with them, both directly via LinkedIn itself and indirectly (since people frequently search for references to themselves on the Internet) by publishing their names in these articles.

So far, I have written about the following:

United States Air Force

At age 17, I had to figure out how to pay for college. I applied for, and was awarded, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarships for the Air Force, Navy, and the Army. An ROTC scholarship was the only way I was going to be able to afford to attend MIT (or any other college). By the time I was 18, I had to choose which scholarship to accept. The Navy told me that it didn’t care about my major. The Army told me that I’d have to major in anything technical – engineering, science, math, or the like. The Air Force told me that I’d have to major in electrical engineering. From this, I concluded that I’d have the best chance actually doing what I studied in the Air Force. And the worst chance in the Navy. So, not really knowing anything about electrical engineering, I accepted the Air Force ROTC scholarship.

There are three ways to become an officer in the Air Force: (1) attend the Air Force Academy, (2) attend a civilian college on an ROTC scholarship, or (3) attend college and then attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). I recall that the Air Force academy briefly lost its accreditation for electrical engineering in the early 1980s, so I opted for ROTC. OCS wasn’t ever an option because I couldn’t afford college without the scholarship. In the 1980s, an Air Force ROTC scholarship covered tuition and books, which was only 80% of the cost of education. Room and board, fees, and other costs were not covered. My ROTC training consisted of 1.5 extra classes per semester, non-class activities (physical training, drills, leadership activities, and the like), and two summer periods of training (one before my freshman year, one after my sophomore year). Since ROTC didn’t not pay for 100% of my college costs, I also had to borrow money and work extra jobs while and undergraduate at MIT. Needless to say, it was a busy four years.

I assumed that because the Air Force required me to study electrical engineering that I would be an electrical engineer in the Air Force when I graduated. My assumption was incorrect. It is extremely difficult for the Air Force (or any other branch of the military) to predict its personnel needs four years in advance. Nevertheless, the Air Force would not let any ROTC cadet change majors. Unless the cadet applied for – and was awarded – a pilot scholarship. I realized that I preferred computer science over electrical engineering, but that I would only be able to change majors was if I had a “pilot slot.” I also realized that if I wanted to make a the Air Force a career, then serving as a pilot was the best option. In the Air Force, there are two classes of citizen: pilots and second-class citizens. So in my sophomore year, I applied for – and got – a pilot scholarship (the only one in my class to do so). The irony was that by the time I was awarded the pilot scholarship, it was too late for me to change majors. There simply were not enough hours in the day to make up the core computer science course that I’d missed while taking the core electrical engineering courses. So I was on track to be a EE pilot.

Most people who pursue pilot training in the Air Force do so because they have flying in their blood. Such was not the case with me. I didn’t dislike flying, but I also didn’t love it. Certainly not enough to pay for expensive private lessons or for my private pilot’s license (PPL). Besides, I couldn’t have afforded private lessons if I had wanted to take them. I could barely afford college. In the summer of 1986, after my ROTC field training at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York, I attended Initial Pilot Training (IPT) at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Most of the other student pilots had considerable flying experience, some had their PPLs. I’d never flown previously. Three weeks later, I soloed a Cessna 172 and completed my training. Learning from square one was a huge disadvantage, but I survived. If I hadn’t completed IPT, I would have lost my pilot scholarship, would not have been able to get my EE scholarship back, and would have had to drop out of MIT and enlist in the Air Force to complete my military obligation. So, no pressure.

Two years later when I graduated from MIT, I got another unpleasant piece of news from the Air Force. I would have to wait up to twelve months – without pay – before starting active duty. The Air Force has been doing this since the 1950s and as far as I can tell it’s never made the evening news. ROTC graduates are deferred from one fiscal year to the next so the Air Force can manage its budget. This is how I was able to work in Finland (at Rautaruukki) and for BBN after graduating.

In the spring of 1989, I was called to active duty. I was to attend pilot training, class 89-08, at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. At that time, only about half of the people who started pilot training (called Undergraduate Pilot Training or UPT) completed the program. At UPT, my lack of flying experience was a decisive disadvantage, and I did not complete the program. While at UPT, I had many great experiences including altitude chamber testing, parasail training, and acrobatics training. Plus I got to solo an Air Force jet – the twin-engine Cessna T-37. For those experiences, and for the friends that I made, I am grateful.

Based on the timing and on the Air Forces personal needs, I was also able to secure a position at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts. A position that did not exist six months earlier when I stared pilot training. So pilot training did not prepare me to become a career officer, but id did allow me to return home to New England. While at Hanscom, I lead the 30-person four-city team for a $60 million effort to upgrade four major E-3 Airborne Warning And Control Systems (AWACS) computer subsystems. I also designed a $250 thousand computer network for 300 users and managed a staff of four.

While I was at MIT, four people committed suicide, and one was in Air Force ROTC. At Reese AFB, one student pilot died in a crash. While I was at Hanscom AFB, the first Gulf Wars started, and many of my friends from Reese were sent into battle. I wish that I did not have these memories. And although my military experience was at times frustrating, I decided to stay connected to the Air Force until I was honorably discharged. You can read more about that below, and as I said in that piece, although the military needs nobody, everybody needs the military.


So here are a bunch of people that I worked with the Air Force. I am still in touch with some – but not all – of them. Many names I have forgotten and have no record of, including most of my fellow and sister pilot trainees.

David B. Ames, Jorge F. Ballester, Bob Bond, Richard Buck, Charles A. Cheatham, Mauro Ciccarelli, Dennis Collene, Mary Coppola, Mary Jean Ferrick, Dreama Fumia, Skip Fumia, James H. Grigsby, Ed Henley, David Hiltz, Bert Hopkins, Robin Hughes, Paul C. Kent, John R. Loblundo, John W. Lobue, Douglas L. Loverro, Stephanie Loverro, David W. Martin, Mike Mullen, John C. Paschall, Mark Peterson, Ed Preston, Dennis Robichaud, Lockard Row, Brian Schooley, Stephen W. Sickels, and Wayne Siwik.

So if you’ve got a LinkedIn account and are interested in linking up, great. If not, that’s OK too.

View Erik J. Heels's profile on LinkedIn

3 Replies to “LinkedIn: Erik J. Heels: USAF”

  1. Since Facebook is also a thing, here are links to (possible) Facebook pages for various USAF folks:

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