From the time he first heard his cousin tell stories about flying missions as a B-17 pilot during World War II, Eric Wydra knew he wanted to be a pilot.
“I got to hear his stories, and that got me interested in aviation,” he said.
While his cousin’s first-hand accounts of his missions were thrilling, Wydra found his tales of all the places he went and people he met just as intriguing. For a boy growing up in the central Illinois city of Jacksonville, the scenes those stories illustrated in his imagination stoked an unquenchable desire to see the world and fly. That passion led him to an Air Force career that spanned three decades and gave him the chance to live his dream behind the controls of some of the largest aircraft ever built.
“That’s what aviation affords you,” he said. “The sky is the limit, whether you go into the military or airlines, you’re going to go places, and you’re going to see things.”
From Inspiration to Aviation
Wydra consumed as much information about aviation as he could get his hands on as a kid. His parents took him to the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, when he was in 8th grade and followed that up with a trip to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to help encourage his interest.
“I would just spend hours looking at the airplanes and reading about them,” he said. “Becoming a pilot was just something I felt like I wanted to do. That trip to D.C. was the first time I ever flew.”
Growing up in a working-class family, Wydra decided the best way to achieve his goal of becoming a pilot was to join the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Illinois. Aware that becoming an actual Air Force pilot was far from guaranteed after graduation, he did his best to stack the odds in his favor by getting his private pilot’s license after his freshman year in college.
“The second time I flew was the first time I was behind the controls!” Wydra said, laughing as he recalled those days. “I did that at the little hometown airport in Jacksonville over the summer. I worked all day at a hardware store, and then went and flew in the evening.
“It was great. I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose! I had just gotten my driver’s license, and this was something completely new. My instructor at the time was a young guy. I think he was a senior in college, and he was just trying to make some money over the summer. He made it fun. Every evening, I was just excited to go out to the airport and fly. I burned through my paycheck to get that license.”
It would be the following summer, during field training between his sophomore and junior years, that he would get his only flying experience as part of the Air Force ROTC with a ride in a T-37.
“It was a two-engine jet, the initial training aircraft for Air Force pilots," he said. "I told the guy I was riding with to try to make me sick! He spun me around and let me do a little bit of the flying, but about all I got in college was that.”
After graduating in 1986, Wydra earned a pilot slot with the Air Force and spent the next year in pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas.
“It was an interesting experience,” he said. “You basically learn everything in 48 weeks, and then they give you your assignment after that.”
Unlike many pilots who dream of flying fighter jets as a career, Wydra’s dream was to fly one of the largest aircraft in the Air Force fleet—the C-141.
“I looked into flying fighters,” he said. “They’re cool airplanes, but you don’t travel very much, and you don’t get a lot of flying hours. It just didn’t interest me because I wanted to see the world. I ended up getting lucky and got my first flight choice and my first base choice and ended up flying C-141’s out of Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina after I graduated.”
The desire to fly out of Charleston was primarily due to the special operations mission based there that flew all over the world.
“It was kind of like Christmas every time you showed up at the squadron,” he said. “You’d be going to Spain one week and South America the next and Japan the next. You really never knew until a couple of days out what you were doing, so it was kind of fun that way. I was never bored.”
The variety of missions he was able to fly in the C-141 also played a big part in his excitement for his job.
“With the C-141, you can basically do just about any kind of mission,” he said. “I had gotten to fly in one of those to a field training and watched them do an air drop. You’re flying a big airplane 300 feet off the ground, and you’re either dropping people or dropping Jeeps and Humvees.
“We did air refueling, which was challenging and a lot of fun in a big airplane. You could do a lot of different things in that airplane. I flew every mission that airplane could do. I was what they called a Special Operations Low Level Left Seater, which was the pilot in command. I was the lead air drop guy. I was a flight examiner. Air refueling instructor. I could go out and do something different literally every day.”
But the missions he enjoyed most were the NVG—night vision goggle—missions at a time when flying night vision missions was still in its infancy.
“The way we used night vision was we wore helmets, and then we jerry-rigged the night vision goggles on them,” he said. “We duct taped a lot of the lights in the cockpit, so we wouldn’t blind the night vision goggles. It was fun and very challenging flying. There were only nine crews flying those missions at Charleston, out of about 100, so we got a lot of training.
“We would fly a lot of low-level flights and practice what were called airport seizures with some of the Army and Navy special operators, where we would either air drop them in or land. Sometimes, we’d be carrying little helicopters that we’d offload. We’d become a gas station for them. And all of this was completely blacked out. It was a lot of fun and a lot of moving parts.”
Perhaps the funniest moment of his military career occurred while he was in Charleston, serving as a flight examiner for a pair of pilots on a mission to fly inspectors into Minsk in the Soviet Union for a treaty-related inspection.
“I’m the check pilot, and our handlers from the Soviet Union come on board, and they ask ‘Why are there three pilots?’ he said. “The commander of the aircraft motioned to me and said ‘He’s not a pilot. He’s the political officer.’
“Their eyes got wide, and they were terrified of me! They thought I was CIA! They were very friendly people and took us anywhere we wanted to go. We joked with them, ‘Hey, take us to KGB headquarters,’ and they did and introduced us! At the time, I was 25 years old. Not a lot of people get to do that at that age. That level of responsibility, and the ability to travel.”
Around the World and Back Again
Wydra spent almost seven years flying missions out of Charleston before transferring to Air Force Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where he worked with a team of pilots and engineers to transition the types of special operations missions he flew from the C-141 to the new C-17.
“It was a new airplane at that time and was just such a better platform for what we needed to do,” he said. “It could do so much more. Shorter field landings. It was night-vision compatible and had much more powerful engines. The only thing it couldn’t do very well was large-formation air drops because the way the airplane was designed, it created turbulence when you dropped people, and it would literally spin them in circles. That was probably the biggest challenge.”
Despite working on the project for three years, Wydra didn’t actually fly a C-17 until years later, when he was a Colonel and Vice Wing Commander at Dover.
“There were only six or seven of them out there,” he said, “and we were still working with the engineers at Edwards Air Force Base to try to figure out what we could do with it. We would figure out what the special operations groups needed them to do, then we would test it all out and see if the changes worked for them.”
Following a period of restructuring within the Air Force, Wydra found himself with a new assignment flying KC-10s at Travis Air Force Base in California.
“The KC-10 is almost identical to a DC-10,” he said. “It’s primarily used as an air refueling aircraft, and it can be air refueled, as well. It’s basically a big flying gas tank.
“The biggest missions we did were training missions for all the other aircraft, so they could train on how to air re-fuel. It was always fun to watch them try to get hooked up their first time. We also did fight drags, where say six F-16s are deploying to Singapore from the west coast. We would lead the formation and be their flying gas tank to get them there, so they didn’t have to stop every two or three hours to re-fuel on the ground. We would also do cargo missions because the KC-10 could carry cargo. It was a fun airplane to fly, but it was a boring mission.”
Looking back at his career, Wydra said the best job he ever had in the Air Force was when he was a C-141 squadron commander at Maguire Air Force Base.
“We were the last active duty C-141 squadron,” he said. “My timing was good when I took command because right after that, we invaded Iraq in 2003, and it was ‘all-hands-on-deck.’ We had a lot of experience in our squadron flying special operations missions.”
Initially, the Air Force didn’t want to use his unit because they were flying older airplanes, but they sold their skill and experience to command and ended up flying the Baghdad Express every day into Baghdad, becoming one of the first airlifters into Baghdad International Airport right after ground troops secured the airfield.
“That was incredibly rewarding,” Wydra said. “We would do re-supply missions in and air-evac the wounded out because the C-141 was a great air-evac platform. We would fly the wounded back to Landstuhl in Germany, and the next night, we’d go do it again.
“They started sending us to all the other airfields they were opening up because we could do night vision goggle landings. We’d bring in a team, so they could get it set up, and then they’d bring in everyone else. It was real-world application of our training.”
Wydra flew those missions for nearly eight months before transferring to a special operations role with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Joint Air Operations Center to oversee day-to-day operations in-country.
“There were four of us who rotated in and out to command it,” he said. “We did some pretty interesting things. That job was amazing because you got to work with some really top-quality people from the Seals, Delta, those kinds of folks. When we were deployed, we worked directly with Gen. (Stanley) McCrystal, and he was a good guy to work for. He was very, very smart.”
With more than 4,000 flight hours accrued during his career as a pilot, Wydra transitioned to a more administrative and mentoring role during his last tour, first serving as the Detachment Commander of the Air Force ROTC at OU for three years, then as the National Commander of the Air Force ROTC program stationed at the Home Center at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.
“That was a great job. I loved it,” Wydra said. “It’s amazing to work with people that age because they don’t know failure, so they’ll try anything. They haven’t been beaten down by the system yet.
“It was amazing to watch them progress to be ready to fly a multi-million-dollar airplane in just four years. We make them give a briefing their freshman year, and most of them are horrible. By the time they are seniors, you could put them in front of the president of the United States and not worry about them. You just watch that progression in their maturity and dedication. As a freshman, I wouldn’t even trust them to go wash my car. Now, go fly a multi-million-dollar airplane with nuclear weapons on it. We trust you. That’s the cool part of that job.”
A Return to the Skies
After retiring from the Air Force as a Colonel after a 30-year career that fulfilled every dream he could imagine a child, Wydra went to work for Amazon as a Senior Operations Manager running the in-bound operations for two warehouses. Although he learned a lot during time with the company, the desire to fly again led him to leave after just three years.
When he learned that the OU Extended Campus School of Aviation Studies was looking for a new Chief Flight Instructor last year, he felt an immediate sense of excitement.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I get to fly and go back to Norman. That’s the best of both worlds.’ I loved my time at OU as detachment commander. I thought the school was great. The support you got from the faculty and staff was just amazing. The environment was great. The students were great. It was just a great place to be.”
Wydra was familiar with the program from his time as Detachment Commander, occasionally using one of OU’s hangars at Max Westheimer Airport to hold ROTC events. He had also been stationed with Ken Carson, former director of the School of Aviation Studies, at Travis Air Force Base and knew through him that OU ran a tight program with highly motivated faculty, staff and students.
The toughest part of taking on his new role when he began managing the program last fall was simply getting behind the controls of one of OU’s fleet of Piper Warrior III aircraft.
“It was a little humbling,” Wydra admitted. “The last time I had piloted a propeller-driven airplane, I was 18 years old, and I’m 56! My instructor, Brennan Jackson, was a kid with 800 hours of flight time, and here I am with 4,000! You have to leave your pride at the door. At the end of the day, you want to be good at what you do, so you listen.”
The transition from flying 500,000 lb. Air Force transports to a 2,000 lb. Warrior was trickier than he’d thought it would be.
“I probably scared Brennan more often than not,” he said. “It was a transition. My first landing, I think I flared it at 50 feet too high because that was my landing picture. I was going back to propellers from jets with a lot of automation. It was difficult.
“I’m amazed at the quality of our flight instructors, most of whom are students. They are professional. They are dedicated. They’re confident. We’re exceptionally lucky to have that.”
Wydra was also impressed with how meticulously OU maintains its fleet of training aircraft.
“Those airplanes were brand new in 2005,” he said, “but I would challenge you open up an engine cowling and find a spot of oil or any type of leakage. Those airplanes are amazingly maintained, and that allows us to fly as much as we do.”
He sees this as yet another example of the culture of excellence that has been built within the School of Aviation Studies, one that he plans to contribute to as Chief Flight Instructor.
“Everyone on the faculty is extremely motivated. It’s a pleasure to work here because everybody is highly motivated. Everybody wants to do the right thing, and everybody has an amazing work ethic. The culture is there. The foundation is there. Now we’re just fixing the little things. It’s an amazing place to work. Honestly, it makes my job pretty easy.”
Although the COVID-19 virus has delayed some of the plans he had hoped to implement in his first full semester as Chief Flight Instructor, it hasn’t stopped him from continuing to look ahead to how OU Aviation can grow to meet the increasing demand for pilots worldwide.
“I’d love to see the program expand where we can meet the demand out there for training,” he said. “It’s tough when 200 people apply, but we can only accept 100 because we’re limited on through-put based on airplane availability and scheduling efficiencies and things like that.
“I think OU has a lot of potential to be the best aviation program in the country. We have our own airport. We’re close to the FAA. We have a lot of aviation industry around. All the pieces are there. OU has a lot of advantages that a lot of other schools don’t, and I think we need to take advantage of them.”
In the meantime, Wydra is hoping that OU can resume flight operations soon, so they can get back to work completing the training of the students who had their training derailed this spring.
“As a Part 141 school, most of our students are training to be professional pilots, whether it be in the military, commercial aviation or private aviation, and that’s exciting to me," he said. "Watching that person take their first flight, where they’re scared to death, and transform themselves into a competent pilot that’s confident in all sorts of situations. It’s just a very rewarding job. And it’s flying! It’s the best of both worlds.”