Like father, like son
Maj. Gen. Robert Steel, Comandant of the National War College at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., and son, 1st Lt. James Steel, 63rd Fighter Squadron student pilot, talk together after their flight April 2. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ian Dean)
by DEBORAH SILLIMAN WOLFE
Thunderbolt staff writer
4/10/2009 - LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- 1st Lt. James Steel has probably heard the phrase "like father, like son," a number of times throughout his Air Force career and after the 63rd Fighter Squadron graduation Saturday, he will no doubt ably hear the phrase even more.
Lieutenant Steel, 63rd FS student pilot, along with the five other officers of class 08-JBG, graduated Saturday, and Maj. Gen. Robert Steel, Lieutenant Steel's father, and Commandant of the National War College in Fort McNair, Washington, D.C., was the guest speaker.
"Since I was little, I got to watch my dad take off and see him come back from deployments," Lieutenant Steel said. "It is cool to actually be doing what he used to do."
Having his father speak at his graduation ceremony was significant for Lieutenant Steel, but the real excitement came two days before when they had the rare opportunity to take to the skies together. The pair flew in a four-ship of F-16 Fighting Falcons, Lieutenant Steel flying solo in the number four jet and his father in the backseat of the number three, acting as his son's flight lead.
"It was exciting to be up there with James," said General Steel. "I last flew in June of 2007, when we gave up command of the 48th Fighter Wing in RAF Lakenheath. It seems just like yesterday. To be back here at Luke after so many years and to be flying in a four-ship with my son, it is a special day. It is one of the rare opportunities in any career, especially in fighter aviation, where a father and a son can be in close proximity to one another."
General Steel's wife, Dee, watched from the ground as her husband and son landed, videotaping the event and greeting her son with a huge hug after he exited his jet.
"It's so exciting, it's incredible!" she said.
Mrs. Steel, who is also an Air Force Academy graduate, not only has James to be proud of. She and General Steel have five other children, four of whom are following the Air Force family legacy.
"James and Jonathan, who are our first set of twins, both went to the academy, one year apart," General Steel explained. "James is ahead of Jonathan by one year, who is at Laughlin finishing up his undergraduate pilot training. Their younger brother Christopher, graduated the academy as well and is going to medical school at the Uniform Services University in Bethesda, Md. Out of our youngest set of twins, Paul is in basic training wanting to be a JTAC [joint terminal attack controller]. And our oldest son, Bob, is in the process of applying for an officer training school slot."
General Steel noted that times have changed from when he was a lieutenant in the 1980s to what his sons are experiencing.
"The responsibility has definitely shifted downward in grade and ranks," he said. "Our senior airmen and lieutenants hold more accountability and a higher degree of responsibility in everything we do. From an aviation perspective, when I entered fighter aviation in the 1980s, I was flying a 20- to 30-year-old fighter aircraft that was a third generation fighter out of four. And just like today, my son James is flying the F-16, but again, it is a 20-year-old airframe and just like me, in the F-4, I had the F-15 and F-16 coming to the forefront. James is flying the F-16 now with the F-22 and F-35 coming to the forefront.
"As time goes on, our Air Force is evolving. We have gone from my experiences with a third generation fighter, through to graduating in fourth generation to James starting out in a fourth generation with the potential to graduate into the fifth, if not the sixth, depending on how 20 years into the future goes."
General Steel thanked the leadership and the wing for allowing him to have the opportunity to fly with his son.
"I am very appreciative of all the wing has done to allow me to have this opportunity," he said.
As General Steel speaks, it is easy to see where Lieutenant Steel gets his enthusiasm for flying. He is intent on making his own way, he said, hoping in the future to eventually become a flight lead, then an instructor pilot and attend weapons school.
"I try not to tell people who my dad is when I get into training situations, but it is kind of hard to keep it a secret when he comes out for my graduation," Lieutenant Steel said with a smile. "Once people find out, it's tough to get out of that shadow because he has done so much and gone so far. But I try to keep up and out of that shadow as much as possible. It is a big one to fill."