JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —
On April 17, 2018, Maj. Jonathan “River” Mahan, an Air Force fighter pilot, took off from Kadena Air Base, Japan, in an F-15C Eagle for the final time.
The following day, his life and career changed for good as he, his wife and three children boarded a commercial aircraft headed to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. Years of flying fighter aircraft had taken a toll on his body and Mahan decided to change airframes to the C-17 Globemaster III.
“Imagine cutting your teeth as a new aviator in the world’s greatest air superiority fighter, the F-15C Eagle with a 104-0 kill ratio, and in the prime of your tactical career suddenly switching to the Air Force’s most capable transport aircraft,” said Mahan, now a co-pilot assigned to the 14th Airlift Squadron. “It was a jarring and unexpected career change.”
As a fighter pilot, Mahan flew multiple combat missions in Southwest Asia and participated in one of the first POTUS-directed “show of force” operations involving fighters north of the 38th parallel, east of the Korean Peninsula during a period of high tensions in September 2017.
According to Mahan, flying fighters can be very stressful on the pilot’s body due to the amount of G-forces they exert. For example, the F-15 is capable of pulling 9G’s, which is equal to nine times the pilot’s weight, or 1,800 pounds of downward force on a 200lb pilot.
“F-15C pilots fly three times a week on average, and sometimes fly three sorties a day up to five days a week,” he explained. “Pulling 9G’s was a daily occurrence in the Eagle. As a result of having that much force on my body for six years, my spine took a beating, and I also developed an inner ear problem.”
Mahan underwent three surgeries to try and fix himself and keep him in the F-15. But as the procedures got more invasive, he decided it was best for his family to let go of the Eagle and transition to a gentler aircraft.
“Fortunately, my injuries weren’t severe enough to prevent me from flying altogether, and I became medically coded for ‘non-high performance, multi-place aircraft,’” he recalled.
Mahan was given a couple of months to choose his next airframe, and he spent every day trying to figure out what he wanted to do.
“It was a big decision,” said Mahan. “During the short time I had, I called everyone I knew – and many I didn’t – in every aircraft in the Air Force. After some careful deliberation and some brotherly persuasion, the C-17 Globemaster III became the clear choice.”
It wasn’t the first time Mahan relied on his family for career advice and inspiration. His family has a long history of military service, including both of his grandfathers in WW2 and his uncle as an Army Warrant Officer in the AH64 Apache helicopter.
He had his doubts about military service before joining the Air Force, but after some meaningful discussions with his brother Lt. Col. David Mahan, a former C-17 Pilot in the 15AS, those concerns were quickly put to rest.
“Growing up, I always wanted to do something meaningful and aviation is something that always fascinated me,” said Mahan. “I initially began by flying humanitarian support with Missionary Aviation Fellowship in Uganda, Africa. After that short time and a lot of discussion with my brother, he convinced me that joining the military was a far better way to become an experienced aviator while leading a purposeful life.”
Mahan said his journey becoming a fighter pilot was one where his smile just perpetually got bigger.
“I got to start off with the T-6 Texan and that was glorious with all the spins and multi-ship formation flying,” he said. “I then got selected for the T-38 Talon, which is a supersonic aircraft. That really prepares you as an aviator to keep your mental cadence way out in front of the aircraft. Things happen quickly at Mach 1.4.
“The first time I flew the Eagle solo was simply unreal,” he continued. “The amount of power and maneuverability it had, and the freedom I felt was indescribable. That day, I finally understood what John Gillespie Magee, Jr. meant when he wrote in his poem High Flight, one of my favorites, ‘[I’ve] done a hundred things you have not dreamed of; slipped the surly bonds of Earth…and touched the face of God.’”
Mahan, a motorcycle racing adrenaline seeker who has been fascinated with speed and flight since age four, confessed that leaving fighters was something he wouldn’t have chosen for himself, but he’s grateful to still be an Air Force aviator.
“My journey in the C-17 is still unfolding,” he said. “But the more time I spend in the C-17, the more I appreciate it. The C-17 and members of the 14AS have already made me a better person and I’m certain that I will learn to love and respect the C-17 like I did the F-15C. I’m continually impressed by the nimble characteristics of such a large aircraft.”
Transitioning from a single seat fighter jet, with no one else at the controls, to a crew aircraft with significant Crew Resource Management challenges presented a jarring culture shift for Mahan. He said this CRM shift, along with carefully identifying what F-15C skills and concepts can, and should, be meaningfully implemented in the C-17 are his biggest challenges.
“I’m a born and bred fighter pilot, so I think like a fighter pilot,” he said. “To someone who’s spent his life as a hammer, I find many C-17 issues look like nails. I’m still learning the C-17 mission, and I’m certain I’ll determine how someone with my unique and drastically different perspective can improve C-17 operations.”
Mahan explained how his experience in both communities enables him to bridge the gap of tactical and strategic thinking between the combat and mobility Air Forces.
“If there is a very large integration exercise – or real world operation – involving fighter assets, they need someone who is knowledgeable on both sides and that’s where I come in,” he said. “We just participated in a two week exercise in May called ‘Checkered Flag 19-2’ in the Gulf of Mexico with more than eighty 4th and 5th generation fighter aircraft. Ten pilots and five loadmasters got some invaluable integration training on surviving in a contested environment.”
Lt. Col. Kari Fleming, 14AS commander, said the knowledge Mahan brings as a fighter pilot to the C-17 helps the C-17 community nationwide sustain and execute rapid global mobility. She noted how he recently acted as a student fighter liaison at a two-week Mobility Air Force training course and fine-tuned the training curriculum with the experience he brought as a graduate of the Nellis AFB fighter equivalent course.
“The diversity of thought Mahan brings with him from Combat Air Force helps our young aircrew members to learn by proxy,” said Fleming. “We gain valuable instruction on how best to integrate in the air with our CAF partners.”
Mahan acknowledged that career paths like his are a rarity for most Air Force aviators and said he is grateful for the opportunities afforded to him.
“I’m truly honored to be at Joint Base Charleston, the largest active duty C-17 base in the Air Force, and the premiere airlift squadron: the 14th Airlift Squadron ‘Pelicans,’” he said. “I hope that as we continue to grow as a C-17 community, we never forget that there are a myriad different ways to solve problems we face as an Air Force family.
“Through collaboration and integration with communities we don’t normally interact with, we can gain a broader perspective and discover new and innovative solutions to chronic problems,” he added. “Only through challenging cultural and tactical norms will we be able to succeed in the dynamic conflicts we have been tasked to prepare for. To all my fellow airmen around the globe, don’t be afraid to ask the ‘why’ questions, and introduce new ideas. Similarly, I hope our civilian and military leaders continue to encourage and provide the space needed for these discussions.”