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F-35 crew chief soars in pursuit of degree

Senior Airman Colby Cook, an F-35A Lightning II crew chief assigned to the 419th Fighter Wing, on the flightline July 26, 2019, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Cook was deployed with his unit to participate in exercises and conduct training with other Europe-based aircraft as part of a Theater Security Package. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Branden Rae)

Senior Airman Colby Cook, an F-35A Lightning II crew chief assigned to the 419th Fighter Wing, on the flightline July 26, 2019, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Cook was deployed with his unit to participate in exercises and conduct training with other Europe-based aircraft as part of a Theater Security Package. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Branden Rae)

Senior Airman Colby Cook, an F-35A Lightning II crew chief assigned to the 419th Fighter Wing, on the flightline July 26, 2019, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Cook was deployed with his unit to participate in exercises and conduct training with other Europe-based aircraft as part of a Theater Security Package. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Branden Rae)

Senior Airman Colby Cook, an F-35A Lightning II crew chief assigned to the 419th Fighter Wing, on the flightline July 26, 2019, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Cook was deployed with his unit to participate in exercises and conduct training with other Europe-based aircraft as part of a Theater Security Package. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Branden Rae)

Senior Airman Colby Cook, an F-35A Lightning II crew chief assigned to the 419th Fighter Wing, on the flightline July 26, 2019, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Cook was deployed with his unit to participate in exercises and conduct training with other Europe-based aircraft as part of a Theater Security Package. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Branden Rae)

Senior Airman Colby Cook, an F-35A Lightning II crew chief assigned to the 419th Fighter Wing, on the flightline July 26, 2019, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Cook was deployed with his unit to participate in exercises and conduct training with other Europe-based aircraft as part of a Theater Security Package. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Branden Rae)

Editor’s note: Republished with the permission of AmeriForce Media (reservenationalguard.com) and the author Bianca M. Strzalkowski.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- Senior Airman Colby Cook just wrapped up a deployment to Europe and has his sights set on completing another mission: college.

The 25-year old Texas native serves with the 419th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base. He grew up fascinated with planes, pursuing them on- and off-duty. Cook enlisted in the Air Force Reserve four years ago as a way to expand his experience, but not before first accomplishing his private pilot’s license in 2014. He says two moments helped him realize aviation was what he wanted to do.

“Personal side, just because it came first, would be when I was going through the process of getting my license. The first time I ever soloed was probably the most amazing experience I ever had. There’s just so much freedom to it and responsibility that you take on when you first do your solo. The instructors are no longer in the plane and you don’t even have that many hours under your belt, but you know just what to do. That was the moment that I thought, ‘this is the most amazing career you can get into,’” he said. “Then in the Air Force, though I don’t fly in the Air Force, just seeing the smile on their face and talking to the pilots when they get back — I’m the first one that they see when they get back — it kind of sealed the deal of having pilot as my career choice.”

Cook’s father served in the Army, but he did have a family connection to the Air Force. He says he chose that branch because of its “prestigious” nature, though he jokes, “don’t tell my dad that.”

“I’ve just always loved aviation and I felt like that was the best one for that; it kind of represented that the best. That and also my grandpa on my mom’s side, he was actually in the Air Force as well … but I just think having that military background, just having the option of the different branch — not just the Army, helped me decide on that. And I just like the idea of working on aircraft,” Cook said.

In uniform, he works on F-35s as a crew chief and thinks the skills he’s learning may later translate to a civilian career.

“I think just having the knowledge on just the mechanics of an aircraft — a more complex aircraft than obviously what you can fly with your private pilot’s license — I mean that definitely can help out. If I end up going into maintenance for airlines or anything like that, I think that will be a pretty good solid foundation,” he said.

Cook deployed overseas previously to Japan and Italy, and experienced some firsts during his recent deployment with a Theater Security Package in Europe. The off time afforded him the opportunity to visit unique places like Amsterdam and Switzerland, and a first-time tasting the staple dish of borscht. But it wasn’t all work and play because he had homework to focus on for school.

Since 2012, he has attended Utah Valley University on and off, with an anticipated graduation this fall. He made the conscious decision to buckle down and finish the aviation management degree when he realized just how close he was to the finish line.

“I felt like giving myself a deadline and saying, ‘alright I’m 25, it’s time to knock it out and just be done with it and have a bachelor’s degree’ …and I’m getting closer to hitting my fifth year mark in the reserves, I just wanted to make sure I’m taking full advantage of the opportunities that the Air Force gives me with the GI Bill and everything like that,” he said.

He used a mix of tuition assistance and the Montgomery GI Bill to help fund his education, and met with an academic counselor two years into enrollment to “solidify” that he was on the right track.

The recent deployment also helped him put attention on the school commitment, he says.

“I think the fact that your priority is obviously Air Force when you’re going on a deployment …I think the fact that you have more concentration on one aspect of your life versus everything else that happens in your life; it kind of frees up some time as long as you’re not working the whole time that you’re there. So, it kind of depends on the location you’re at,” he said. “Take advantage of every little moment you have to put your head in the books and try and knock out one assignment after another. If you can, try and get ahead before you get out there.”

Learn more about education opportunities, to include the Montgomery GI Bill and Post-9/11 GI Bill, at www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/education_programs.asp.